Mental Health: hope & light vs. darkness

I’ve watched the movie “Soul” so many times, and these words always break my heart:

You can’t crush a soul here, that’s what life is for.”

(22 to Joe Gardner in “Heaven”, Soul)

Life is hard, it can (literally) be soul-crushing. It can be painfully cruel, and it is definitely not always “fair”. I try to remember that there are more “good” people in the world than bad, and most people mean well, but we live in a world where half of Americans can’t agree on basic truths. There is so much division and inequality that it is difficult to stay positive and not be pulled into a dark and negative space. At the end of the day, when we are left with our own thoughts and little distraction, we can feel alone and vulnerable, and feelings of loneliness, sadness, or regret can crush one’s soul.

But what if those dark thoughts are not yours; they are the thoughts of someone you love, and worry about every single day… what if every time the phone rings, you worry that you will hear the panic, or rage, or sadness in their voice… you stop breathing and your heart sinks, and mentally you go back to “that” day last year when you discovered that your child didn’t want to live anymore; she was depressed and in such a dark place that she could not see that things could get better. It hurts so much to see your child in pain. When you are a mother, it doesn’t matter how old your child is… 8 years old or 28… the worrying never stops. So you pray, and you hope that today is a good day.

2020: the year of loss

2020: the year of loss

2020 was an unforgettable year that changed all of our lives, one way or another. As a nurse, my role was to show up and do my job, no matter what. We serve and care for others during a crisis… be it a pandemic, a destructive storm, or any other emergency that involves “essential workers” being placed in potentially dangerous conditions. Many healthcare workers have been traumatized by what they witnessed every single day during Covid. They were very brave; they felt the fear of the unknown, and they showed up anyway, in spite of it. They cared for the ill, and provided compassion and a hand to hold for those who passed. Covid changed all of us, for better or worse. Those images do not leave your head and can haunt you if you can’t separate work from your “real” life. For me, (just) being able to go into work and focus on others, gives me an opportunity to put my own “stuff” into perspective. After all, we get to go home at the end of our shift, our patients do not.

Mental Health Awareness

Please remember, as we say good-bye to May, which is Mental Health Awareness month, we need to continue to shine a light on the darkness and stigma of mental health, regardless of the month. The day-to-day struggles live on in so many of us. We all have things that we carry with us, and we all go through personal struggles; however, not everyone has the tools in their virtual mental health tool box to manage the rough waters that can pull us under, without a life preserver to keep our head above the water, and save us from drowning.

When one has mental health issues, they have to be brave (enough) to ask for help. But many cannot find the words to say it out loud for someone to hear (and help). This invisible illness is usually hidden and not talked about… often, until it’s too late. If only they held onto hope a little bit longer.

“Hope” is such a big word to me. It means so much more than the words that define it. It is everything. It is the past, present, and future. It is all of what you want things to be, and all that can be… it is the feeling that can keep someone holding on, and not giving up, despite being afraid.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. There is always at least one person who cares about you. There is always hope.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling, please remember that there are places to go to for help, and people who can support you:

Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, text MHA to 741741, call 911, or go to the nearest emergency room.

Depression. Despair. Suicide.

I originally wrote this post about suicide two years ago after several incidents of “jumpers” from a nearby parking garage occurred within a short time frame, and I couldn’t get past the sadness and horror as I walked past it everyday. It touched me deeply, and I didn’t even know them… but I knew of them, and seemed connected to them in some way. Each time it happened, it seemed like a dark secret no one would talk about. There was minimal information in the newspaper, and I had so many unanswered questions. There is a stigma that comes with mental illness that many do not feel comfortable talking about. So we don’t.

Now, I’m going to open up and get very honest and personal. My cousin committed suicide when I was young… it was something that wasn’t talked about in my family, and I am still not certain of the specifics and I wish I knew more. A dear friend’s son committed suicide last year… it has been absolutely devastating for her, her family, and Alex’s friends (my daughter was one of his friends). They will always mourn his loss… he was gifted, and kind, and successful, yet he couldn’t ask for help to get out of the darkness.

Something happened recently that shook me to my core; my daughter attempted suicide. She became so overwhelmed with her work in the news industry, with this relentless cycle of negativity and civil injustice, that she quite literally “broke”. Her compassionate heart could not continue to write (and re-write, and re-re-write) about the horrific acts of violence and sadness in the world…. that, and the tragic loss of life with the global pandemic, and the isolation of being in quarantine, was too much for her to bear, and she lost something that keeps most of us moving forward… hope. My own beautiful daughter became so depressed that she didn’t want to live another day. That shocking realization is something that I was not prepared for… not my sassy, funny, bright, strong, successful daughter…. that can’t be… under my own eyes, in my own house. How did I miss this? I felt like I had failed her. In hindsight I did see some subtle changes, but she was good at pretending she was ok… she stopped working-out with her virtual trainer because it was so hot outside. She stayed in her pajamas all day because didn’t everyone who worked from home do that? She wasn’t sleeping because she was working so hard writing for the news show that she produced. And me…. I am a Nurse, so I went to work like I always did, even under the stress of Covid… I came home late, sore, and tired… and I missed it. But thank God, I was able to stop her in time… and I got her help. Yes, we have guardian angels among us.

