I Live With Bipolar Disorder. A Gun Could Have Changed That.
In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week, we are honored to feature the following piece by Bryan Barks, Executive Editor at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. In this must-read post, she writes about the intersection of guns, mental illness, stigma, and lethal means counseling through the lens of her personal experience. Originally from Athens, Georgia, Bryan lives in Washington, DC with her husband.
This Saturday, on World Suicide Prevention Day, I will wear the bracelets I made in the psychiatric hospital five and a half years ago. They are made of thin, cheap elastic and faded plastic beads, but they are the most meaningful pieces of jewelry I own. Most days, they sit in a box on my dresser. But every now and then, when I need strength or hope or a reminder of resilience, I’ll slip them on.
I was 19 years old when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was my second hospitalization in a year. After hours of evaluation, my doctor handed me a small plastic cup containing two small white pills — the first dose of my new medication.
“What is this?”
“What does it do?”
“It treats bipolar disorder. Lift up your tongue so I can make sure you swallowed them.”
This was not the first psychotropic medication I had tried. For several years, I had cycled through antidepressants prescribed by doctors who thought I suffered from clinical depression. Every six months, I switched to a new antidepressant, and they all sent me into a tailspin, which is frequently the case in patients with bipolar disorder.
One month I felt like the most brilliant, productive, successful person on earth. I wrote about getting a pilot’s license and winning a Pulitzer Prize. I took on three part-time jobs. I stayed up all night. The next month I was suicidal, convinced I was worthless and pathetic, sleeping 14 hours a day. I was experiencing what my doctors recognize in retrospect as rapid cycling — frequent swings between depression and hypomania. I had to withdraw from college and move back home. I called in sick often at the one part time job I was able to keep. I told my boss I had mysterious aches and pains. I was too ashamed to tell her the ache was psychological.
I longed for the pain to go away permanently, but inexplicably, I was more scared of the potential discomfort I might feel in the process than the end result. I was not afraid of death, but I was terrified of dying.
Luckily, a concerned friend and my family sought emergency help on my behalf. Two days later, I was making bracelets in art therapy class at the hospital.
Now, after years of therapy and the right combination of medications, I have my bachelor’s degree, live in DC, and have been able to pursue a career in a field I am passionate about — gun violence prevention. I lead a normal life, though I am aware of my bipolar disorder every day and struggle with my moods often — even in periods of relative stability.
While I try not to relive the most painful parts of my past, every time I think of the lives lost to suicide by firearms — nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths — I think about how different my story could have been if guns were involved.
No matter where you stand on the gun issue, there is no denying that firearms are responsible for more than half of all US suicide deaths and are more lethal than any other method. A moment of acute agony, a weapon that nearly guarantees instant loss of life — for someone who does not fear death but fears the pain of an unsuccessful attempt, guns are an easy answer. For those too depressed to get out of bed, much less purchase a firearm themselves, a gun on the bedside table can mean the end. Contrary to popular belief, if a person’s preferred method of suicide is not available, most do not substitute another method. And even if they do, those attempts are much less likely to be fatal.
I know there are responsible, law-abiding individuals who have personal reasons for owning guns. But when someone in a household is in crisis, temporarily removing the quickest, most effective means of suicide can be life-saving. To call suicide inevitable is to give up on people with mental illness — people who could be successful, happy, full of life with the right treatment plan. Retrieving guns after the worst has passed is easy. Retrieving a life lost in a moment of desperation is impossible.
Family members and doctors can take action and save lives through lethal means counseling — discussing how to limit exposure to lethal methods while a person is at risk for suicide. But that involves talking about mental illness. It involves the individual in crisis divulging his or her state of mind. It involves family members and the individual seeking help from a doctor without shame. And it involves the doctor asking about firearms in the home and counseling the family and the individual about temporarily removing them until the situation improves.
Lethal means counseling only works if people in crisis feel safe and comfortable enough to speak out without fear of further alienation or judgement. That’s where all of us come in. The stigma associated with mental illness is unbelievably strong, but it doesn’t have to be. We as a society are responsible for creating this stigma, and we can dismantle it.
It is risky to “come out” as having a mental illness. Some of my closest family members have cautioned against it out of a desire to protect me. I have posted many vague statuses and articles about mental illness on social media without divulging my own experience. I have hidden this part of my life from everyone but my close friends and immediate family. When I go on vacation with a group, I hide the medication I take every night. I shred my appointment cards from my psychiatrist. I talk in passionate generalities about the importance of destigmatizing these illnesses, but I have been tacitly stigmatizing myself and others by being silent.
I won’t any longer. I won’t disown this piece of my history or talk about it as an outsider. I refuse to be ashamed. I want to do my part to break this stigma — not just lament it.
People need to hear stories of recovery. We need to hear from survivors of suicide and those tormented by suicidal ideation. People need to know that their friends, coworkers, those they respect and care for live with these illnesses; we need to normalize them in the same way we have normalized other conditions and treat those suffering with the same level of compassion.
Despite what politicians on both sides of the aisle tell us after every mass shooting, mentally ill does not mean “crazy” or “violent,” and improved mental health care, while important, is not the cure for gun homicides. Most people with serious mental illness will never be violent; they pose a much greater threat to themselves than anyone else. And while these illnesses are not curable and relapse is common, diagnosis is not a death sentence. Ninety percent of those who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die from suicide. The means available to those in crisis matter. Recovery is possible if people can hold on long enough to pursue it.
In the hospital, one of my fellow patients — a survivor of a suicide attempt — would stand in the doorway each morning and evening and sing to the garden and the world beyond, heralding the arrival of darkness and light. When I asked him why, he told me it had been such a long time since he had felt like singing. Through treatment, he was regaining his spirit and telling his story of loss and rebirth.
This Saturday, when I wear my bracelets, I will not only reflect on my journey and the life I regained through treatment. I’ll resolve to finally tell others about it. I’ll claim my experience without shame. I won’t pretend I am fully recovered, and I won’t be afraid to seek help when I need it. I owe my life to my husband, my friends, my family, my therapist, and my doctors who kept me safe in my darkest moments. By talking, listening, actively trying to shed this stigma, and protecting those in danger, we can give people in pain a chance to recover and share their own stories of recovery, resilience, and hope.
If you — or someone you know — need(s) help, call 1–800–273–8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
To learn more about mental illness or find support for yourself or others, visit www.nami.org