I write this, my first blog post, in honor of a young man who lost his life to suicide three days ago. He was 21. He was a former student in my AP Economics class. He was “Sunshine” to his friends and teammates. The warmth of his smile and his hugs and his zest for life will not be forgotten. His death does not make sense, much like the death of Robin Williams did not make sense to the world. When we come across people who light up a room with their energy, passion, and love for others, it is unfathomable to imagine the world deprived of that light. It is painful to think that they may not have realized how much their lives meant to those around them.
I write because I know a little about mental and emotional anguish. I write because I think we all do. I write because I don’t know how else I can support my former students; 20-, 21-, 22-year-olds who are now grappling with the shocking loss of a dear friend. I write because it is one way I cope with helplessness. And I write because I want people to take mental health seriously.
To address language, as we know from research that language affects the way we think, this young man did not “commit” suicide as a criminal would commit a crime. This young man died by suicide. The depths of despair that drive one to even contemplate an action so contrary to our biology must seem insurmountable. Dying in this way takes an inordinate amount of fearlessness, and perhaps a conviction that death is a preferable alternative to immense daily pain. To many, there is no light at the end of every tunnel… or at least no light that is reasonably within reach.
We cannot know the internal state of one who dies by suicide. And we cannot blame ourselves for not having seen the signs or symptoms. Profound grief is difficult enough to bear, without compounding it with guilt. Most people are not trained in suicide prevention. However, what our society can do is try to understand mental health problems, in hopes of recognizing them in ourselves or in our loved ones. Maybe just as importantly, we can attempt to understand in hopes of sharing love and empathy with those gripped by mental illness. It is not too late for that.
The title of my blog is “Simple Awareness,” in honor of a beloved commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, a man we also lost to suicide. His message urges us to have full consciousness of the beauty around us each day; the human connections so easily lost to self-centeredness or distraction. We humans have so much more in common than we usually realize. We are not so unlike those gripped by intense emotions of fear, or anger, or self-hatred. We are not so unlike those struggling to survive each day. We are not so unlike those who fight battles we don’t understand.
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ … None of this stuff is really about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital T ‘Truth’ is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness. Awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight, all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over, ‘This is water. This is water.'” – David Foster Wallace
I hope to use this blog to draw awareness to mental health and mental illness (especially among young people), the latest research, and dissemination/education. I welcome feedback. I write this as a tool to contribute to mental and emotional well-being among the general public, in the best way that I can right now. I am on my way to a PhD in clinical psychology, and I love that our research and practice matters to the human condition. Until I actually have those letters after my name, though, I hope to do something I enjoy (write!) to share information and support. I do this, of course, for myself as well. Writing is therapeutic for me. Find something that is therapeutic for you, too! Do it. Live it. Share it.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
For more information on suicide, Dr. Thomas Joiner (a renowned suicide prevention researcher and, fortunately for my classmates and me, a professor in our program) published a book called “Why People Die By Suicide.” Understanding and awareness can go a long way towards healing.
Thanks so much for reading.
This blog post originally appeared on Erica Lynn Wells' Blog, Simple Awareness, on February 15, 2015.