Did anyone else watch the Academy Awards on Sunday night? I admit that I used to be a much bigger film fan that I am now, and I only half-watched the show while doing other things. But some things did grab my attention: Patricia Arquette’s cry for equal wages, the lackluster performance by Neil Patrick Harris as host, the In Memoriam montage featuring Robin Williams, who succumbed to his mental illness and committed suicide last August. If you include Robin, the Oscars telecast had three mentions of suicide, which is a heck of a lot for a subject most of us wince at and immediately change the subject. The other two mentions were not as subtle: filmmaker Dana Perry won in the Documentary Short category for Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, and in her acceptance speech she candidly talked about her son, who took his own life when he was 15.
Ms. Perry also made a film about her deceased son called Boy, Interrupted. Here’s what she had to say when it was released in 2009:
This is a movie one wishes one did not have to make. Maybe it will break down walls, and stigmas about talking openly about mental illness, to free people to do so without shame. The film asks a lot of questions in a public fashion and stirs up discussion about why we as a society are ashamed about mental illness. Educating people is a real challenge. And, education and treatment is the only suicide prevention. Let’s get the word out.
Lastly, Best Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore (for The Imitation Game) talked candidly about his own teenage suicide attempt, encouraging others that no matter what they think, they do fit in:
When I was 16 years old I tried to kill myself, because I felt weird, and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here. And so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere: Yes you do. I promise you do.
How extraordinary hear about not only mental illness, but suicide, from a Hollywood stage where tens of millions of people are watching. We’ve come so far as a society when it comes to how we treat mental illness, but we haven’t come far enough. We haven’t come far enough when there are still people who feel like they have no hope and relatives of suicide victims who feel that they can’t talk about it.
Yesterday, during some idle Facebook surfing, I stumbled on some unexpected and unwelcome news. A former friend from my early twenties committed suicide last summer. Heather was just shy of her 34th birthday and constantly battled both mental illness and chronic Lyme disease. She was a poet, violinist, human rights advocate, and Lyme disease awareness activist. This death is what brings suicide home for me. I have known people who succeeded in taking their lives, as well as those who attempted to, but this was someone who was a part of my history. This is someone I knew for several years, who I went to Ani DiFranco and Indigo Girls concerts with, who I marched against police brutality with, whose apartment in Brooklyn I used as a crash pad, who I shared clothes with and laughed endlessly.
Despite the fact that I hadn’t talked to Heather in years, the news blindsided and saddened me. I had to keep reminding myself as I tried to fall asleep last night, and again this morning, Heather’s dead, as if I had merely dreamed it. This didn’t have to happen.
Robin Williams, Dana Perry’s son, transgender Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn, and my old friend Heather all turned to suicide because they felt desperate and hopeless. This is the most absolute form of desperation, the most damaging solution that they could think of. They all felt that there was no better option. We need to talk about mental illness as something that is just as important to treat as any physical illness.
If someone in your life is struggling emotionally, tell them that you love and accept them unconditionally. Tell them you are available to listen whenever they want to talk. Validate their feelings. Offer to drive them to mental health appointments or support groups. Give them a hug, offer them your dog for the afternoon, take them to see a movie. We’ve all been touched by mental illness and suicide in some way. I write this because I want to eradicate stigma and let everyone know that it’s okay to talk about it and it’s okay to get help. It’s okay to feel broken. But please know that you are not going to feel broken forever.
What you can do: 1. Join the conversation! Please share your experience with mental illness and/or suicide in the comments section, if you feel called to. Let’s start a conversation and support each other. 2. Check out the suicide-related links below and find out how you can get involved or seek help for yourself. 3. Share this post! Pin it, tweet it, stumble it, share it on Facebook or Google Plus or whatever your social media outlet of choice is. Share any of the links that I’ve shared. Tell someone that you love them today.
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Out of the Darkness Walks raise awareness about suicide and work towards prevention
- Gay-Straight Alliances Reduce Suicide Risk for All Teens
- A wonderful new resource: Crisis Text Line. Teens can text ‘START’ to 741-741 and reach anonymous in-the-moment counseling. This would have been perfect for me as a teenager; I’ve always found it easier to write things out than to talk about them.
- Veterans Crisis Line, for veterans in crisis and those concerned about them, with a phone, live chat, or text option.
- Battling the Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans (According to the VA, at least 22 veterans commit suicide every day)
- Suicide Warning Signs and How to Find Help