Today the words “mental illness” have a similar negative connotation that “cancer” and “HIV positive” had decades ago.
The difference to me is that mental illness has existed the longest, yet cannot be tested the way the others can for treatment. It is more prevalent and has the biggest stigma surrounding it.
Perhaps that’s because people don’t like discussing the topic of suicide. Well, I am going to write about it.
My close friend Sylvia took her life on Nov. 22, 2016.
I had met her that April, which means I only knew her for seven months. Despite the short amount of time we knew each other, it was like we were meant to be friends.
She and I got along almost instantly. For a petite woman, she had a big personality and she was hilarious.
Sylvia was one of those people who commanded your attention and was the life of the party, even if it was a party just for one.
Before she died, Sylvia had several stints in mental health facilities throughout her life. In addition, leading up to her death she was going through her second divorce and fighting her family for the custody of her two young children due to her instability.
She was extremely depressed during this time and told me she wouldn’t go back to the hospital again, but she didn’t know what to do.
The guilt I felt surrounding her death came before my grief. As someone who has also struggled with mental illness the majority of my life, I was ashamed that I didn’t see the immediate signs and that I wasn’t there to intervene.
At the time of her crisis I was working just six blocks away with no idea of the reality unfolding.
In the end the choice she made would take her away from this world and everyone she knew. That included those who loved her.
I’ve also been affected by the threats of suicide that my mother made before passing away from alcoholism at the age of 59. I never saw her make an attempt, but her threats felt real.
The negative ways in which she coped with her emotional and physical scars manifested itself in cutting and burning on her arms, a mechanism I learned and began practicing by age 13.
As an adolescent this was what I knew. It was scary and intense, but this was my norm.
My mom was adopted as a toddler, torn from her other siblings. A victim of sexual abuse, she heavily medicated herself for decades to numb the trauma she endured.
By the time I could understand clinical terminology I knew she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a bi-polar disorder and depression and anxiety, among other things.
The loss of Sylvia by suicide and the attempts by my mother are a constant reminder that mental illness can and does lead to suicide.
Sylvia’s death has made me think a lot more about the fragility of life and how no matter how tough life gets I need to keep going, if not for myself, for those I care for and for the people who care about me.
The mental health of individuals in this country is compromised more than we know and often through no fault of their own, leading to suicide attempts and deaths.
This means the survivors—the loved ones who are left behind—are suffering in the wake of those losses and beginning a new chapter they must sometimes navigate blindly.
This can be terrifying on its own. But what’s more frightening is that survivors don’t suffer from grief due to the loss alone, but may also grapple with thoughts of suicide themselves.
People who’ve recently lost someone through suicide are at increased risk for thinking about, planning, or attempting suicide. That’s according to a July 2009 article titled, “Left behind after suicide” by Harvard Medical School.
I’ve learned over time that this is why prevention through education and information, while important, is not enough.
Wrap around services, including something called postvention, is needed and available to help those left behind.
Through postvention we can heal by sharing our stories with one another, talking about the raw emotions and red flags that may come up along the way in healing through each of our experienced losses.
I feel the healing that I receive through SOSL groups is priceless because it’s comprised of strangers who through their vulnerability share their own unique loss. We become bound through a common tragedy that makes us stronger individually and as a whole.
If you are struggling with grief due to the loss of a loved one by suicide please know that you don’t have to go through it alone. Loneliness is a tragedy all by itself.
You have an entire community of strangers who understand you better than some of your closest friends do right now and all you need to do is show up.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” –Maya Angelou
Allison is a native San Diegan who grew up in the southeast and South Bay areas. She attended Bonita Vista High, graduating in 2000, then attended Southwestern College and transferred to Humboldt State University. After graduating from HSU in 2006 with a bachelor’s in journalism she moved back home and in 2010 began working as a general assignment reporter for The Star-News. Allison was hired as the South Bay reporter by The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2013 and left the newspaper last fall. She is currently working on her memoir and looking for content writing work. Allison is married with a 3-year-old son and still lives in San Diego.