Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Let's Talk About Suicide

A few days ago, someone I knew posted this link on Facebook, about a young freshman college student who took her own life. Commenting on the article, they had this to say:

"It's so sad to think that the pressures of college can lead to someone taking his/her own life..."

I was angry.

My first instinct was to respond with some impulsive, ill-thought-out comment. In my view, this was someone who did not understand suicide, did not understand the sheer tragedy and impact of it, and just how commonplace such occurrences are. I wanted to attack what I perceived as a sanitized, spoiled lifestyle, a lifestyle I could only imagine, so blissfully ignorant from such tragedies, where one does not think about it, where one does not know others

Then I thought to talk with someone else about it.

She pointed out to me that this person, like many people, likely does not have personal experiences with suicide, or with depression and suicidal thoughts. It's so anathema to me, knowing what I've gone through, to imagine someone else who hasn't been through such struggles, and when I see such people I get angry at what part of me perceives as a willful refusal to acknowledge the tragedy of it. It's not a willful refusal. Or at least, will is a small part of the larger picture.

The larger picture is that we don't talk about suicide. Not as a culture, not as a society, not as individuals. We push it to the recesses of our minds, discussing it only in the immediate aftermath of its occurrence, and then only briefly. Soon, far too soon, we push it back into the shadows again, eager to get on to happier, more comprehensible subjects.

Perhaps part of why we do this is our clinging to a distorted kind of logic--that if we don't talk about it, it doesn't happen. Or at least we can pretend it doesn't happen. Not to others, and not to people we know. Perhaps that's why suicides are often talked about in terms of how shocking and unexpected they are, because we constantly set ourselves up to be shocked by them.

It should have ceased to be shocking by now. Around 800,000 people or more commit suicide each year. It is the 10th leading cause of death worldwide. We should have moved on from being shocked by it. We should have started asking why it happens, what the people who commit it are going through, and how we can prevent it.

There are numerous causes of suicide, ranging from mental illness to substance abuse to medical issues. As for what the people are going through, rest assured that it is so severe, and so tortuous, that they believe their own death is preferable to it. Often they feel hopeless, often life ceases to be enjoyable or meaningful. They feel guilt, they feel like a burden, they feel like the world would be better off without them. Sometimes they are trying to escape from a tortuous scenario, like abuse or trauma. Sometimes they simply feel alone. Very often they feel a combination of many of these things. The truth of their feelings in the context of the world is not what matters.  What matters is that they are feeling it.

Preventing it is a complex matter, but it is not insurmountable. Obviously, there are larger policy and societal changes that need to be put in place, such as a more comprehensive mental healthcare system, and encouraging the media to take greater care in how it reports suicides.  Yet we as individuals also share the responsibility. Suicide is real, and we cannot ignore it. We have to be aware of warning signs. We need to make sure sufferers as well as ourselves know of resources to contact for help. 

Most of all, we need to not be afraid to confront it. We have to be willing to step forward when those we know are clearly suffering, and not try to avoid them in the hopes that the problem will go away on its own. We have to be willing to talk to them, to listen to them, and to try and help them, because so often they feel like they can't be helped.  For those of us considering suicide, we need to not be afraid to talk about it. We should not be afraid of talking about how we are hurting, or the thoughts going on in our head. We need to let others know when we're feeling overwhelmed, when we need some sort of bettering but can't find it.

These problems aren't reduced overnight, but we can begin to reduce them. That is what matters.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Believe You Can Change the World

Earlier today I gave a presentation in front of a group of middle school students on my own experiences with mental illness. I read from a piece of paper whose contents I'd wished I'd memorized, my legs kept shaking throughout, and I wondered if I had a funny expression on my face. But they listened, and afterwards asked questions about my mental illness, and I ended up taking a group picture with them, wherein I wondered if I was able to smile properly.

During the group picture, one of the students, a young woman, came to me and told me that she also had depression, was diagnosed a few years prior, and how she appreciated what I had to say. At the end, she gave me a hug.

It's very easy to be cynical of the world, and to be cynical of one's ability to change it. Certainly mental illness doesn't help, so willing is it to suffocate any and all optimism. I recall I used to reject volunteering for charity and other helpful organizations, as I did not believe I could change the world with my own contributions.

What does a hug mean? Part of me is akin to dismiss it, to come up with a variety of reasons why the hug means nothing, or that it was insincere. I use such techniques a lot. When I'm given compliments about what I do, there is a part of me that believes they are lying, or that they are simply trying to make me feel better. That is depression trying to keep me as close to unhappy as it can.

