Since 1949, Mental Health America has designated May as Mental Health Awareness Month, or Mental Health Month. The effort spans news channels, schools and workplaces, and social media, and is aimed at making mental health, and taking care of it, a regular focus for individuals. Pointedly, Mental Health Month helps break the stigma that surrounds mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and suicide, by creating a conversation about mental health.

Visualizing the Outcome

Talking about mental illness, and suicide as an outcome, can be tough. Symptoms can’t be seen, so they are often difficult to diagnose, and even more difficult to understand. Suicide, which is an incredibly violent act, can be scary to visualize, especially when thinking of a family member or friend.

Until it’s too late.

In October 2009, my brother John died by suicide at the age of 19. It was the result of years of battling depression and anxiety.

On that morning in October, while home from college, John woke up, ate his favorite cereal for breakfast, played a video game, called my Mom, then went upstairs and took his own life.

I still wish I’d talked about it more – asked more questions, heard the warning bells, saw the signs that pointed to the outcome I was scared to visualize.

I say that suicide is an incredibly violent act not to categorize it as a crime, or to label the act of suicide as good or bad, but to convey that mental illness is a disease with powerful symptoms that can cause a person to invoke personal harm, or personal violence, as a way to relieve the symptoms.

Disbelief of the Unfamiliar

Though I knew John was depressed, and I personally suffered from depression, it was still difficult for me to believe that John’s pain was bad enough that he’d actually do it. I refused to fully believe that the funny kid I’d grown up with, the one with the slapstick sense of humor who played lacrosse (and nearly every other team sport) after school and went to classic rock concerts on the weekends, who ate Airheads until his stomach hurt and put Frank’s Red Hot Sauce on everything, was capable of such a violent act. I didn’t want to believe that all of the things in this world that John loved, like a bowl of Waffle Crisp, or the latest NHL PlayStation game, or his tattered lacrosse stick, and all of the people in this world that he loved, like his girlfriend, or his parents and his two older sisters, were worth leaving behind.

But depression is a disease. It attacked John’s mind and made him do things out of the ordinary. There were sunny afternoons when instead of hurling his lacrosse ball against the bounce back he’d set up in my parents’ yard, he’d lie in bed, curled on his side and turned away, his thick navy curtains pulled tight across the two windows of his bedroom. My sister and I would try to hug him, but his body felt like dead weight. We’d offer him his favorite snacks, like Sour Patch Kids, or salt ‘n vinegar potato chips, but nothing was enough for him to move out of that space. It was like a black hole, sucking him in.

Asking Without Permission

Looking back, there were times when I could’ve talked about it more. I could’ve asked John, “Are you ok?” and then waited for the answer, rather than quickly changing the subject when he didn’t answer for fear of making him, and myself, uncomfortable.  I could’ve asked my family, as I chatted with them over Skype while living in France, “Is everything OK with John?” rather than skipping the subject entirely and never acknowledging that he wasn’t mentioned. At the time, I knew that he wasn’t ok, but it was information I didn’t want to hear out loud.

I didn’t always feel comfortable prying. It can be tough to pry, especially when we know that person is depressed and has already closed off. But it can never hurt to pry, because you’ll never know what question will make the difference, you’ll never know what will make a person who is suffering open up. There’s no formula for how often that question of “Are you ok” is asked, or for how many people can ask it, but it needs to keep happening because of the chance that there may be that one time that makes all the difference.

I don’t believe there’s more my family and I could have done to save John. He’d set his mind to it, set up the events preceding his death like steps in a day planner. He was determined, and that determination that we ironically loved about him won. And I didn’t have the information I have now, the information that the more we talk about it, even if it makes others feel uncomfortable, the better the chance we can help someone before it’s too late.

Helpful Resources – Get Help Before It’s Too Late!

This Mental Health Awareness Month, for the sake of mental health, if you or someone you love is suffering from mental illness, talk about it.

Not sure if someone is suffering?

Here are a few helpful resources: