September 10th was World Suicide Prevention Day. Much was discussed on this important day. The good news? Suicide is preventable. That exact thought, however, haunts a family that has lost a loved one to suicide. The regrets are undeniable. There is a plethora of what-ifs and should-haves that nag at you from within; the guilt is unbearable. Looking back, we see so much that could’ve been done. Perhaps a deeper conversation here, a tighter hug there, more dinners together, less television, and a lot more “how are you”s followed by “no, really, how are you”s; any or all of the above would’ve made a difference. In hindsight, you might even be able to pick the exact day, the exact hour, the minute, the second, where if you had looked a little harder, spoken a different word, been a different person, well, you just might have changed it all. Looking back, the signs are so obvious, but in reality, the answers are never that clear. Families, living their ordinary lives, doing their ordinary things are not at all equipped to deal with the extraordinary task of saving a loved one from suicide. Most of the times, they aren’t even aware.
I wasn’t aware.
In exactly one week and one month, it will have been 14 years since my brother surrendered to suicide. Not much of that day is clear in my memory. What I do remember vividly is the night several months before, when perhaps I could’ve reached out to my brother. I was fast asleep in my room, and suddenly I awoke to the sound of a song playing nearby. My brother was in his room learning to play his borrowed guitar. It wasn’t loud nor bothersome in any way; loud, he never was. What bothered me was the haunting sadness in the song. I had never heard anything like that. I never cry when I hear music, but this tune brought tears to eyes. I thought to myself I should speak to him in the morning and quickly fell back asleep. The next day I had school, a part-time job, friends to catch up with, and a pile of homework. To be truthful, I’m not certain I would’ve asked him about the song even if I had the chance. Like most brothers and sisters, we didn’t talk about our emotions. That wasn’t the nature of our relationship; and at the time, there was no real reason to dig deeper. He never seemed to need help; and we didn’t think to ask.
Moments like these are the ones that we remember, filled with guilt and regrets. It’s difficult to look past it. Someone you love suffered enough to take their own lives and you weren’t even aware. That’s difficult to accept no matter how strong you are. The truth is, suicide is a complex issue to deal with, and sometimes the suffering is invisible. Family and friends are mostly left in the dark. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, one-third of people who take their lives do not communicate their suicide intent to anyone. It’s tough to help someone when we don’t know that they need it. Even when we know, the answers are never clear. Looking back, the signs may be there, but as we go through our lives, it’s almost impossible to make the necessary connections. That’s the thing about suicide; you just can’t comprehend it. You don’t know how severely someone needs help until it’s too late. Thankfully, there are ways we can change that. They are not simple or easy by any means, but they are there.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 90% of the time suicide goes hand in hand with a mental illness. For family and caregivers, even after learning the diagnosis, it’s still quite difficult to face the stigma, understand the illness and encourage your loved one to navigate the complicated health care system to seek timely help. Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization agrees. She says “Despite an increase in research and knowledge about suicide and its prevention, the taboo and stigma surrounding suicide persist and often people do not seek help or are left alone. And if they do seek help, many health systems and services fail to provide timely and effective help.” We are still in the early stages of research and education on this illness, and finding the necessary help requires insurmountable effort and courage. Family and friends have a difficult journey ahead of themselves in finding the necessary support. In our ruminations, we must remember that.
Family and friends must go above and beyond in educating themselves, managing their stress, and finding necessary support for their loved ones. Most families are prepared to do all it takes, but mostly they don’t know how or where to start. Dealing with an invisible illness riddled with stigma, the solutions are never easy nor clear. On World Suicide Prevention Day, families must remember: we lost a loved one and we didn’t have the means to stop that. Today, things are different. We have experience, knowledge and insight. Today, we can do a lot more. We can share our stories so that others can learn. We can speak up so others can do the same. The journey alone, as we know, is difficult; it is only together we can make a difference. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes the whole village to save one.
SidebySide is an educator, writer and a passionate advocate of mental health. She currently maintains a blog where she writes about her experience as a family member supporting (and being supported by) someone living with mental health challenges. She's also a part of Healthy Minds Canada's social media team and is currently volunteering with the Toronto Distress Center.