In the end, I have no way of knowing if they are sincere or not. But as I receive more and more positive comments, and positive reactions, it becomes increasingly unlikely that I can attribute all, or even most of them, to some attempt to placate me. I must be doing something good. I must be making some change.

We live in a very cynical world. We are surrounded by media which insists on showing us the worst of everything, which seeks to worry us with stories of regional instability and frightening world politics, of horrific crimes performed and of people with good intentions enacting very bad results. It's easy to see all of that and be skeptical of our ability to change the world.

But then that hug.

The world is made up of people. People like you and me. They have hopes and dreams and fears and vulnerabilities, even if they don't always show it. They make mistakes like we do, and they all have their stories and tragedies, uniquely personal to them. For them, life is hard, just as it is for us. Some of then want to be helped. But they may not know where to find it, or there is no one reaching out to them, or not reaching out to them enough.

We can help with that. It does even have to be anything large, it can be as simple as donating money to a charity. It can be volunteering a few hours of time to some organization. It doesn't have to be every day, or even frequently. It's astonishing how much a little bit of help can go.

I was there for less than an hour. There were twenty to thirty students in that class. One of them told me how much they appreciated it. Suppose there were others who also appreciated it but did not say anything? Suppose some did not appreciate it, but that my presence there nonetheless made some difference in how they thought about the mentally ill? Suppose a hundred other possibilities. And that was in less than an hour.

It's very easy to think that the world can't be changed. But remember that the world is made up of people. And each of those people has their own spectrum of experiences and struggles. For them that's everything. For them that is the world. Perhaps you can't change the world. But you can change theirs.

I'm not saying you need to go out and devote all of your time to volunteer. I'm not saying you need to give away all your money to charity. I'm not saying you need to do anything.

But don't believe for a moment that you can't enact change. Very often, we can do more than we think.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Comparison (i.e. The "Why are you sad when there are starving children" argument)

[Don’t feel bad for yourself. Feel bad for exploited immigrants who have their fingers shattered while stocking shelves on the graveyard shift at monolithic retailers. Feel bad for the soldiers of pointless wars who have their arms blown off by IEDS. Feel bad for arthritic, long-haul truck drivers who need every firm grasp they have left for the dark roads and bottom-crashing races ahead. No matter how bad things get, none of those people can live the life that you can: a life of pathetic...resignation - Actual Sunlight ]

One of the most common habits which depression forms in us is ironically also one of the most common technique others use to try to convince us out of depression: Comparison.

We've all seen some variant on the above quote. The old cliche is "There's starving children in the world so what do you have to complain about." It's typically framed both positively, encouraging us to better appreciate the advantages we have, or negatively, shaming us for being unhappy when there are others in far worse situations than we are. It typically only does the latter, compounding on it with guilt as well. When I'm reminded, by myself or others, of how bad some people have it in comparison to me, I feel worse. I hate myself for being unhappy, and thus become more unhappy.

Yet arguing that we should feel better because others have it worse is nonsensical. Remember first that depression occurs without our consent, so saying we shouldn't feel bad because of anyone else's situation is irrelevant. We feel bad because depression makes us feel bad. Depression does not grow out from us because we are self-absorbed or ignorant of the struggles of others. Depression is a disease of the brain and mind which latches onto us and makes us unhappy when we do not want to be. Telling us not to feel bad, for any reason, means nothing. It's the equivalent of telling a broken arm to repair itself.

But that's not the main problem with the argument. The main problem is that it says we shouldn't be unhappy because others are suffering more than us. There seems to be an implication in this sort of comparison that there is a certain level of happiness or unhappiness one should have, based on their status in relation to everyone and everything else in the universe. If you are here, you should be this happy. I am in a better position than someone with cancer, ergo I should be happier.

Obviously, happiness doesn't work that way. Happiness is not tied only to our position in life. Our beliefs, our upbringing, our views of the world combine with our environment to inform whether or not we are happy. And of course, some unhappiness has very little to do with our environment. Spiritual and existential crises, a traumatic past, and of course mental illness do not need a physical environment to make us unhappy.

The argument also has the unfortunate ability to trivialize any and all issues we struggle with, as there is always someone we can consider worse off than us. It's said that we shouldn't complain about depression because there are children who are starving, but couldn't we say starving children shouldn't complain because there are some people in the world more starving than they are? And so on.

