It was a warm, sunny day in New York. The leaves were saturated in bright greens; the frozen ground thawing as new flower buds burst from deep beneath the earth. The sun was shining, warming the soft spring breeze in the air. The world was filled with life.
However, from where I was, you wouldn’t have been able to tell. I sat in my room, lights off, windows draped in dark curtains. I had retreaded deep under my blankets; eyes shut tight, layers of darkness settling in on top of me. My brain was foggy; it had been for some time. It had been too long since I felt alive. I was broken, collecting dust, bones stiffening, muscles aching. I lay rigid and stiff as darkness continued to suffocate me.
This is what it looks like when you completely lose the value of your life. This is what it feels like when you think no one in the world cares that you are here. This is when you start to believe that maybe you aren’t meant to be here anymore.
According to the World Health Organisation, 800,000 people lose their lives to suicide each year and that doesn’t include those who attempt but survive. In 2012, suicide was the 15th leading cause of death worldwide and the 2nd leading cause of death in individuals between the ages of 15–29 years old.
Suicide is an issue that needs to be addressed. People suffering from suicidal thoughts need to know that they matter, that they have a purpose and that they do belong here on this planet. Now awareness campaigns are beginning to pop up with the purpose of spreading that exact message.
Amy Bleuel, the founder of Project Semicolon, a suicide awareness campaign – that was inspired after the devastating loss of her own father to suicide – says she wants to create ‘a platform that allows people to be open and honest in their own journeys.’ Her hope is to ‘reach the masses and inspire them in their darkest moments.’ When people feel lost and alone they start to lose hope. They lose hope for a future and a life beyond the moment they are stuck in. ‘I want to share my story with others,’ she explained. ‘In the hope that people find hope despite what has and will happen in their life. So that they know they are not alone.’
Zachary Mallory, who founded the Voice Matters Project, after surviving three suicide attempts, hopes to ‘change the conversation we are having about mental health and suicide to make people focus on how mental health affects people’s lives.’ He wants to help create a dialogue that isn’t cluttered with numbers and statistics but that sheds light on real stories from real people going through real difficult times. ‘I think true life experience is what’s going to make a difference, it is more personal, it is more open-ended…. that would really change the conversation.’
‘To change the conversation we need to see mental illness and suicide directly as it is – a brain illness.’- Amy Bleuel
So if it is so important, then why is suicide a discussion that people steer clear of?
Bleuel says it is a complicated mixture of stigma, lack of understanding and a deep fear of the unknown. ‘Society as a whole has a stigmatised response to mental illness and suicide therefore we do not truly address it. To change the conversation we need to see mental illness and suicide directly as it is – a brain illness. Once we can change the conversation around that, then we can truly begin to embrace those around us that are struggling.’
Maybe it is an issue of semantics. People hear ‘mental illness’ and they don’t know where to start. They don’t have any mental footing to grasp onto, to better understand such complicated conditions. However, when you say brain illness, a body part, it transforms into something tangible and something that people can relate to. You say brain cancer and instantly people know what that means and they see it for what it is – an illness out of that person’s control. That’s exactly what is largely misunderstood about suicide – it’s not a choice. Their brains have been hijacked by infiltrating, intrusive thoughts, much of which are lies that bring people to the devastating conclusion that they have no other option but to end their lives.
People are afraid to discuss suicide. They tend to avoid what frightens them and what they don’t comprehend. ‘I believe it is simply fear and lack of knowledge,’ Bleuel insightfully notes. ‘We fear the unknown,’ she continues. ‘It is hard for some people to grasp what is happening in the brain when addiction, trauma and even mental illness takes place; therefore it is hard to understand. What we don’t understand, we tend to ignore, or turn towards a response that isn’t always positive.’
Many people hesitate to speak out about their struggles with trauma, mental illness and suicidal ideation due to fear of being judged. Mallory highlights the fact that ‘most people who are feeling suicidal don’t reach out because they are afraid to reach out, they don’t want to be laughed at, they don’t want to be discriminated against. Discrimination is out there,’ he says. ‘Harassment is out there, people are so afraid of being discriminated against, they are so afraid of that stigma that is still around mental health and the fight is far from over.’
‘Even if it doesn’t affect you personally, be the voice for someone who doesn’t have a voice…’ – Zachary Mallory
How can we create a more empathetic and receptive response for people going through such a delicate and fragile time? How can we keep a positive conversation going to remind people that they are not outsiders in this world and that they are not alone?
Mallory believes that every individual can make a difference. ‘Even if it doesn’t affect you personally, be the voice for someone who doesn’t have a voice,’ he says. ‘Be their role model, be their inspiration to open up and share their own story.’
