Mental illness and the unthinkable: Offering care to suicide survivors

Depression may be the most underdiagnosed illness in today’s society.

 

The stigma associated with any mental illness compounds when those struggling with a variety of anxiety and depressive disorders occupy an office, run a business and appear to be fully functioning adults.

Life transitions, relational crises, holiday seasons and changing health issues can trigger a descent into a place where isolation morphs into behaviors both toxic and deadly.

Suicide is the feared and often-realized result of untreated depression. When a colleague, family member or someone we serve takes his or her life, all survivors experience an uninvited grief that moves in for a season of months or, in some cases, years. In so many ways, all who knew someone whose life ended in suicide must sort out so many “whys” and “what-ifs,” most of which defy answers.

We have learned more about suicide in the past two decades than perhaps any previous segment of academic study. Most of those studies tell us that taking care of our mental health is just as important as diet, exercise and periodic visits to our doctors.

 

Normal aging can exacerbate the rise of depression. Our clients and colleagues who struggle with depression and its related illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia face issues few among us can possibly imagine.

Depression is an illness that often requires medication and a supportive, nurturing community. I take a small pill every day to control my inherited issues with blood pressure. Others take routine medications that address thyroid disorders, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, high cholesterol or anemia. In the same way, many of those who have a mental illness need medication to help them function.

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We who share life with them need a more acute awareness both of their struggle and what support they may need from us. How might our awareness of this hushed and at times unnamed illness create spaces for understanding and support?

But what if, having given our best support to colleagues and clients, the unthinkable happens and someone’s life ends in suicide? How might we respond?

As others have shared with me, we can be stunned into either inactivity or silence. Even thinking or saying the word “suicide” can numb us to the place where we don’t know what to do, what to say, or how to reach out to survivors who are family and friends.

I offer the following suggested responses we can make to our clients and friends, should someone they love commit suicide.

At the top of the list is being a presence to those closest to the victim: spouse and children, family, friends and colleagues. What hurting people need from us is not our commentary or explanation, or even well-meaning clichés.

Presence is the needed gift. As soon as you can, make your way to the family, look into their eyes as you take their hands, and let them know the only thing you knew to do was to come and be with them. They will never forget that heartfelt gesture. Simply show up.

 

Second, focus on the living, while not being silent about the deceased. Listen more than you speak. You may say to them in a loving, affirming way, “I don’t need an explanation. I’m here because I care about you.” A family that has a parent, child or other relative who has struggled with depression knows a pain most of us cannot imagine. As you listen, and listen with love, let them know that you will be there for them.

Then find various ways to reach out to survivors in the weeks and months to come. Circle the day one month out and then two months out and six months out, and give them a call on that date, offering a supportive phone hug. Most individuals work through grief over a six-month to one-year time frame.

 

When it comes to suicide, the grief can become a tenured resident that will not be evicted. Be mindful of that possibility. More than anything you might imagine doing, being there for those you serve and finding ways to communicate your care will help more than you can possibly imagine.

 

The writer, who lives in Augusta, is a certified financial planner and author of Cadence of Care: Imagining a Transformed Advisor-Client Experience. He can be followed at www.timowings.com.

 

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