Unhappiness happens to all of us, naturally. And there's nothing wrong with that. Yes, there are some people who deal with different and more serious issues, but our struggles are not invalidated because of the struggles of others. Indeed, our efforts to help them might me mitigated by our own unresolved issues. I could not even conceive of writing this blog a year ago, as the thought of anything like it would fill me with tremendous anxiety and stress. It was only as I got better, that the idea of me operating blog like this became not only possible, but desirable. By being calmer and more clear-headed from helping myself, I was better able to focus on helping others

To be unhappy is not to be selfish, or ignorant. To be unhappy is to be human. When it is in excess, certainly that is of concern. But all of us, no matter our position in life, can be unhappy, in various situations, and to shame us for being unhappy by comparing us to others only serves to make us feel worse. We shouldn't be saying "what's wrong with you that you're unhappy", but rather "how can I help myself, or this other person, get better?"

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Importance of Work

As a college student, coming home for one of the several school breaks throughout the year leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is a welcome reprieve from the rigors and demands of the school year, but at the same time, very often within the first few days I find myself depressed and utterly unwilling to do anything. Several of my fellow college students undergo the same thing. At a time when it seems like we would be the least depressed, depression seems to come the most intensely.

In part, I believe it's related to the sudden shift in environment, and very often the absence of our regular social circle we know in college, but I don't think that's the whole of it. A few days ago, I underwent a similar depression. In a follow-up to the events of my previous post, I've been accepted to give a speech at a local high school on my experiences with mental illness, and was scheduled to do it this week. On the day prior to my attending, however, the event was rescheduled due to the weather. The various preparations I had intended to do throughout the day suddenly lost their motivation, and I was more than happy to take the day more slowly, seeing as I had quite a bit more time to prepare for it, and did not do as much work as I intended to do. Quite a bit less, in fact.

Yet very soon I became hit with lethargy and depression, and went through the day in a disoriented haze, going from one bit of entertainment to the next, from games to browsing the web, to watching videos, all without the zeal and enjoyment I would normally have for them, say, at the end of a day of work. Indeed, it seemed to me, that while I might not have as much time to relax on a working day, my enjoyment of my relaxation activities improved, along with my overall day, when I worked.

It seemed to me that one of the ways to become happier is by working. 

On the surface, this seems paradoxical. After all, one of our ultimate life goals is to earn enough money and retire from work. Work is so often seen as something we have to do, to earn the financial security to enjoy our free time. Yet by my own experience, long periods of time spent with little to no work have left me often depressed. I feel unproductive, doing little to contribute to the world or my own well-being. It is when I begin returning to work that those feelings are gone, and my free time becomes treasured, feels like something earned.

Obviously, this does not mean that the way to happiness is through a constant nonstop work. Maintaining a healthy balance is crucial, and often by spending too much time in work we risk overexertion, to say nothing of how often work is used as a way to distract ourselves from our own psychological issues. And of course, for some of us, we are engaged in work that is unsatisfying and inordinately stressful. Yet a healthy balance of work and free time, I believe, can give many of us a more satisfying and enjoyable life experience. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Short Update on How Things are Going

I've been a little quiet these past few days. Part of that has been holidays, though part of that has also been general business, and here I'd like to explain what part of that business is.

A friend of mine contacted me with information about a program which is looking for speakers in my local area to talk with young people about mental illness and recovery. Currently, the plan is that the speakers will form a panel, each giving a short speech on their own experiences, and field questions from the young people. I have been composing a speech, which all things going well I should be able to present on that panel soon. If not, I still intend to post the speech here.

Regardless of whether or not I'm able to be a part of the panel and give that speech, I think it says a great deal that I've gotten to the point that I even have the possibility of doing such a thing. Four years ago, I wouldn't have thought I'd be doing this now. Six months ago I wouldn't have thought I'd be doing this now. The sheer amount of progress I've made in such a short time is astonishing to me.

And I'm not a unique case. It really is possible for change to happen that quickly. Often it seems like if we are to improve, it will take five, ten, or twenty years to get to such a point. And sometimes it does. Sometimes it's even faster than six months. The circumstances of getting better change for every person, but the circumstances are always there, it's just a matter of being willing to try. Had I not tried, I would not have gotten better in one year or twenty years or fifty years. But by trying, I open myself up to getting better, and no matter how long it takes to get better, the fact is I am getting better.

Which is not to say it will always be an upward trend. There will always be setbacks, some more severe than others. Even as I've gotten better, I've had those setbacks, and sometimes wondered if I'd actually progressed at all, or if I was actually getting worse. I wasn't, that was only my depression speaking. It's important to remember that during those setbacks, the best thing we can do is what we've already been doing--just keep trying.