In the past two months, three personal essays appeared on this blog that, while each uniquely told, shared a tragic connection. The authors had all lost a close family member to suicide.
But their stories also shared something else in common: They were among the most read, shared and commented Washington Post stories on the days they published.
And while the comments section on a news story can sometimes give voice to the worst of humanity, the people who came to comment on these stories used the space to give thanks, to offer support and to share their own experiences with suicide loss. The three authors, Amy Marlow, Deborah Greene, and, by opening up about their own pain and their own fears and their own strengths, created a safe space for others to do the same.
That these stories would elicit such strong personal responses is a dramatic shift in how society has long viewed suicide. It’s been a taboo, or, in some religions, a sin, creating feelings of shame and disgrace for those directly impacted. But the conversation around suicide is changing as more people begin to understand that it is a symptom of a larger mental illness that when left untreated, much like cancer, can be fatal.
About a year ago, Doris Fuller wrote a heartrending article for The Washington Post about her 29-year-old daughter’s suicide. Her daughter, Natalie, had a psychotic disorder that, as Fuller wrote, “filled her head with devils that literally hounded her to death.”
The response to the piece was overwhelming. It received more than six million page views.
Fuller, who is the chief of research and public affairs at the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., said families have for so long had to grieve in silence because of the shame associated with suicide. Having people share their stories so publicly has provided an outlet for that grief.
“One of the things I found most startling about my story, about the response, was how many people with mental illness reached out to me and thanked me for saying she died of terminal mental illness,” Fuller said. “I think when these stories are published it’s not just a human interest story, it’s not just people can identify, it’s groundbreaking in a way that a voice is given to suicide survivors.”
There have been other subtle changes that have shifted the conversation. The Associated Press in 2015 said news stories should no longer write that a person “committed suicide” and instead that they “died by suicide.” Committed implies something criminal, or wrong. Articles should also no longer refer to attempted suicides as “failed” or “unsuccessful.”
Julie Cerel, an expert in suicide bereavement, said the changing dialogue around suicide is fairly recent. A psychology professor at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work and President-elect of American Association of Suicidology, she said one notable shift occurred after the death of beloved actor Robin Williams in 2014.
“It kind of allowed people to think about suicide differently,” she said. “If he could die by suicide and people could be compassionate about it … It was someone who died from suicide who was pretty darn amazing.”
Just this week actor Wentworth Miller wrote a profound message on Facebook about his own depression and suicidal thoughts in response to a mean-spirited Internet meme showing side-by-side images of Miller that mocked his weight gain after his star turn on the hit TV show “Prison Break.”
“Ashamed and in pain, I considered myself damaged goods,” he wrote. “And the voices in my head urged me down the path to self-destruction. Not for the first time.”
In that time, he said, he turned to food for comfort. So when a photographer snapped a photo of him in 2010 hiking with a friend, it showed his weight gain. It was five years ago, but the photo resurfaced online this week.
“In 2010, fighting for my mental health, it was the last thing I needed,” he wrote. “Long story short, I survived. So do these pictures. I’m glad. Now, when I see that image of me in my red t-shirt, a rare smile on my face, I am reminded of my struggle. My endurance and my perseverance in the face of all kinds of demons. Some within. Some without.”
His post elicited more than 100,000 comments of support. The Lad Bible, which posted the meme, wrote an apology to Miller: “Mental health is no joke or laughing matter.”
About 40,000 Americans die by suicide every year. And several million adults report having suicidal thoughts in a given year. A popular statistic in public health is that for every suicide six loved ones are directly affected. Cerel, through her research, said that number is closer to 150 people affected by every suicide.
The impact is much wider than most people know, she said. Often when she meets someone for the first time and tells them what she does for a living, she’s amazed how many have their own story to share about losing someone to suicide.
“When someone shares that kind of pain, so many others become willing to speak up,” she said.
This bore out profoundly in the three recent essays we published about suicide loss. Here are some examples of the incredible comments each story received:
This is such a powerful story and message to be told. I am so sorry for your loss, but I thank you for telling the truth. As someone who suffers from depression, I related all too well to what you wrote. My depression tells me I am not worthy of love, that I should be ashamed that I am not able to overcome it, that I have to keep it a secret because others would view me as weak. I am being treated and working my hardest to not let it dominate my life. But it is like living in a bubble. It’s so hard for others to understand it unless they have gone through. How do you explain feeling the way you do despite all of the good in life? We all need to take this to heart: “Trust the enormous chorus of voices that say only one thing: you matter.”
david j michael
This is probably the best article I’ve ever read on the subject, because it gets right to the crux of depression. The thoughts that a depressed person thinks about him/herself just aren’t true. They aren’t. I was diagnosed with Major Depression 21 years ago, and after all the meds, all the shock treatments, the thoughts and even a couple of attempts at suicide, I finally learned that what I think about myself when I’m depressed isn’t the truth. I used to awake in the morning sorry that I didn’t die in my sleep and dreading another day of crushing black thoughts. I can now tell myself, “that’s the depression,” and I can choose to be grateful for another day and do something, anything, to get moving. Depression robs one of the ability to enjoy what they like to do, but I learned that if I do it anyway, the depression clears that much sooner. When my depression tells me that I’m useless and I’d be better off dead, I know better. That isn’t ME thinking that, because I know better. It’s the depression telling me that. I’ve been medication and shrink free for about three years now, and though I’m not cured, and I’ll always have to deal with it, I know how to do that now.
