the 12th annual world suicide prevention day is coming up on september 10. my dad didn’t live to see it. when he died by suicide in 1996, the first world suicide prevention day was still 7 years away.
during his entire life, it is highly likely that my father never heard of “suicide prevention.” he certainly knew what suicide was and lived with depression every day, but he did not hear the message that suicide is preventable and that asking for help is ok. mental health stigma was something that impacted him very deeply but most likely he could never articulate it. i am fairly certain he never read or saw a public service campaign aimed at mental health awareness.
in the early 90s, there was no online community to raise awareness about mental health – an outlet that so many of us rely on today. people were just beginning to use the internet. the creator of facebook was only 12 years old at the time and twitter was still a long way off. my dad couldn’t get online and talk to other people with shared experiences of depression and anxiety. he certainly didn’t have a blog of his own, let alone access to others that he could read and relate to. wordpress, tumbler and bloglovin were tools yet to be created. we got our first computer in 1994 and were hooked up to the internet for the first time in 1995. he probably sent only a handful of emails by the time of his death.
in the early 90s, prozac was the butt of too many jokes. it also happened to be the medication my father was taking. my mom can still remember him cringing, listening to a demeaning skit about it in a play that they saw together. people were becoming more candid about seeing therapists and taking antidepressants, but by no means was there a culture of openness about mental illness. he wasn’t comfortable talking to his colleagues or friends about the pain he was in. and given his catholic upbringing by traditional midwestern parents, he wasn’t one to open up about his feelings anyway.
so he battled depression on his own. he took medication and saw a psychiatrist occasionally. he never went to talk therapy. he told my mom a very little about how seriously ill he was, and never shared with our family as a whole. he kept working, kept going on vacations, kept going to family functions and social gatherings. i believe that he relied on his sheer willpower to keep going, to keep carrying that weight in silence. and then one morning in 1996, it became too much. he snapped. and there was no prevention. only suicide.
i am his child. i watched this happen. i lived through his suffering and now i live through his suicide. and i wish, so very much, that my dad could have vocalized the pain he was in. i wish he could have said “i can’t do this. i need help.” i wish he could have had a chance at prevention. all i can do is honor his struggle by fighting to be more open about my own mental health. to break the silence for myself and others.
so when i learn about suicide prevention campaigns i feel a surge of emotion. i feel the deep sadness for those whose deaths could not be prevented, who lost their fight with mental illness. and i feel a thrill of hope, that so many people around the world are talking out loud about suicide and saving lives. because i know, i have witnessed how keeping depression hidden in the dark makes it grow. and how bringing it out into the light helps us heal. every time we choose to be open about mental health – to ask questions, to share stories, to listen – we light a candle of hope for someone who may be fighting for his or her life. you really never know.