We have all felt sad, disappointed, and alone at one time or another in our lives. Those of us who have struggled with depression, or other high risk factors such as loss, low self-esteem, rejection, or stress, have experienced varying degrees of darkness and despair; it’s not a fun place to be, and not everyone makes it out alive. Some have been in such a low place that they feel their only solution to overcome this immense pain and suffering is through one final extreme act of choosing death over an unbearable life. We all have our own inner demons that come out when we are at our most vulnerable.

Depression is an illness that often can be mistakenly viewed as a sign of weakness, or an inability to cope with everyday life. This is just not true. The American Psychiatric Association (2018) defines depression as a medical illness that affects how one feels, thinks, and acts; it can lead to thoughts of suicide if left untreated with the right mix of therapy and medication.

Suicide has been described as death from despair. According to the Center for Disease Control (2018), suicide rates in the U.S. have increased 25% in the past two decades and are increasing among adults aged 45-64. Among those aged 15-34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death. These are scary statistics…especially when they hit so close to home. Those of us in healthcare have seen the outcomes of an attempted suicide. My first experience as a young PICU nurse caring for a teenage girl who attempted suicide by hanging was extremely difficult; there was no happy ending or miraculous recovery for this young, troubled girl. This story was tragic, and yet it happens everyday. She had gone through a bad break-up with her boyfriend, and the pain and rejection led her to self-mutilation, which didn’t dull the pain deep inside of her, so she hung herself. Her sister found her, and called 911. She was brought back to a life of vegetation. She wore a haunted look of pure rage, which seemed to be her only facial expression when “awake”. She had just enough brain activity to continue medical interventions. I still think about her from time-to-time and I wonder if she ever found the peace that she was looking for so long ago. I truly hope so.

What can we do to prevent our loved ones from choosing this ultimate act of despair? First, we need to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression and not be afraid to ask if they need help or want to talk….or even if they have ever thought about hurting/killing themselves. We need to support better medical coverage for mental health and pre-existing conditions; we need to prevent those who have mental health conditions from being able to legally purchase a firearm; and last, and most important, we need to support them and not judge them. “There but for the grace of God, go I”. Timing is everything, and if the pain and despair are recognized early enough, perhaps a life can be saved.

Linkin Park wrote a beautiful song about suicide called One More Light (2017). The irony that one of the writers, Chester Bennington, committed suicide a year later, speaks to his state of mind and intimate understanding of the effects of suicide for the ones who are left behind to try to heal from this great loss.

Video:

One More Light (lyrics)

Should’ve stayed, were there signs, I ignored?

Can I help you, not to hurt, anymore?

We saw brilliance, when the world, was asleep

There are things that we can have, but can’t keep

If they say

Who cares if one more light goes out?

In a sky of a million stars

It flickers, flickers

Who cares when someone’s time runs out?

If a moment is all we are

We’re quicker, quicker

Who cares if one more light goes out?

Well I do

The reminders pull the floor from your feet

In the kitchen, one more chair than you need oh

And you’re angry, and you should be, it’s not fair

Just ’cause you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it, isn’t there

If they say

Who cares if one more light goes out?

In a sky of a million stars

It flickers, flickers

Who cares when someone’s time runs out?

If a moment is all we are

We’re quicker, quicker

Who cares if one more light goes out?

Well I do

Who cares if one more light goes out?

In a sky of a million stars

It flickers, flickers

Who cares when someone’s time runs out?

If a moment is all we are

We’re quicker, quicker

Who cares if one more light goes out?

Well I do

Well I do

Linkin Park (2017)

Songwriters: Brad Delson / Chester Charles Bennington / Dave Farrell / Francis White / Joseph Hahn / Mike Shinoda / Robert G. Bourdon

One More Light lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

If you, or someone that you know, are having thoughts of suicide, please seek professional help; call a friend or family member, or call the

Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

References:

American Psychiatric Association. (2018). What is depression? Retrieved from https://psychiatry.org/depression

CDC. (2018). Suicide rates rise sharply across the US, new report shows. Retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com

Linkin Park. (2017). One more light. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Tm8LGxTLtQk