I’m done with mental health being such a taboo topic of conversation. I’m done with the initial shock of others when bringing up my own mental health in a conversation. I’m so done with mental illness issues being treated as rare and shameful.
Having an experienced perspective on mental health is both fortunate and unfortunate. I openly share that my brother, Alek, died by suicide when I was 10 years old. I am fortunate to have gained unparalleled insight into the importance of openly and safely acknowledging the effect it had on me. I am unfortunate to have learned this through extreme loss in the form of my best friend.
Alek’s life is not defined by suicide; he deserves to be remembered as the goofy, selfless and loving brother and human he was. Contrary to stereotypes surrounding suicide, Alek is not selfish for ending his extreme suffering that went unsaid and unheard. While it is often difficult for people to ask me about my brother, it is not hard for me to talk about him or how he died.
My brother, Alek, ended his life, and I am not ashamed to say that.
The pity that comes with the loss of a loved one to suicide makes the need for ending the mental illness stigma glaringly obvious. I immediately see the regret in people’s eyes for asking how my brother died. Few immediately place concern on the fact that I was only a 10-year old girl as they do when asking about my aunt who I watched die from cancer two years later.
The ‘suicide pity’ makes me cognizant of the immense progress that still needs to be made around the topics of mental health and suicide prevention.
Sadly, it is not shocking for a teenage boy, or any male, to die by suicide. So, the shock in people’s reactions proves how much more this really needs to be integrated into normal conversations.
I firmly believe if mental health and suicide prevention were a normal conversation in households, taking place without judgment or blame, crippling illnesses could be openly discussed to aid in the person’s healing journey. With honest, safe and comforting support, loved ones can begin working together to seek professional help and implement change, potentially saving many from suicide, self-harm and addiction.
Mental health is not an easy topic to discuss, and it is not something that starts overnight. But I try my best to lead by example, so that maybe others can too:
- To open dialogue that I see a therapist, and it is not shameful, I joke with friends about what I’m going to “bring up at therapy.”
- To garner understanding from professors and work associates, I am open with them when in need of time and space to address challenging situations that weigh heavy on my mental illness, just as I would if I had a physical illness.
- To normalize the routine that supports my mental well-being, I am honest with friends when I have to pick up medications or attend a psychiatrist or therapy appointment.
- To encourage others not to downplay their own struggles by saying they are “just overwhelmed,” I emphasize that suffering is suffering whether minor or severe; it may be different for each person, but it is valid and real and should be seriously addressed. And just because I understand my struggles doesn’t mean others should dismiss their own because “compared to you, it’s probably nothing.”
My experience with mental illness and being professionally diagnosed doesn’t make my struggles any worse than yours; it just means that I’m able to identify why I’m struggling and how to use healthy coping skills learned in therapy. I always say that I have tools in the form of medications, supportive family and friends, access to therapy and confidence in talking about mental health. It is my hope that others struggling may one day feel the same.
In addition, I have struggled with chronic pain for seven years. I was told by doctors time and time again that my pain “can’t be that bad,” “you don’t need medicine, take some ibuprofen,” “it’s not possible to have such pain at your age” and “your pain is in your head.” From the ages of 14 to 21, in my heart, I believed there was no hope for an end to my physical pain. After multiple injections and two back surgeries, I am nearly pain-free.
Today, even when I feel hopeless, I have the resources to keep me hopeful. I am extremely fortunate to have a father who is a doctor and never gave up fighting for me, and a mother who always listened to and believed me.
I tell my story and experiences not for pity, but in the hope that someone learns they are not alone and that anyone can help break the stigma. Be the person who is consistently open and honest about their mental health. Teach by example. Try to be comfortable and confident expressing your struggles with mental health. Have the everyday, easy-going mental health conversations, so that the hard conversations have the space and comfort to be spoken and heard.
Be the open and understanding person you wish others were with you. Do not be ashamed of your mental health journey, and certainly never compare it to another’s; it is your life and journey, no one else’s.
Tell people when you’re proud of yourself, because some days your best may be simply taking a shower, while other days it could be securing your dream job. You deserve to be proud of yourself. Take every win you can and shout it from the rooftop, because this society desperately needs to learn that a person’s best is almost wholly dependent upon their mental health.
Spread more understanding, patience, kindness – and especially LOVE – in this world. You never know who may need it.
Emma Feller of Palm Desert is a student at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, and a summer intern with Desert Health and can be reached at [email protected]. If you or a loved one are struggling and need immediate assistance, dial 988 for the suicide and crisis lifeline.