Because of mental health activists like Bleuel and Mallory that is exactly what people are doing. People from across the globe are opening up and sharing their own experiences with suicide and suicidal thoughts.
Many people think that suicide is a decision that people make however what is largely misunderstood is that taking your own life is far from a choice and is often completely out of that person’s control. DJ Danny Lemon from New Zealand told the horrifying truth behind his own suicidal thoughts. ‘I feel that I am unable to stop this from happening, that my suicide is imminent. That I am in an unsafe state of mind, and am being driven to suicide by both my own fear and terror, or by some imagined external force. The sense that suicide would offer relief from despair, desperation, hopelessness and mental torment.’
Theresa Summa from Berkeley, CA highlights the complexity of mental illness and how it is not a ‘black and white’ issue like many people believe. ‘People see depression as an extreme sadness, but it’s really much more complex than that. It changes the way you think and remember and see yourself and the world. In a depressive period, I’m routinely so emotionally exhausted that challenges become insurmountable and the thought of death becomes a comfort. Depression swallows my energy and ability to hold a positive outlook. It limits my thinking and ability to cope with life’s challenges on a fundamental level. I’m no longer able to find the rational thinking I need to carry on and instead the only comfort I can find is in the thought of it all being over.’
Thomas Carr from Bedford, UK described his suicidal thoughts as a ‘reverse nightmare.’ Drawing up a haunting metaphor. ‘Like when you were a kid,’ he explained ‘and you awoke from a really bad dream, I felt like I was waking up into one. So I spent as much time as humanly possible asleep (18 hours a day) to try to escape it. After years of it, I couldn’t live the nightmare and chose to live what I thought was the “dream.” If I could escape the nightmare then I’d be okay.’
Joe Atria from Chicago, IL describes the deep emptiness and despair that consumes you when you are feeling suicidal. ‘In my mind I felt lost, like I was surrounded by darkness. No clear sight and having no idea where I was. I felt like I didn’t have a place in this world. I felt like the world would be better off without me. I felt like I had no way out of the darkness.’
Sometimes when people take their own lives others view them as selfish. They look at that person and criticise them for leaving behind a family and loved ones that cared for them. But they aren’t seeing the whole picture. Al Levin from Minneapolis, MN shed some light on the burden one feels when suffering from suicidal thoughts. ‘I think that’s really a key piece’ he says. ‘The reason even those with little kids take their lives is the feeling of being a burden. I couldn’t escape the thoughts; they just kept coming. Depression definitely skews your perception.’
Jody from Ontario, Canada spoke on the emotional toll suicidal ideation has on our thoughts and feelings. ‘We have a sense of emptiness and loneliness that we think can never be filled. We feel vulnerable, and that no one will understand why we feel this way. We feel so insignificant and lost in this big world. We have lost the ability to hope…which is essential for survival. Imagine yourself in a dark cavern with no exit, not a ray of light shining through.’
But a ray of light is starting to shine, with every voice that speaks up and with every story that is told. A conversation has begun and it isn’t going to stop anytime soon.
Project Semicolon follows the mantra ‘your story isn’t over,’ using the semicolon as a symbol for life. Bleuel paints a picture that ‘a semicolon is used when an author could have ended a sentence but chose not to. We are saying, you are the author and the sentence is your life.’
And despite the alarming numbers of precious lives lost to suicide each year there are also stories filled with hope that Bleuel dreams of. ‘The stories of triumph and continuance are amazing,’ she says. ‘So many are writing in to say how Project Semicolon has changed their life. How my story has inspired many. Lives are continued because of it.’ Because of Bleuel’s campaign, thousands of people have adopted the mantra for their own – some even going as far as tattooing the semicolon symbol to their body as a forever reminder that there is still so much of their story that needs to be written.
When asked about the future Mallory describes a world of acceptance and openness. ‘I want to be able to verbally say “I have a mental illness, I have been battling it for so and so years, this is what my diagnosis is, this is how I am advocating for it, how I am raising awareness for it, how I am approaching it,” and then someone can go in and say “oh I have the same thing, I am here for you’.” He hopes that one day everyone will be able to live ‘a stigma free life.’
Suicide is something that society cannot fear, we cannot run from it or try to push it away and pretend it isn’t happening – because it is. We as a society need to face this epidemic head on. We need to approach it as a community and start having a real, honest and open conversation about what these people are going through, how they are suffering, how much pain they are in, how alone they feel – because they aren’t alone. But it’s not enough to say those words, we need to show the millions of people all over the world that they do not need to be ashamed for their suicidal thoughts, they don’t need to be afraid. Our society needs to show these people that as a community we are listening, that we are here for you and that together we will get through this.
Liv is a writer and blogger from New York City. She loves yoga, the beach and anything in nature. Her goal is to help make the world a better place through writing and responsible journalism.
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