Ending The Stigma Around Mental Illness And Suicide Starts With Speaking Up

Support
U.S. Marine Corps photo

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published on NYC Veterans Alliance’s blog.


Since my brother Mike’s service-related suicide in October 2010, I’ve experienced many an awkward pause when the inevitable “What does your brother do now?” question comes up. That September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month doesn’t diminish those awkward pauses, nor does it make it all of a sudden any easier to talk about suicide. It’s a difficult topic that many Americans feel ill-equipped to discuss.

This is the time of year we see a surge in social media posts on suicide prevention, where well-intended people offer themselves as “a port in the storm,” or challenging others, “I bet not one of my friends will copy/paste this message” about suicide prevention resources. Others link to vital resources available to those in crisis and ways that family and friends can keep an eye out for signs and help those in need. These are all important to spread awareness, yet 20 veterans still die by suicide every day and 44,193 Americans die by suicide each year. It’s as if we, the “unaffected,” expect the signs that our loved ones are struggling to be visible. We assume there will be one or more cries for help. We assume there will be a marked difference in our loved one’s behavior.

It’s true that there are warning signs and signals; in fact, The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a very helpful list of things to look for. But when I go over the timeline leading up to my brother’s death, I see a hundred signs we caught and a hundred more we missed.

When Mike came home from Iraq, there were a lot of things going on in his life that increased his level of stress, which caused us concern. He was drinking more than usual. He had a shorter temper and his memory was spotty. He had a decreased appetite. But he’d also just gotten back from war, and we wanted to give him space to readjust to life at home on his own timeline. We were trying to be understanding and to show empathy for experiences we would never share.

Not that we didn’t talk to him about it. We asked how he was doing. We told him we were there for him if he needed it. He had been honest with some of what he saw in Iraq (he was in Ramadi and Fallujah), and we offered to talk it through if needed. He swore he was fine, even when we pushed a bit harder than usual. He famously told my father after one such questioning, “Hey Old Man, not to worry, I got this shit covered!"

And he did seem to have that shit covered. He proactively went to get treatment at the VA, where he’d sometimes wait for hours until the doctor could meet with him. He was pursuing a career in social work so he could help other veterans with their transition. He helped his fellow Marines when they were on the brink and battling their own suicidal thoughts. “He’s the last person who would do this,” they said.

But on Oct. 8, 2010, my mother called to tell me he was gone.

What I’ve learned through my family’s experience, as well as from relationships I’ve been fortunate to forge with other suicide loss survivors over the last seven years, is that it’s too easy to rationalize away the warning signs of suicide. It’s just as easy to miss, hide, or explain away red flags as it is to be in denial that a partner is being unfaithful, a parent is sick, or a friend has a substance-abuse problem, despite the overwhelming evidence.

What I’ve also learned is that while awareness is very important, it is also just the start of what’s needed to save lives. Helping those in times of crisis needs to start before they’re in crisis. It’s going to require difficult one-on-one conversations. It’s probably going to get messy and your loved one will potentially get annoyed with you.

It requires that we, the loved ones, walk a fine line between hypervigilance and enabling concerning behavior.

We can’t find ourselves inadvertently romanticizing the stories of those who die by suicide, but we also can’t avoid it and treat it like dirty little secret either.

It’s not easy. Despite losing my brother, it’s still difficult for me to talk about suicide with people I don’t know. When I’m concerned about a loved one, I still have that voice in my head that says, “Don’t push it. They’re just having a hard time. Give them a little bit to get their feet back under them.”

If I can dare to speak on behalf of my survivor friends, I’d say that many of our loved ones seemed to be dealing with it, until they weren’t. I think it’s safe to say we would all be willing to risk them being frustrated with us if it meant we would still have them with us today.

So, share the resources and status messages on social media. We absolutely must all be more aware of the signs and how to get people help. But back that up with real and personalized action. Call your loved ones and don’t let them off the hook when your gut is telling you something’s wrong. Volunteer your services with organizations offering counseling. Find local groups, like the NYC Veterans Alliance, that are connecting service members with the help they need.

The first step to helping that person you love is letting them know they aren’t alone. Don’t be afraid to make your presence known.

If you or a veteran loved one is contemplating suicide, please reach out to the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, Option 1, or text 838255.

Meaghan Smith is the Gold Star sister of USMC LCPL Michael Hogan Smith. She's long worked to support active duty service members and veterans, volunteering with a number of VSOs and organizing her own fundraising and troop drive efforts. She's also a Senior Vice President with Edelman, a leading global communications marketing firm.

Army and Air Force Exchange Service officials are warning soldiers and military families to be aware of scammers using the Exchange's logo.

In a news release Wednesday, Exchange officials said scammers using the name "Exchange Inc." have "fooled" soldiers and airmen to broker the sale of used cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats and boat engines.

Read More Show Less

KABUL (Reuters) - The Islamic State (IS) militant group claimed responsibility on Sunday for a suicide blast at a wedding reception in Afghanistan that killed 63 people, underlining the dangers the country faces even if the Taliban agrees a pact with the United States.

The Saturday night attack came as the Taliban and the United States try to negotiate an agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. forces in exchange for a Taliban commitment on security and peace talks with Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government.

Islamic State fighters, who first appeared in Afghanistan in 2014 and have since made inroads in the east and north, are not involved in the talks. They are battling government and U.S.-led international forces and the Taliban.

The group, in a statement on the messaging website Telegram, claimed responsibility for the attack at a west Kabul wedding hall in a minority Shi'ite neighborhood, saying its bomber had been able to infiltrate the reception and detonate his explosives in the crowd of "infidels".

Read More Show Less
U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Brian Kimball

Editor's Note: This article by Oriana Pawlyk originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

Calling aviation geeks in New York City: The British are coming.

In their first visit to the United States since 2008, the Royal Air Force "Red Arrows" will perform an aerial demonstration next week over the Hudson River, according to an Air Force news release. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels demonstration teams will also be part of the show.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Michelle Y. Alvarez-Rea

Frances and Efrain Santiago, natives of Puerto Rico, wanted to show their support last month for protesters back home seeking to oust the island's governor.

The couple flew the flag of Puerto Rico on the garage of their Kissimmee home. It ticked off the homeowners association.

Someone from the Rolling Hills Estates Homeowners Association left a letter at their home, citing a "flag violation" and warning: "Please rectify the listed violation or you may incur a fine."

Frances Santiago, 38, an Army veteran, demanded to know why.

Read More Show Less
Todd Rosenberg/AP

A West Point graduate received a waiver from the U.S. Army to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday, and play in the NFL while serving as an active-duty soldier.

The waiver for 2nd Lt. Brett Toth was first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter, who said that Toth signed a three-year deal with the Eagles. Toth graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2018.

Read More Show Less