The first week of June was filled with devastation and despair. First, Kate Spade, a celebrated handbag designer, committed suicide at the age of 55. Then, Anthony Bourdain, acclaimed chef and storyteller on his show Parts Unknown, committed suicide at the age of 61. Lastly, a comprehensive study from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found a 30 percent increase in suicides in more than half of the states over the last two decades.
If reading that last paragraph made you feel hopeless, you aren’t alone. Mid-June I was going to work, going to class, meeting with friends, but I was numb.
I was reading Malcolm Harris’ Kids These Days at the time. His chapter on “Behavior Modification” illuminated more troubling information about mental illness in America. Despite tremendous growth in pharmaceutical treatment for mental illness, Harris notes there hasn’t been a decline in suicides. In fact, along with the rise of suicide, there’s been a 500 percent increase in depression since the 1980s.
I know medication can save lives. It’s critical in some situations. I would never suggest someone refuse medication or suddenly stop taking medication. However, I’ve tried over a dozen antidepressants in the past 15 years. In my opinion, medication on its own isn’t enough. Talk therapy (psychotherapy) can help people gain a greater understanding of mental illness and learn different skills that can lower distress. The American Psychiatric Association acknowledges that medication and talk therapy have similar effects on the brain. Therapy’s saved my life, more than once, and conversations I’ve had with others make me well aware that I’m not the only one.
On a national level, there’s been recognition of the power of communication when it comes to extreme distress and suicidal urges. Signs like these have been going up all around the city urging those who need help to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
Talking is the last resort. If it’s the last resort, it should also be the first. Unfortunately, as is the issue with most treatments for mental illness, there are so many barriers to talk therapy like access, affordability, and stigma that people who recognize they need help often can’t get it.
So, where does all this leave us?
The events of early June made it abundantly clear that suicide can touch anyone regardless of how much or how little they have. I think it’s important that we remember that and make an effort to check in on one another more often, especially if on the outside it looks like everything is fine. It’s not going to be easy with all the distractions of our digitized lives, but when we start the conversation we stop the stigma. That’s power.
We also need to push our elected officials to put more funding into mental health. Despite the 30 percent rise in suicides, our current president seeks to cut funding to the National Institute of Mental Health by 30 percent in 2019 (among other things). On the state level, New York and Virginia passed laws mandating mental health education. I think this has the potential to be a step in the right direction, especially with reductions in federal funding. Kids can learn how to take care of their mental health and that there’s nothing wrong with them if they experience mental illness. I’ll keep an eye out to see how this new law is implemented because I’m skeptically optimistic.
In a seemingly hopeless situation, there is still hope for us to hold onto. It’s kind of like the routine flight attendants go over before the flight takes off in case the cabin loses oxygen. Put your oxygen mask on first, but then turn to those around you and help them breathe. Take care of your mental health, but then do what you can to help your community engage with theirs.