warning

I want to share something with you, though it is never easy for me to admit. It is incredibly painful and fills me with regret to own it out loud, but I do it in the hopes that it might help save a life.

There were signs that my father was at risk of taking his own life. People have often asked me that question, and in the beginning every single time I was asked, it felt as if a vat of salt was being poured into my very new, raw and open wounds. It made me angry and defensive, as it constantly fed my guilt at not being able to save my father from himself.

The passage of time and my work in suicide prevention advocacy has allowed me to shift my perspective some. I still grapple daily with regret, I don’t think that will ever leave me. But today, when I am asked if there were signs, I square my shoulders, take a deep breath and tell the truth. Yes, the signs were there, but I did not know it. I did not have the training, education or experience to recognize them or to know how to respond even if I did.

Months before my father’s suicide he was struggling. That much I knew, and it was that I tried to love him through. I recognized that he was in the midst of a deep depression and I reminded him constantly that he was not alone, that I was there to listen, to talk, to offer my presence and unconditional support. I reminded him that even in his most broken state, he was loved. I’d like to believe that there were moments when that gave him some relief, some respite from the storm. I’d like to believe that maybe those things helped him to hold on a little bit longer, to fight another day, to cling to that thread even as it unraveled in his hands.

But I also know those things were not enough to save him.

My father had begun to withdraw from things that once brought him pleasure.  He expressed feelings of being a burden & a sense of hopelessness. He wasn’t sleeping and his eating patterns changed. He lost weight, was anxious and agitated.  All of these were signs I only came to know in hindsight, that he might be at risk for suicide.  He did not speak the words out loud that he wanted to end his life.  But his actions and his words whispered hints that I wasn’t equipped to understand.

It’s not that my father didn’t also wear a mask. Like so many who are struggling with mental illness, he could tuck it away, compartmentalize, and put forth an Oscar worthy performance that would convince those who didn’t know better, that he was just fine. And, he didn’t entrust us with his full truth. He didn’t come to us and tell us that he was feeling suicidal.  Though the fact is, I don’t know how long he considered ending his life. I don’t know if he planned it out or if it was, as is often the case, an impulsive act. I will never know that.

This much I do know, and this is what I want to say.  It is true that hindsight is 20/20. And there is often not much good to the old saying, if I knew then, what I know now. The knowing will never bring my father back. And the hindsight remains fraught with pain & regret. But I choose to look at it anyway & I choose to share my story with others. Because I believe that out of the tragedy of my father’s death, lives can be saved.

I chose to get trained in Mental Health First Aid, even if sitting through that class tore away every fragile scab that I had developed. I wanted to ensure that if anyone I loved or cared for was ever at risk for suicide, this time I would be better equipped to respond. This time I would recognize the signs. This time I would know what questions to ask, including the hardest one of all. This time I would know what steps to take to keep that person safe long enough to get them into the right hands and ensure that they got the proper care.  This time, I might just be able to save a life.

Francis Bacon said that knowledge is power.  The newest statistics on suicide are staggering. Based on these findings from The CDC “overall suicide rates have gone up 28 percent since 2000.”  It is particularly staggering to see that “the suicide rate among teenage girls continues to rise and hit a 40-year high in 2015, and rose by more than 30 percent among teen boys and young men between 2007 and 2015.”

But we are not powerless to change this devastating trend. The signs that my father displayed are evident now only in the rear view mirror. But the lessons that his death has given me still have purpose. I got the training in Mental Health First Aid and I share my truth with others because I believe that if we all educate ourselves about suicide risk factors and prevention, we can save lives.

I also believe that it is our moral obligation to do so. Suicide can be prevented. We are not helpless in this fight. Those who are struggling in the darkness need us to shine a light. They need us to be that glimmer of hope that helps them to hold on, to stay and to get the treatment they need. They need to feel that we can be a safe space, that we will listen and that when they show us their pain, we will treat it with compassion, care and understanding.

How do we do that? How do we as parents, spouses, children, or loved ones empower ourselves? How do we do that as educators, clergy, community leaders and people who care about our fellow human beings?

It begins with knowledge. It begins with awareness. It begins with education.

Nothing I do will ever bring my father back. But if the lessons I’ve learned can help to save the life of another, then his death will not be in vein.

To learn more about the risk factors and warning signs of suicide visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

If you are struggling and need someone to talk to call The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

To find a course on Mental Health First Aid and further this important cause click here.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
― Maya Angelou

 

 

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