My partner, and the father of my children, committed suicide in 1997. He was an alcoholic, but he did not show any signs of depression. I lived with the man for over 10 years, and I did not see the signs that he was suicidal. It took a few years of counseling for me to accept the fact that he chose to hide his feelings and thoughts from me. (It was not my fault for not seeing his problems). When he passed we had 2 daughters (one was 7 years old, and the other was 6 months old) We also had custody of his son from his first marriage (he was 10 years old). The night he passed away was like any other. I went to work and he made dinner, fed the children and put them to bed. I do not know what happened at that point, all I do know is that at some point during that day he had bought a bottle of alcohol. After taking care of the children, he drank the entire bottle himself. That is all I know about what happened that night. When I returned home after closing the restaurant I worked in, I found him hanging in our house. The children were all asleep. He did not leave a note, I do not know what was different that day or if his decision was an accumulation of all the days prior. I will never know. But I do know that when people we knew found out about it. Many of them made comments and statements that were wrong, and cruel. Just because you do not understand the reason behind someone’s action doesn’t mean you have the right to judge them. The man I am speaking of was a great person, he helped others any time he had a chance to. I just wish he had let everyone else in so we could help him when he needed it. Depression held him back from sharing his feelings with the people closest to him. Life kept me from seeing that he was hiding his true feelings from me and the world. Don’t judge what you don’t understand.
When my second child was an infant I was at one of my lowest points, but, trying hard to make things normal for my toddler and her baby brother, I took them to a community play group anyway. I would stand and watch them and think, “They deserve so much better. They’d be better if I were not here; if I were gone.” I had never actually articulated that sense into “dead”, but I was close; teetering on the brink. This young mother came up to me and started randomly sharing her story; that she battled depression daily and that her husband told her, at her lowest, that if she killed herself she would be choosing to have his mother raise their child. This horror was more insurmountable to her than the weight of living; it was just enough to pull her back from the edge.
I remember the slow dawning of this; remember saying, “OH GOD! I hadn’t thought of THAT!” and I remember how hard we laughed. She squeezed my arm and yelled something about “not eating that” to her 4-year-old, and walked away. If ever you doubt that your compulsion to tell the truth can save lives, well, I am LIVING proof. Her truth, shared freely and without shame saved me.
I found out that my dad committed suicide at Hobby Lobby. I remember learning of my father’s passing with just as much detail as you do your father… The woman who consoled me was 8 months pregnant, and up until that moment, she was nervous and excited about motherhood. Without a moment’s hesitation, she was on the ground, stroking my back, and helping me off the floor, called my boyfriend at the time and told my managers. My world had just ended, and so effortlessly, she began to make some sense of it. In that moment, I think she knew she’d make a great mom. Without really knowing me or anything other than my dad had just committed suicide, she knew to be present. I often wonder where she is and what she’s doing in the world and what her family looks like… but I know I’ll always be grateful for her being there when I lost mine.
My brother died 22 years ago. I learned of his death on a pay phone in the lobby of Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (yes, I am aware how very MUCH that sentence dates me!). I don’t remember much of the call. Except that the next thing I knew, I was sitting on the floor. Crying into the phone. And there was a woman who appeared. Asking me if I was ok. The look on her face I will NEVER, EVER forget. She helped me pull it together until my boyfriend came along for me. Then she quietly disappeared. Honestly, I could pick her out of a lineup even today. I never got to thank her for her kindness.
Your story resonates with me as I also lost my dad to suicide, and I received the call as I was about to go into Starbucks for my morning cup of coffee. Like you, I received an outpouring of support. I often read some comments related to certain articles and wonder who these hateful people are. Your article reminds me that these people are far outnumbered.
I come from a long line of suicides and am grateful we have access to therapy and antidepressants today. My poor German ancestors had to grapple with the stigma of mental illness and hide their struggles. It’s obvious depression can also have a genetic source like a disease and doesn’t have to be clouded in shame.
Ocean Science Sailing
My dad killed himself. Last time I saw him I was three. Inherited his depression for a lifetime and the only reason probably I survived my 20s/30s is because I didn’t want my kids to lose their father like I did. Now a daughter is trying to survive her depression. I’ve heard that depression can fade as one gets older. I don’t know. I know my did.
For everyone who struggles with depression I can only offer that, ultimately, will to live is what WILL carry you through to a better place. Never give up. Stay alive and reach a better place. I am proof you can.
Thank you for writing this. I am not a survivor of a suicide loss. I am, however, the mother of a son who was hospitalized for 2 weeks for suicidal thoughts at age 11. He too has been diagnosed with depression and severe generalized anxiety disorder. That was only 6 months ago. He sees a therapist, a psychiatrist and takes meds. He has good days and bad days. But it’s something we’re not hiding from the school or anyone. His teachers know he suffers from mental illness and have been nothing but supportive. When he asks me if he’s a mistake or what’s wrong with him, I tell him he’s not a mistake, there’s nothing wrong with him; he’s just wired differently but we’re working on it.
And yet, when given the diagnosis, his grandmother said “where did he get that? It doesn’t run in our family”. And still says they don’t understand him. His dad says he just needs an attitude adjustment. It’s my job as his mother to advocate. No one has to exactly understand what’s in his head. They just need to be empathetic and compassionate.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of….thank you again for reminding us.
Teddy Amenabar contributed to this story.