It happened 4 times in 6 months last year. I am still struggling to comprehend what brought us to that point, and how after the first attempt it was continuing in a seemingly endless spiral. Although we aren’t in the full crisis mode that we were last year, the challenges are just different. Not less. And the ghosts of what happened still lurk in the shadows of every late-night phone call, tricky date on the calendar, and unanswered knock on her door.
September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day, and I was asked to write about my story. I don’t feel comfortable writing about it under my name, as it is only partially my story. Mostly my mother’s. So I will be anonymous. Which strikes me as having a touch of irony since the whole point of an awareness day is to shed light on the struggle and reduce the shame and secrecy that still haunt the topics of mental illness and suicide. But it will have to do for now.
My mother is in her sixties, and although she has struggled with anxiety and depression for much of her life, I don’t think that she would ever be what someone would think of as an at-risk case for the act of suicide. None of us, including her, are even sure what made this round of her cyclical depression different than any of them before, other than that she was having a harder time coming out of the valley this time. And then it only took one more straw for her to decide that life was not worth living, and she took every pill in her recently-filled prescriptions. When that didn’t work she took the stockpile of old medications that she was no longer on, and no one even realized she had.
Nothing shocked me more than the day her boyfriend called to tell me that she had tried to kill herself. Or at least it should have.
Why wasn’t I shocked?
My gut felt like I knew I would get this call someday. But if a part of me deep inside knew, why hadn’t I done something to stop it?
I felt enormous guilt.
Guilt is just one of the many emotions that people feel when a loved one attempts suicide. Along the way I have also come to learn that sorrow, helplessness, fear, and anger are other powerful emotions that take over our lives.
Disappointment in the medical system is another over-riding feeling. Trying to get help for her has felt like an impossible task. Each cycle has involved being admitted to the local hospital’s psychiatric care unit where they start from square one with her medications, watch her like a hawk, and provide the same minimal weekly activities in attempt to break up the day. There was no counselling. We needed a referral just to talk to the social worker, who didn’t have much to say anyway because the programmes aren’t there. And the ones that do exist, my mother won’t participate in. Because when she is down, talking to people is too hard. Her fourth attempt was an hour before a counselling session that we forced her to sign up for. She enjoyed the first 2 sessions, but when they assigned homework she decided it was too much.
And when her mood is up, she thinks she is cured. And that is when the hospital lets her out with full access to her prescriptions, and only a 2-month follow-up with the psychiatrist. We beg and plead for more of a solution, and nothing comes.
When we asked about ways of dispensing her medication on a daily basis her psychiatrist actually said, in front of her even, “If she really wants to kill herself, she will find another way, like drinking bleach.” Unbelievable. We couldn’t accept that, so we ordered a pill dispenser that is a locked box that we fill weekly, and only dispenses what she needs. Happily she hasn’t resorted to other methods, and she has learned that she will come through the other side of the valleys, but that doesn’t change my disappointment in the mental health system in Ontario. Or my fear that we are kidding ourselves in thinking that we have solved anything.
The phone will always make me nervous.
I still feel powerless. I feel like the system has let my mother down. There is the message that we need to look for signs, and ask for help. But it can’t stop there. We need to improve the help that is given. When someone has the courage to seek help, either for themselves or their loved one, the help has to be there. And we need better programs to support the family members. I called a hotline the day of my mother’s first attempt to see what help there may be to support us in navigating all of this, and I was told that there “isn’t really anything.” This is not acceptable. My hope in talking about this is that we will begin to change the system and change lives. And most importantly…save them.
USC’s MSW Programs Blog Day.