Suicide risk demands an open, compassionate response

Suicide. Survivor’s guilt. Trauma. PTSD. Our nation has been — and should be — engaged in conversation on these difficult topics this week after the apparent suicides of three people intimately tied to mass school shootings in Parkland, Fla. and Newtown, Conn.

Their deaths echo the pain, grief and insensible trauma that continue to shock and abuse the collective psyche of this nation.

Each life lost to suicide is a unique and horrifying tragedy. But, if anything good could be said to come of three more lives being lost, it is that we are talking openly about a difficult topic.

Mental health, depression — in all its wicked forms — and suicide are topics wrapped in stigma and fear of rejection. Hopefully, this past week’s losses will spur a broader and longer conversation about mental health and suicide.

In Oklahoma, this is a topic long past-due for open and frank discussion. For Oklahomans ages 15 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death, according to the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, and the state has the eighth-highest suicide rate in the nation.

Of particular concern is our state’s veteran population. According to the VA, Oklahoma vets ages 18-34 have the highest rate of suicide in the nation, and more than 20 U.S. veterans and active service members die by suicide each day.

I’m not trying to conflate veterans’ suicide risk with the issues surrounding the losses in Parkland and Newtown. But, I do think both issues call us to examine the ways we discuss grief, loss, mental health and trauma in this country.

All of this came up for me several days before the Parkland students died, in a post about a shipmate who graduated several years behind me at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The story of Chris Cortez, USNA Class of 2002, was shared by a classmate of mine (we graduated in 1998) after Chris wrote a post for “Shipmate,” the alumni magazine of the Naval Academy.

Chris bravely and poignantly raised awareness of mental health and suicide risk by disclosing, in very frank terms, his own battle with severe depression with bipolar disorder, exacerbated by his time in the service and the transition back to civilian life.

I didn’t know Chris personally, but his words resonated with me immediately. I’ve wrestled with depression since I was 13, but apart from a few clergy and my wife, had never really discussed it with anyone. Why? For the same reasons Chris hadn’t. The same reasons most don’t. Fears of judgment, being held back professionally and rejected socially — these all surround questions of depression and mental illness.

And, members of the military especially are inculcated with an ethos that eschews weakness — and seeking help for depression far too often is seen as weakness. But, here was Chris, a man wrought in the same crucible as me, who’d worn the same uniform. And he was saying it’s OK to talk. It’s OK to seek help.

“It’s OK to take medicine!” Chris wrote. “I didn’t want to at first. I thought it labeled me as having a problem or weak … We will take medicine for everything under the sun but when it comes to mental health we pull up and think we’re weak. We’re not. We’re strong! I think of it as my prosthetic for my ‘brain piece.’”

He went on to urge fellow veterans and all who suffer with depression to be open and honest, to seek and accept help, just as you would for any other injury.

“Tell friends and family. You will be showered with hugs and encouragement. Tell acquaintances and strangers. They will be floored by your courage and may be inspired to seek help themselves … Remember that many influential people throughout history have struggled with various mental health conditions. You’re no different. You may set the example … that creates a ripple effect of positive change.”

Chris’ closing words offered hope and strength.

“Never give up! Mental health issues really, really, really, really suck. Suicide and suicidal ideations are inescapable symptoms. The darkness and solitude are real and heavy. Hold on. Things will get better. If you feel like you’re in the bottom of a dark pit, go to work, one hand-hold at a time. The smallest gains will breathe wind into your sails.”

Chris’ words represent the best of bravery and compassion. He bore his spirit, his struggles, for all to see so he could help others. So he could help a shipmate. And, based on the flood of comments from my classmates who also identified with Chris, because they — we, I — also struggle with the marks this world has left on us, Chris’ words were sorely needed.

His words are good, and strong and worth retelling. But, it was the end of his story that etched them in my mind, and made me bring them to you in this column.

Before his column made it to print in “Shipmate,” Chris died. His obituary stated he “died March 11, 2019, following a courageous fight with bipolar disorder.” His long, brave battle with mental illness is done. But, his words remain, and should be etched in the minds and hearts of us all.

It’s OK to seek help. “Never give up … If you feel like you’re in the bottom of a dark pit, go to work, one hand-hold at a time. The smallest gains will breathe wind into your sails.”

I urge anyone who has fallen into that pit to reach out for those hand-holds — family, clergy, friends, counselors, doctors. Whoever it is for you, reach out, and hold on.

And, if you’re not in the pit, reach out to others who are. Let them know you’re a safe person to talk to. Let them know it’s OK. Let them know you’ll be there, without judgment or pity. Just be there for them.

As Chris wrote, be the example that creates a ripple effect of positive change.

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