Suicide Survivors

Understanding mental illness is key to assisting people in need

      Like many of you, I am a paramedic and a firefighter. The thing that may set me apart is that I am also a suicide survivor; a person in a club no one wants to join. I would like to take this opportunity to help you, my peers, understand the nature of mental illness and suicide.

   My life has changed completely—twice. The first change came after the death of my wife, Mary, on March 5, 2003, and the second came on October 15, 2008, after the death of my 27-year-old brother, Jeremy. The cause of both Mary's and Jeremy's deaths was severe depression that resulted in suicide.

   With Mary, our family could see the runaway train of mental illness coming down the tracks and could do nothing about it in spite of our best efforts. Mary was on six medications at the time of her death, had received in-patient and out-patient care, read self-help books avidly, sought religious counsel, tried meditation and breath work, was a member of a peer support group, went through electroconvulsive therapy, and was attended to regularly by her psychologist, psychiatrist and social worker. Every time Mary was hospitalized, her friends and family rallied to support her with telephone calls and visits to the behavioral health unit. We loved Mary and she knew it.

   Jeremy was a different story. Although my family was aware of anxiety and depression issues, we had no idea as to the depths of his despair. Later, I learned from Jeremy's journal that he felt he was somehow morally flawed and "less of a man" because of his disease. Because of these beliefs, he kept the extent of his illness from the very family and friends who loved him and would have offered help. Instead, Jeremy kept his pain to himself and drank alcohol until he passed out every night, just so he could get to sleep. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, it is estimated that 29% of people diagnosed with a mental illness abuse either alcohol or drugs.

   Mary succumbed to her illness early one cold March morning in the back seat of her van in a parking lot of an apartment complex not more than two miles from our home. In spite of great pains taken by her social worker to ration her medications, she managed to fatally overdose on them.

   Unbelievably, Jeremy succumbed to his illness early on an October morning five years after Mary. Jeremy ingested several cans of beer, as was his practice, but this day was different. Instead of passing out in an intoxicated sleep, he shot himself in the head with a handgun, leaving his roommate to discover his body. I'll never forget the sound of my mother's pained voice on the telephone that morning. I was shocked that this type of tragedy could befall my family not only once, but twice. I often feel as though everything is surrealistic--like I'm walking around in a Salvador Dali painting. I'm honestly afraid it could happen again.

   Mary was many things to many people: wife, mother, daughter, sister, grandchild, niece, friend and dog mommy, to name a few. She was an avid outdoor person and worked as a physical therapist.

   Jeremy was a brother, son, grandson, nephew and friend. He was an executive chef at a country club and was in college working toward becoming a law enforcement officer. Jeremy was the life of the party and a self-proclaimed "mommy's boy."

Understanding Mental Illness

   According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the 11th-leading cause of death overall, the No. 2 cause for the age 10-24 group, and the third-leading cause of death in the 24-35 age group. It is said that each suicide affects at least six other people. In my estimation, this is a gross understatement.

   My purpose here is to give Mary's and Jeremy's lives meaning by helping other people with this affliction. To do this, you must be willing to enhance your understanding of and response to psychological emergencies as I convey three messages: 1) the nature of mental illness; 2) taking away the stigma; and 3) helping the survivors if the unthinkable occurs. Notice that care of the patient has been omitted. This is because items one and two will help tremendously with care, and because you are already very competent in the technical response to virtually any emergency.

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