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What I’ve Learned About Mental Illness

When I was in third grade, a classmate’s father died of suicide. It was the first time I had ever heard that word. While explaining what it meant to me, my mother, who did not at the time fully understand mental illness, told me that it was a selfish thing for him to do. I couldn’t fathom why a father would choose to leave his family like that—I didn’t fully understand mental illness either.   

When I was in 8th grade, the boy who sat in front of me in geometry died of suicide. The school sent out an email to all of the parents, letting them know what had happened. When my mother told me, I thought about how he wouldn’t be in front of me anymore when we got back from Thanksgiving break. That felt so strange. So final. I attended his funeral along with many other students from our class. I’ll never forget the look on his mother’s face, or the way his sister cried. I was confused why he would have done this to his family. I heard a friend call it a “cop out.” When I got to class the next day, our seating assignments had been changed.  

After college, a close friend lost her brother to suicide. He lived out of town, and I had never met him. My friend’s pain felt so raw to me, his loss such a shock. At this time in my life, I had learned more about mental illness and the lies that it can tell the brain. After Ben’s death, I dived deeper into what that all meant. I learned that his illness caused his death, just like any other illness might cause death—that it wasn’t a choice he made. It wasn’t “selfish,” as I had been told. It was illness. 

Two years later, my coworker—my work-spouse, according to my husband—lost her brother-in-law to suicide. And five days later she lost her brother to suicide as well. There was—and is—such pain at the loss of these two young men. I thought about how my co-worker used to love going to her brother’s swim meets. I thought about how excited she and her family were when he had recently married. And again, I was confronted with the power that mental illness has over its victims, and the trails of pain it leaves behind. 

Earlier this year, I lost a friend to suicide. She was a writer, and someone that I looked up to and hoped to work with on a few upcoming writing projects. I knew that she had dealt with mental illness, but I didn’t understand how immediate her struggle was. Her death was a shock. Her death is still a shock. But now, there is no question in my mind—she died of an illness. She died because her brain was lying to her. She was not selfish—she was a warrior, a fighter, a strong mother and friend. 

These experiences with suicide have been painful, but they have allowed me to see this disease for what it is: a disease. It’s not a “cop-out” and it’s not selfish. It’s the result of a disease. A disease that needs to be actively fought against.   

When my career unexpectedly brought me to The Wellbeing Partners, we were just beginning to consider what it might mean to work in the world of mental health. We were beginning to consider what the consequences of the global misunderstanding of mental illness were—the stigma that surrounds it—the same stigma that had been communicated to me from an early age. It has been a blessing to be a part of this work that is so vital to our community. It has been encouraging to hear the stories of community members who are in the fight against mental illness—either as people experiencing mental illness firsthand or as mental health allies.   

THIS is the work of mental health. This is the first step in ensuring that stories like I have shared here aren’t the norm—that the consequences of mental illness aren’t explained away as “selfish.” That those who are in need of mental health supports have easy and quick access to them, just like we want to ensure easy and quick access to those with bodily illnesses. The brain is, after all, a part of the body. And mental health is, after all, health. 

If you would like to join us in this campaign, we would love to share your story.  Stories can be submitted through our WhatMakesUs campaign to fight stigma. Let’s fight the stigma together. Let’s stand up for mental health.