More than 800,000 people a year die by suicide and 500,000 others end up in the hospital with injuries related to self-harm. Queer kids rejected by their families are almost nine times more likely to make a suicide attempt than those who are accepted. Kids wonder why they must be different in a society that tells them they’d be better off dead than who they are. In 1973, just nineteen years before I was born, “homosexuality” was removed from the DSM.
And still, society tells the LGBTQ community that the Pulse massacre was a random act of violence.
Republican Congressman John Katko lost his niece to suicide five years ago. He was the last to see her alive before she died by hanging. Immediately, one of his priorities became lobbying for mental illness funding. Last week, he hugged me in his cozy office on Capitol Hill as I told him my story. Suicide is not a matter of politics; it should not widen the divide between us. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate; it just takes and takes with reckless abandon. Suicide costs the United States upwards of fifty billion dollars a year, a huge figure when compared to the outrageous excuse for an annual budget our government devotes to mental illness. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for children aged twelve to eighteen, and among the ten leading causes of death in the United States overall. The gravity of these statistics continues to be ignored. Until improvements are made to a poor mental health system, all industries and institutions will be negatively impacted; from hospitals and schools to maximum security prisons. Until we talk about these issues, they will remain taboo. A few weeks ago, someone pointed at the Post-it I have taped to my work computer, which displays a suicide hotline number. He laughed, looked at me, and said, “Why do you have that?” Honestly, the ignorance didn’t warrant a response. Frankly, I believe every person should have “that.”
After a recent mental breakdown, I had to approach my boss and say, “I need to work from home for a few days because I won’t be able to make it from Midtown to the Financial District.” Because I could be direct, because I had resources and support, I was able to work through it. Many people don’t have that privilege. Recently, an eighteen-year-old boy you will never hear of on the news, was bullied in school for his skin color and size. He was a gifted pianist, adopted at a young age by a family undeterred by his history of trauma. Five months ago, the boy walked into a nearby home, disoriented by a mental health episode. He didn’t touch a single possession but fell asleep on his neighbor’s couch. The family called the police when they returned, and he was promptly arrested for home invasion. Today, he is still in Muskegon County Prison and, despite good behavior and an otherwise clean record, has been in and out of solitary confinement. His name is Tyler West.
And still, society tells us he must be violent.
Highly-publicized acts of violence – which capture events that are actually few and far between – have become a trademark in dialogues around mental illness. Social heuristics lead us to associate mental illness with violence, when in fact poorly-funded institutions and resources can account for much of the problem. At the 2017 NAMI Convention in Washington D.C., I met one mother whose son had a serious mental illness episode last Christmas Eve. At the time, she took all the right steps and drove him to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation and inpatient care. Her only demand was that the hospital give her frequent updates. Yet, without her knowledge, her son – clearly still in the midst of an episode – was sent home from the hospital in a cab the next morning. This sort of negligence is a pervasive problem across medical facilities: hospitals are understaffed or reach bed capacity and patients in extreme need of care are discharged. On Christmas day, the son of my new friend walked into her home and attacked her. This brave mother stood on Capitol Hill last Thursday and said with conviction, “that man was not my son.”
A sixty-six-year-old schizophrenic woman of color, Deborah Danner, was fatally shot in the Bronx last year by an officer who clearly ignored mental illness protocol. The voices that followed her, that told her she was worthless, did not kill her in the end; a bullet did. What have we done to prevent this? Do we cease to care if it’s not an affliction we share with Deborah? Say her name and say it again until you realize she is human.
And still, society tells us this is not an issue of race or of mental illness.
Only one quarter of Americans living with bipolar disorder stay in therapy and take their medication as prescribed. We can all encourage our loved ones to pursue treatment, through a gentle balance of guidance and compassion. It is easy to forget that standing up to stigma and seeking help is a courageous act of resistance. And for those who choose to take medication, the suicide rate increases significantly in the first nine days. In fighting for happiness, a basic human right, things sometimes get worse before they get better. When I first started my medication – thanks to a loyal friend – I was hardly alone for nine days. Call me day or night, and I will be there. Will you?
Have you ever taken sharp objects from a friend’s dorm and held onto them until you’re sure it’s safe to return them? Have you sat with them on a bathroom floor, insisting it will get better? Have you driven to CVS and bought meds for them because they’re afraid that merely saying "Prozac" will bring judgment? This is, and has always been, a reality of the human condition. And yet, my friends and I are still out here fighting for life and acceptance. There is no shame in what we all share and despite widespread denial, we’re all in this together. The World Health Organization says that the number of suicides a year, worldwide, may reach two million by 2020. Wipe out every resident of Manhattan and you still haven’t reached that number of fatalities.
And still, society tells us that this is not about biology; it’s about a lack of strength.
There is no excuse, no reason for a single person to feel completely alone. Most of us are wired to act with compassion and empathy. There are people who have made it a career to stand in front of crowds with no other motive but to say, "It gets better." A single voice of resistance is stronger than the silence from which it was born. I will not live in a world that says I am the only person I can rely on; that says I am enough only if I hide my scars.
There are some who cannot conceive of what it’s like to feel beautiful; who think that cutting deeper is the only way to release the pain. Right now, there is an eight-year-old child somewhere writing in a journal that she wants to die. There are people who believe that love does not exist beyond the Lifetime Channel; that they will never deserve to feel the bliss of falling head over heels.
And still, society tells us that success is hiding authenticity behind closed doors.
When I ask you how you’re doing, I want more than the illusion you hide behind the moment you leave your bedroom in the morning. I ask that you trust me when I say I can help you carry the things that keep you up at night. I hope you know that you can tell me about the time you were the worst version of yourself, as long as you’re open to hearing about mine. It is no longer enough to stand in place and immobilize this force, just because it’s hard to face. Empathy is as much a learned trait as it is genetic. Author and bipolar sufferer, David Leite, shared with me a compelling story of what saved his life. As a little boy, David’s mother left him a loving note on the banana he had for breakfast every morning. It was a simple gesture, but one that would someday give him the strength to live his truth through humor and honesty. Take just fifteen seconds today – the time it takes to write a couple of words on a banana – and send a text to that friend you’ve been worried about. I know you’re not sure what to say. Start with “hi.”