Suicide Prevention Awareness Month: Sharing a Personal Story

September is suicide prevention awareness month. I think one of the most effective ways to get the word out is to be open about my own experiences dealing with suicidal ideation (the term for thinking about suicide, sometimes even when you don’t want to). My experience is personal of course, but even so, I think there’s plenty of common things across people.

Here is the briefest summary:

  1. It started when I was young.
  2. It’s hard to talk about, but it’s good to talk about it anyway.

I’ll be talking frankly about my suicidal feelings, so exercise your judgment if you think that might not be something you should read right now. And if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis right now, there is help! Numbers to call and other resources in the link.

It started young

WorldwideMeta-analytic distribution of age of onset for any mental disorders.” Many mental illnesses start young. source: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41380-021-01161-7

I started to think about suicide when I was 11. I can’t quite remember any particular reason for why it started at that exact time, but there are a lot of reasons that probably contributed, including a widespread family history of mental illness.

I would spend my nights restlessly considering why I felt so awful. Unfortunately, I concluded that feeling bad must mean that I am bad. I would feel better if I were a good enough person.

41.5% of people with mental illness get their first symptom by age 14; by age 25 it is 69.5% (source).

I also ended up thinking about suicide in terms of whether my life was worth living. Dying became an escapist fantasy: it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Especially that infuriating pain in my chest (psychogenic pain is an old term for it).

A couple years ago, a psychologist asked me what protected me; why did I choose to live? I wish I had a beautiful answer, but I think maybe it was spite. I eventually felt that something was actively trying to kill me: god, demons, some broken, shitty part of myself. Well fuck them; I’m not letting them win! Probably not the healthiest way to cope, but it kept me going. As long as I was alive, I had the opportunity to learn better ways.

Talking about suicide is hard, but necessary

source: https://nami.org/Get-Involved/Pledge-to-Be-StigmaFree/StigmaFree-Me

So why was it so hard to tell anyone? As a teen, I saw my own problems as “crazy people” problems. Everyone talked about people with mental illnesses like they were a burden. So I kept it to myself until I couldn’t hide it anymore. I started self-injuring, but I also felt like I was crossing a line: it’s okay if I can keep all my hurt inside, but now I was putting it outside, and that’s bad.

Many people living with mental health conditions don’t feel comfortable talking to their friends and family about what they’re dealing with… Even worse, individuals living with mental illness often internalize the stigma that exists in our culture, damaging hopes for recovery. Some don’t seek treatment from a mental health professional.

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Stigma Free Me Campaign: https://nami.org/Get-Involved/Pledge-to-Be-StigmaFree/StigmaFree-Me

But there was finally hope, too. For the first time, I considered asking for help. I can’t say I felt good about doing it at the time. It felt like giving up, like admitting a shameful weakness. Those bad feelings about seeking help are what we mean by the stigma of mental illness. Stigma makes it hard to talk about, but we need to.

There’s a misconception that talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings might encourage someone to follow through with it; that the best response is to shut down the conversation (“don’t think like that”). But in my own experience, I was only able to ask for help from an adult when I was 15 because of the support of a friend.

Talking isn’t a cure, but when someone listens to me and they don’t treat me like I’m someone they need to avoid, life seems more bearable. Besides any new treatments, I’m probably always going to deal with suicidal feelings. I have almost 2 decades so far. When I try to think of “the future,” I mostly just feel blank. But if there are people who will be with me and accept that I have these feelings, I can believe maybe there is a future I can part of. My feelings aren’t my destiny.

The trees in the forest

I like to remind myself that there is a lot we still don’t know about the mind. But I was thinking: given what we do know, what single lesson really sticks out?

I think I have an answer, now. I’m still working on how best to phrase this, but here’s my latest: our personal experience of reality is a useful illusion.

It’s useful because what we experience usually relates to the physical world (i.e., reality). It’s an illusion because it isn’t the same thing as the physical world. Though the word illusion is sort of overstating it.

Our experience is an interpretation by the brain, and we only receive the final interpretation. It’s like the saying about missing the forest for the trees, but in reverse. Normally, we only see the forest; the trees, the building blocks, are hidden.

If you have normal color vision, you experience a bouncing red circle effortlessly. It just is a bouncing red circle. But that’s the forest, the final interpretation of a complex and dynamic processing system. How you arrived here is more complicated.

Consider the following:

  • How do you know where the circle begins and ends?
  • How do you know the color red belongs to the circle instead of just being nearby?
  • How do you know the circle at the top of its bounce is the same circle at the bottom?

As an experiencer who only ever gets the final product, it seems obvious. But if it was truly obvious then people who are blind as infants would instantly be able to see if their vision is restorable as adults. Fact is they cannot. They “see” visual information, but their brain does not know how to make sense of it. It takes time to learn to see, for the brain to figure out how the building blocks should go together.

