It’s Not the End; It never has to be

Two years ago, I wrote my first published piece of writing, an Op-Ed in the Roanoke Times titled “Why Ebola Matters in Southwest Virginia.” The piece itself was an accurate, if not preachy, mic drop on how we fear farflung diseases that statistically will never touch us, yet ignore the prevalence of mental illness that permeates our communities and families. As a society, talking about mental illness makes us recoil, except when it furthers are political agendas. We equate it with a derth of morality, character flaws, or the absence of humanity. Gun advocates on the right hide behind the shield of mentally ill, using the suffering of millions of Americans to deflect blame and reform efforts after every mass shooting. For so many, mental illness is still viewed as an unchangeable innate property of the doomed, rather than a treatable illness like hypertension or Diabetes Mellitus. Our fears are misguided, and our sense of reality betrayed by our prudish, and frankly callous attitude toward mental illness. Our hubris and denial are to blame for the persistence of suicide as the tenth leading cause of mortality in the United States.

As a medical student, I have witnessed and been involved in the treatment of countless suicide attempts. At this point, gory detail could be used to guilt or shock unconvinced readers into reality. But that is not the point, and frankly, should not have to be the point. The very fact that a human being experiences such enormous, overwhelming, and horrifying suffering that death appears a reasonable solution should elicit even the slightest compassion. Yet, empathy, that ability to feel compassion in the absence of experience, remains so elusive. Yes, that dead horse has risen to be beaten yet again. Yet, it’s true. Our political discourse, our inability to compromise, and our unwillingness to broadly address this topic in the absence of great tragedy reflect this derth.

Suicide is all around us. As noted by a popular Facebook campaign, 22 US military veterans commit suicide everyday. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents worldwide. A white, elderly male is one of the most at risk demographics for suicide. A previous suicide attempt drastically increases the likelihood of a successful suicide in the future. The epidemiology of suicide often goes unconsidered for the very reason that we too often fail to see it as a health issue, an epidemiological issue. Yet, we sweep it under the rug. We do not mention that cousin, bless his/her heart, or grandpa just accidentally took one too many of those pills. Our fear of suicide as personal failing ends our efforts and nullifies treatment and prevention. Yet as diabetes and heart disease are a combination of genetics, risk factors, and environment, so too is mental illness. If we can overcome our short-sighted and archaic perspective, we could see this obvious fact.

September is Suicide Awareness Month. It was also a painful reminder of the previously mentioned cultural roadblock we face. On September 8th, a group representing the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention gathered in a simple effort to raise some awareness, and hopefully change a few hearts. In the early morning hours, this enthusiastic group gathered with t shirts and signs that read “Be the Voice, #StopSuicide.” While they waited, they would soon be met with the ugly greeting that “It’s the top of the morning show. We don’t want suicide on the brain.” Devestating. Had someone had suicide on the brain, perhaps they could recognize the warning signs and have saved a life. We have no problem watching violent wars, protests, and killings in our street on the news everyday, but please do not make us think about the pain of suicide.

As a culture, we have a talking problem. We don’t have an arguing problem. We are great at that, that talking at each other. However, we royally suck at talking to each other. Unfortunately, it is literally killing us. This is not about a group of ratings conscious, rude television producers. We so painfully wish to pretend mental illness is not real, and if it is real, it is an inherent personal problem about which nothing can be done. We talk at each other, we talk through each other, and we fail so horribly at compassion and listening.

I have not written in awhile. I have admittedly, avoided writing, because I felt like I had nothing to say. I felt my own voice being drowned in my own insecurity, and the sea of opinions that seem to saturate the internet. I have been even more stressed by the new stage of my career, as I prepare to end my status as a medical student and enter residency training. It is in this time that I have been silent, that I have caught a fraction of a glimpse of what it is like to be drowned out by the world. In fact, I found myself avoiding silence, because I knew in the silence I would have to listen to myself and no longer would have an excuse not to write. Imagine a lifetime of that fear and to an exponentially greater intensity.

I came home to silence today. I thought of my own fears and insecurities, and in doing so decided to use them. For the reason, I chose my profession and one of the reasons I continue to find reason to write, is to do so to speak for those who are silenced by this world. The silence told me to write in a hushed whisper. And for all the stress and fear, I spoke.

It is not the end. It never has to be. For those out there who feel silenced, shut out, and hopeless, below is information and a link to help lines. For those who care, take a look at the warning signs. Be a saving force. Listen, and give someone a second chance at life.

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