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Wellness Committee: Why mental illness stigma is lethal

October 12, 2017

This is the first of a monthly series produced by the Wellness Committee here at Finlandia University. For a full archive of Wellness Committee articles go to https://www.finlandia.edu/news/tag/wellness-committee/. This was produced by Kamara Taylor.   

The first time suicide impacted me directly was when a friend of mine took his life. Caprice was the son of a preacher and his brother owned a mega church in Chicago. As kids, we were each other’s church play husband and wife; whatever that meant at seven years of age. We enjoyed each other’s company as best friends and he always was the life that surrounded others through jokes and just his mere presence brightened the days of others. I watched him grow into a wonderful young man as he later dated my cousin and they shared two wonderful kids. I can still remember Essandra, my cousin, calling me on the telephone and telling me that Caprice shot himself in the head in the church parking lot. It was as if time had stood still when I heard the news. I was shaken for months. I wasn’t able to go to the funeral, but I wish I had. No one can ever fill the special place he had in my life.

Many years later, I learned more details related to his death. He had recently been depressed, had struggled with depression as a teenager, and as when he took his life at 22 years old. No one understood that he needed professional help to cope with the internal struggle that over took him because he couldn’t manage the depression on his own. It is likely that stigma prevented people from acknowledging the issue. I think about him often;  about his family and teenaged kids who are now burdened with the unfathomable weight of regret and his untimely death that could possibly have been prevented if the stigma would have been removed.

Mental illness—the topic no one wants to talk about. However, the silence is actually lethal. Here are the facts:

  • The suicide rate jumped 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to an April 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Suicide is increasing against the backdrop of generally declining mortality, and is currently one of the leading causes of death overall and within each age group. “It is a leading cause of death and we just don’t have a handle on it,” said Matthew K. Nock, a psychology professor at Harvard and one of the country’s leading suicide researchers.
  • The nation’s suicide rate is the highest it’s been in 30 years.
  • Twenty-two veterans and one service member take their lives each day.
  • According to the CDC, each year more than 41,000 individuals take their own life. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of deathamong adults in the U.S. and the 3rd leading cause of death among people aged 10-24.

I have consulted with far too many teens who believe they have a mental health condition, but are afraid to get help. When they confide in me, they often tell me: “My parents don’t believe in mental illness.” Let me say that again: “My parents don’t believe in mental illness.” Allow me to clear up any confusion: It is real. And it carries very real consequences if we do not recognize it. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people 25-34 years of age. It is the third leading cause of death for people 15-24 years old. That is far too significant a number for us to ignore.

Due to medical advancements and an increase in societal awareness, these younger generations are just now starting conversations to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. But before we judge our elders too harshly, we need to understand that not talking about mental illness was the cultural norm. In previous generations, doctors did not have good solutions for those who lived with a mental health condition. I had a great grandmother who had a psychotic break, but they kept her at home, and she never sought treatment.

Decades ago, cancer was a topic that was avoided too—lack of knowledge and understanding, along with an unwillingness to confront the issue prevented people from opening up. Thanks to foundations like LiveStrong, global efforts are underway to spread information to end the stigma. As a result, we now speak more openly about cancer. It’s time for society to follow suit with respect to mental health. Together, we can challenge the stigma—we can fight back.

It’s time to end the silence: our societal ignorance and fear is killing future generations. Nothing can bring back my dear friend. But I am determined not to lose another. I know what it feels like to believe you have no other option, but I am living proof that there is always another option. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to get educated.

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