You experience a seamless red circle at the top, but your brain processes pieces separately at certain early stages. It integrates the parts into one experience which gives you the impression of a bouncing red circle.

We take for granted that the pieces will be stitched together and make sense, until that process breaks anyway. There are physical systems in your brain that actually do all that work. It can break; usually in cases of brain damage.

  • Prosopagnosia: face blindness. People with this disorder are totally “normal,” except that they cannot recognize faces. Sometimes they even cannot recognize their own face. People with this disorder often have something abnormal or damaged in their fusiform gyrus in the brain.
  • Akinetopsia: motion blindness. People with this disorder cannot perceive motion. For some, it’s like watching a slideshow; others simply cannot see something if it moves. Akinetopsia usually is from damage to the occipital lobe, roughly the brain region at the back/bottom of your head, where a lot of visual processing occurs. It is rare.

So what’s this all mean? Just because we experience something doesn’t make it a universal truth, and so a reasonable amount of humility is a good thing. For example, there is nothing about the wavelengths of light that make them red or green; that’s just the interpretation some brains make. Some don’t.

For psychological science, I think it is even more important. So many things appear “obvious,” and we often rely on common language to express our ideas. But maybe the most accurate way to describe a person doesn’t need to “make sense;” I don’t think magnetism “makes sense” but it’s real, regardless.

My hope for the future of psychology is that we find ways to connect our personal experiences of reality to the obscure physical truths that create it. I don’t expect this to happen soon. But it would be neat.

What keeps us here

I’ll be posting sometime about treatment and mental illness, but this is something related to all that. I’m 29, and a week ago I went back in to see my doctor about my medication. Treatment is an ongoing process, and the goal isn’t to “finish,” it’s to continuously adapt, in my experience. Anyway, this psychologist asked me an interesting question that others haven’t asked me so directly: what keeps me safe? This is the warning that I’m discussing suicidal thoughts and feelings. But for more context, I’m discussing what keeps me safe even when I have those thoughts and feelings.

I wrote about it after reflecting on that question. The first answer is I’m stubborn. I refuse to lose to whatever it is inside my head that’s trying to kill me. There’s some personification going on. But I get satisfaction from knowing I’ve “won” every time so far. The second reason is the one I’m sharing: there are too many people I don’t want to say goodbye to yet.

If death is a door we walk through on our way to Oblivion,
I visit often.
Standing calmly before it,
I trace the grain of its wood with my fingertips as I consider
What keeps me from walking through?

The world is beautiful when I see clearly.
I enjoy a summer’s breeze
And the soft patter of rain in winter.
The trickling of a stream
And the crashing of waves upon the shore soothe and fill me.

But I am tired,
Struggling just to get out of bed,
To live when my heart wants death,
Year after year.
It’s not anger or despair that weighs upon me;
Just a heavy weariness.
I’m ready for the long sleep.

Yet I always turn away instead of turn the handle,
Stepping back instead of through.
I have no big dreams for tomorrow,
No deep yearnings to fulfill.
I’m just not ready to say goodbye to the people I love.
Can that be enough?

Mental Illness: A Beginner’s Guide

Big disclaimer that I am not a mental health expert, clinical psychologist or trained counselor of any kind. I do have a mental illness, and I’ve worked in mental health education, and I am a social psychologist (graduate student). So I have personal experience, some professional experience and I specifically study emotion, but I’m not a trained expert in clinical diagnoses or mental illness. What you’re going to read is partially what I’ve learned and partially my lived experience.

What is a mental illness? We don’t really know.

My answer is unsatisfying, I’m sure, but I believe it’s the truth. Not that we don’t know anything, but we don’t really know. For example, with the common cold we have a clear causal pathway between infectious agents, transmission, immune response and symptom presentation. We don’t have that for mental illnesses. We certainly have ideas and data, but we don’t know. This is inevitable because we just barely understand the brain. We will learn more through research.

So what are people referring to when they say mental illness? Typically, we are referring to abnormalities in the ABC’s of psychology: affect (feelings), behavior and cognition (thoughts). Key, defining aspects include but are not limited to: the symptoms cause suffering, they prevent the person from engaging in important activities, and it isn’t culturally expected or explained by other physical disorders. These definitions can, of course, still be pretty broad.

