Usually I write about marriage and relationships. This article is not about relationships. It is in response to the recent suicides of the young “Oregon Mom” –Jennifer Huston, comedian/actor Robin Williams, and countless unnamed but greatly mourned loved ones who have died by suicide as a result of untreated or undertreated mental illness and addiction. This is for the families and loved ones who are not better off.
Every work day I sit with people who have depression and other mood disorders, anxiety, those who struggle with addictions, have serious family and relationship problems, have a severe trauma history, suffer with grief and loss, PTSD, phobias, work stress, and are even asking existential questions about life’s meaning and purpose. I do my best with my professional toolkit to try to help. Really, a lot of it is about witnessing, validating, and listening well. It is an honor to walk with my patients in some of life’s most difficult times, and to try to bring hope and healing. This work is not easy, but it is so rewarding. As a therapist, there's one statement that makes me run cold inside. It's the words "I know they'll be better off without me".
Depression, especially severe unipolar depression, agitated depression, or bipolar depression are deadly conditions that drive people to frantically search for a way out of their suffering. No wonder. Depression is torture of a terrible kind, and can be difficult to treat. One of the reasons it is so difficult to treat is that the person who has the condition often believes that the reason they feel this way is because they are personally deeply flawed and/or damaged – so they often do not seek help. They are ashamed.
As a therapist, there’s one statement that makes me run cold inside.
It’s the words “I know they'll be better off without me.” Elizabeth Schmit, Ph.D.
Yes, many depressed people – and even people who would not be diagnosed with depression - occasionally feel suicidal or have “suicidal ideation”. Thoughts of being better off dead, or thinking about what it would be like to end suffering through one’s own death are fairly common. But very few people – even people diagnosed with major depressive disorder – ever act upon those feelings and thoughts. However, those who do attempt suicide or complete suicide almost always think and believe “They will be better off without me.”
No, they won’t.
That’s a lie -- a very convincing lie told to and by the depressed person’s brain, which the depressed person believes. Especially when coupled with alcohol or drugs (which lower inhibitions), the depressed person’s brain directs them to act on thoughts of self-murder with disastrous results. It is said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But the suicidal person with depression thinks suicide is the only solution. Again and again, their depressed brain convincingly whispers “They will be better off without you.” It can be a small step from believing that lie to planning and carrying out suicide.
As a mental health professional and as a family member of those who have died from mental illness and addiction I can testify to you that your family and friends will not be better off. Let me repeat that. They will NOT be better off. They will be so much worse off than you can even imagine.
Your loved ones will never get over it. Never. They will never stop asking themselves what they could have done to save you. Your great grandchildren, who you will never meet, will look at your picture and wonder why did great grandpa kill himself? Did anybody try to help? Will I do that? The legacy and tragedy of suicide never goes away.
So please, if you are someone with depression or suicidal thoughts and impulses seek assistance now and keep seeking treatment. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org 1-800-273-8255). Go to your medical doctor. Make an appointment with a mental health professional this week. Call today. Call back. Do not give up. Never give up. Even though (yes... I know), it can be difficult to access care, and treatment is not always immediately effective, persistence pays off. Seek professional psychotherapy to learn ways to combat the depressive thinking patterns that are lying to you. With a medical provider's guidance, keep trying different medications and different dosages if the first effort doesn't help enough.
Even people with heart disease have to persist to get better, and often have to try many combinations of medications and treatments before they stabilize and improve. Depression is no different. Be honest with your providers and tell them what is helping and what is not helping. Be engaged in getting better, and you will improve. Depression is treatable, recovery is possible. At this point in history we have so many effective ways to help – many more than 15-20 years ago - but you must seek help to get better.
If you are a family member or loved one of someone with depression or other mental illness or addiction, please seek help for yourself. It is very stressful to live with someone with undertreated depression or other mental illness or addiction. Contact NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness www.nami.org) for peer support and family network support. Call a psychologist or therapist for yourself, and get the help you need.
I sincerely hope that the recent deaths of Jennifer Huston - young wife and mother from Oregon - and Robin Williams - world famous award-winning actor - will shed light on the need for a national conversation about improved access to treatment for mental illness and addictions, and the importance of seeing these conditions for what they often are: deadly. They leave a legacy of grief, anger, and helplessness for the family and friends who can't stop asking "why?".
Remember, depression is a big fat liar. You can get better. Call someone today and make an appointment. Talk with a friend. Reach out. Never give up. You matter.
With love & hope,
Elizabeth S. Schmit, Ph.D.