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Burying the Stigma of Mental Illness

When the death of a loved one is suicide, or any facet of mental illness is involved, there's a stage in the grieving process psychologists don't list: stigma. Survivors bear the stigma of survival. Even as friends gather to sympathize, you sense an unspoken undertone: Surely you knew something.
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I remember precisely the moment my world changed forever: Oct. 26, 2007 at 2:10 p.m. A phone call. My husband said, "Heather, your father has passed away."

MY dad? He was my best friend, my confidant, and the man who, along with my precious mother, gave me a Norman Rockwell childhood?

"How?" I finally managed to ask, stunned.

Silence reigned. My husband was tight-lipped. "Better we talk face to face. I'll drive down." I was at a teacher conference in the next state, four hours away.

Typically, the first stage of grief is denial. Exactly. My father could not be dead. He'd survived four back surgeries, major surgery for Hodgkin's lymphoma, 39 radiation treatments, two heart attacks, and four stents. While going through all those medical crises, he taught me to shoot basketball, play T-ball, fish, nurture a garden, swim, care for horses, refinish furniture, and mow the lawn. I was fearless of the gigantic beach waves, because he lifted me over them. Yes. He was the man who lifted me over every obstacle I'd ever faced. He could not be dead. For hours, I denied that and focused on how he lived.

When my husband arrived, he explained the death. My father -- my anchor, my guide -- had killed himself.

Then the next stage of grief assaulted: anger. I was numb, perplexed, speechless, bewildered, and -- angry! My father gave no warning. He blew away the rest of his life. For a reason, or reasons, we will never know. I can't ask him. He's gone. He left no note.

They call the next stage bargaining. It's not bargaining. It's "what if?" What if I had missed some sign? What if I had just taken a moment to ask if he was happy? What if I had spent more time with him?

When the death of a loved one is suicide, or any facet of mental illness is involved, there's a stage in the grieving process psychologists don't list: stigma. Survivors bear the stigma of survival. Even as friends gather to sympathize, you sense an unspoken undertone: Surely you knew something. Surely you saw clues. Why didn't you prevent this?

And you ask yourself: How did I fail my dad? Why didn't he want to stay alive for me? More importantly, for my mom? Our family?

While the next stage of mourning is depression, it's brutal when your loved one takes their life. My father didn't just die. He deliberately abandoned me. To put it blatantly, he chose to leave me.

For months, I struggled through the days in a state I label emotional Novocain. I still got up, reported for work, maintained graduate classes, and functioned. On autopilot. A few people asked how I was doing, but I didn't know what to say. To help them feel less awkward, I answered numbly, "I'm fine, thank you for asking." Friends approached cautiously, as if they didn't really want to. I wondered why, in the aftermath of the greatest tragedy I had ever faced, some friends simply dropped out of my life.

Stigma: I began to realize that, had my dad passed away of a heart attack, I would have been inundated with people inquiring about my wellbeing. Since he killed himself, that was "too taboo" for many to deal with. Did they really think I knew how to deal with it any better than they? I didn't have a clue!

Retrospectively, having gone through the usual stages, denial turned into anger, which turned into depression. Depression is a cruel kind of nightmare following a suicide. And I wasn't even sure I agreed with the steps of grief because I sure as hell didn't want to get stuck in any one of them.

Typically I'm a "get-over-it-and-move-on" kind of girl, but swiftly realized I was drowning in my own confusion and bitterness and needed a therapist. Not someone who would prescribe a pill and call it a day. Not someone who would recommend dozens of self-help books I'd never read. I needed someone who would put a face on what had happened. Someone to help dump the baggage permanently, so I couldn't pick it back up in the near (or far) future. My superb therapist engrained an understanding of why things happened the way they did. Eventually I lost the feeling of being a social pariah, because I refused to let that one isolated life event determine who I was or would become.

Eventually, I became determined to help lead the charge to eradicate mental illness stigma.

Believe it or not, my father's suicide is not the point of penning this article. I share glimpses from my personal journey ONLY as a jumping off point into the REAL issue: The stigma behind ALL components of mental illnesses.

Why the stigma attached to mental illness? Where and when did this stigma originate? Most importantly, why does it still exist period? Not a clue, but the world needs to ditch the stigma altogether.

Does anyone truly understand what mental illness is? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies insomnia as a mental disorder. Insomnia? Really?

The negative connotations surrounding mental illness will never disappear by themselves. As a country, we are failing our citizens by maintaining the mindset that we currently embrace. We force people, who are in the abyss of mental illness to wear masks, because WE don't feel comfortable with their issues.

Yet, would we hesitate to reach out in support of someone with cancer or a diabetic? No! We set up crowd-funding websites to aid with their medical bills. We laud them as champions in their battle with disease, and appropriately so. BUT why does one size not fit all when it comes to whom we support versus whom we stigmatize?

Our soldiers put their lives on the line to fight for this country. Many return from the battlefields with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They suffer as shells of their former selves. Rather than praise them for their sacrifices, we shun them because they are -- that stigma again -0 mentally ill.

Take a moment and focus on some of the most beautiful minds of our lifetime: Abraham Lincoln, Buzz Aldrin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Winston Churchill, Diana -- Princess of Wales, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Vivian Leigh, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, Sir Isaac Newton, Vincent Van Gogh, and Johnny Cash. At first glance, these people have seemingly little in common. However, each openly battled illnesses ranging from manic depression to bipolar disorder, bulimia, alcoholism, drug abuse, and anxiety disorders. Politicians, astronauts, musicians, members of the monarchy, authors, actresses, scientists, artists... mental illness is not discriminatory as to whom it impacts. But consider a world without these individuals. Where would we be? What would our current state of affairs resemble? They all shared in shaping the dynamics of the culture that we know today. They walked through the fires of their own personal hell and created beauty, in spite of their mental illnesses and stigma. These are clear cases of beauty coming from a beast.

Illness is illness, whether physical or mental. We need extensive education, support outlets, research dollars, and -- most importantly -- understanding, compassion, and empathy. We need to treat mental illness as we treat physical illness -- without the stigma. I refuse to be the poster child for suicide survival, but I have a passion to become a part of what has to be a greater movement to forever eradicate the unfair stigma of mental illness and all of its components. It's 2015, people. Together, we can ditch the stigma and get on the road to mental health.

If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.