What do we know about mental illness? That’s a better question, and we know a lot! A lot of people have them at least once in their life (in any year, it could be as high as 1 in 5 people in the US). Mental illnesses are cross-cultural, but sometimes have culture specific presentations (depression exists in Asia just like it does in Europe, but the way people talk about it and express it may be a bit different). Mental illness is highly correlated with stressful experiences, but don’t have to be caused by any one experience. There are different kinds of mental illnesses, e.g. mood disorders versus psychotic disorders. Mental illness has a genetic component. I could go on, but my point is that we do know stuff. We just don’t know enough to say “Depression is caused by exactly X and has exactly ABC features.”

I heard mental illnesses are chemical imbalances in the brain. Even some well-meaning groups continue to say this, but this isn’t really true. First of all, there’s no such thing as a chemical brain balance. I mean, if you don’t have enough electrolytes or something, sure, that’s bad. But A) everyone’s brain has its own normal limits and B) if it was just an imbalance, medications should just work, but they don’t and it requires trial and error to find one that works; furthermore there’s usually a lag-time of some weeks before people notice improvement and C) psychological intervention wouldn’t work, but it does work for many people. The key thing is that brains are complicated. It’s not like balancing an equation for most mental illnesses, and because the brain is conscious, it can participate in its own treatment much of the time (but not always).

Why don’t mentally ill people just deal with it/control it better? There’s a lot of stigma involved with mental illness, particularly that mental illnesses are “all in people’s heads,” to which I say, “no shit.” Psychology is about brains, and brains are physical. It’s not magic. There’s no psychological space that is separate from the physical space. Mental illness is all in your head the same way that diabetes is all in your pancreas.

There’s a presumption that what is psychological is about “you” and must therefore be controllable. And this is one of those things where society has a view on something that doesn’t make sense. Experiences of color are psychological (for color-seeing folk), but me experiencing red doesn’t allow me to control it. I cannot unsee red with my willpower. Now imagine I have undesired experiences of intense fear just like how I see red without meaning to. That’s where things start to become mental illnesses.

A fundamental aspect of human experience is that we cannot control many of our experiences directly (which makes sense; there’s a lot of brain and only part of it is conscious). Active control takes effort, time and experience. It’s not an on/off switch you flick. And the best way to enable people with mental illnesses to “deal with it” is to accept them, help them get the treatment they need and be supportive. Studies show this works better than being a jerk.

How is mental illness different than a “physical” illness? Why is the common cold not a mental illness? Symptoms of the cold make you feel different, lay around (behave different) and perhaps think more slowly. Well, in my opinion, the difference is exaggerated or not yet known. We certainly understand colds better and don’t attribute any of the symptoms to the person experiencing them. But, in general, mental illnesses “look” psychological; they look like there are no external factors involved, like infectious agents or malfunctioning insulin production. But that’s mostly relying on our lack of knowledge. Someday, we may be able to describe depression and schizophrenia purely in terms of what is going on in the brain. Currently, we cannot. Though for schizophrenia, there are some data related to specific dopamine pathways in the brain. This is beyond my expertise.

Who gets mental illnesses? Anyone. One of the infuriating aspects of mental illness (in my opinion) is that it doesn’t even have to make sense! Now, the likelihood of “randomly” developing a mental illness is quite low. Mental illnesses have genetic components (it runs in families), and for many of them, stress seems to be a trigger. But even within a person (e.g., me) it can be really inconsistent. Sometimes I’m stressed but managing just fine, sometimes I feel like things are going great, but a depressive episode hits me anyway.

Critically, mental illness is an illness of the young. Let me explain: most people who will have a mental illness develop it before they are 18. Here’s a NAMI source.

50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24

National Alliance on Mental Illness, https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

To my knowledge, schizophrenia is one of the exceptions. People develop it typically after 18. This is just an average though; there are definitely cases of younger people developing schizophrenia.

But don’t a lot of people (kids especially) just act out for attention? One, I don’t think this is really true. The handful of cases people think about are just that: a handful of cases. Two, legitimately pretending to be mentally ill is itself a pretty worrying sign. They probably need help of some kind. I can’t think of any kids when I was in middle and high school who “acted out” for no reason. There was often something going on at home or they were also dealing with something psychologically.

Are two people’s depression/schizophrenia/etc the same? Personally, I think it’s better to think of mental illnesses as families of symptoms/experiences. They’re not all identical twins, but two people with depression will have similarities. Furthermore, a person with depression is probably more similar to someone with an anxiety disorder than someone with a psychotic disorder of some kind. Both are related primarily to abnormalities in emotion, whereas schizophrenia has psychotic (halluciations or delusions) elements that make it different.

But it’s still messy. For example, I have depression, but I also have psychotic symptoms. So do I fit in the psychotic disorder family or the mood disorder family? Am I depressed AND psychotic? What gives? As my psychologists and psychiatrists have discussed with me in the past, the best way to think about my specific symptoms are as manifestations of the same cause (whatever we want to call it). When I’m not depressed, no psychosis. When I am depressed, usually no psychosis. When I’m severely depressed, only then do I get psychotic symptoms (and anxiety). Perhaps this is broadly applicable to others, perhaps not. That’s also beyond my knowledge.

What is psychosis/ what does it mean to be psychotic? Psychosis and psychotic are words that people throw around for various reasons, but they refer to very specific things in psychiatry: delusions (fixed, false beliefs) and hallucinations. A delusion is something you can’t really convince someone to stop believing. Hallucinations are sensory perceptions (sound, sight, touch, taste, smell) that have no physical cause (e.g., hearing voices when no one is speaking is the one most people think of).

Psychotic people aren’t inherently more violent or likely to do bad things or anything like that. People with psychosis vary in how much they realize they’re experiencing a mental illness. This is called insight, and even within a person, it can vary. This part is my opinion, but honestly, I think the majority of people with psychosis are at least somewhat aware of what’s happening. It’s incredibly difficult to manage, and they certainly can have moments (or many moments) where they lack the insight. But my experience talking to people, a lot of them know more or less that they have something going on when they’re in a clearer mindset. Of course, my interactions are limited to people I see, which has some obvious confounds since I’m a graduate student who mostly will see other “high-functioning” mentally ill people.

Can I or someone I know get help? Yes.

There are a lot of treatment options available, and they range from learning how to help yourself manage your symptoms, reduce their intensity and make them happen less often to medication or other physical treatments.

Besides the fact that it is absolutely possible to live a nice, fulfilling life with mental illness, I think the next best thing I can communicate to someone seeking help is to acknowledge it can be hard. It’s hard to ask for help. I’m 29 and I still have trouble with that. Somehow, I manage to do it when I know I really need to. Going through the process of treatment can be another challenge, but it’s absolutely worth going through that process. My biggest regret is that it took me so long to try. The link to NAMI’s website I posted above is as good a place as any to start.

When feelings don’t work

Perhaps these days there’s somewhat better awareness about mental illness and mental health in general. But there’s still plenty of misconceptions and misunderstanding. I’m not an expert, but I have worked in mental health awareness, and I have a mental illness. Specifically, I’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, but I’d like to talk broadly about mood disorders and what it means to have “disordered” moods or emotions.

Imagine working at a nuclear power plant. Not only do people depend on this plant for pretty much everything involved in modern life, if something goes wrong, it can go very wrong. It is life or death.

The alarms blare. The indicators show the nuclear core is heating up. The core can quickly escalate to meltdown, which would be a disaster. Luckily, there’s a protocol for this. You can follow the protocol and do what you were trained to do. There’s always one thing to keep in mind as you go through the steps: the nuclear core could be heating dangerously, but it’s also possible that the warning indicators are just malfunctioning. Both are problems, but they’re different.

This is an analogy for what my emotions can be like. A real nuclear power plant has protocols that cover both possibilities and ensures maximum safety. But as a person, I wasn’t really taught how to think of my feelings as being “faulty.” Of course, that assumes there is a “correct” kind of feeling. So let’s unpack that, at least a little.

What’s the purpose of feeling angry? Sad? Anxious? Why do we even have feelings? In a functionalist perspective, emotions evolved. This means there was a survival/reproductive benefit to having these responses. The theory suggests that negative emotions focus our attention toward solving critical survival challenges. Fear makes us pay attention to and react to threats quickly (fight or run). Anger can motivate us to be assertive and seek to fulfill a goal. Because we are a social species, a lot of our feelings have to do with social situations and how we relate to others.

But what happens when these “alarms” start when there is nothing to be afraid of or angry with or sad about? No matter the cause (or lack of cause), an emotion is immediate and real because we experience it: if I am sad about nothing, I still feel sad. That sadness affects what I see, what I notice, how I think, and what I want to do even if I know it doesn’t make sense.

In short, thinking of my emotions as faulty indicators is one way I understand myself. Sometimes they’re fine, just like anyone’s typical experience. But sometimes, they’re not about anything, and I know they don’t make sense. It’s a double loss for me: I feel bad AND I feel frustrated for feeling bad. Even when you know an alarm is broken, you can still hear it, right? I know things are going well, but I don’t feel well.

For me, that’s the final tension: balancing what I know against what I feel, and checking if what I feel is “reasonable.” Most of the time, I’ve got it handled. Sometimes, I’m confused and want to throw my hands up in frustration. I use my mind to monitor my feelings, but my mind is the thing that has a problem, so how do I know for sure if I’m doing it right? It’s impossible. And yet life goes on. I manage most days. Many days, I don’t even have to think about it. I’m actually really lucky, if you ask me. I made it this far, after all.