The suicide of For Brown Girls creator Karyn Washington was a tragedy. From those who were her loyal YouTube followers to those who learned of her life only when it was over, it was easy for people to understand that.
But some of the comments I read in reaction to the 22-year-old's death reminded me that it's not enough to shake our heads and mourn these types of losses. I believe that we in the black community are ready to change how we view and deal with depression. I hope the following story will help my brothers and sisters understand more about how depression and suicide work. Sophistication about these issues is a matter of life and death.
That's something that I figured out for myself one night a couple of years ago.
This particular episode was one for the books.
I felt a heat under my skull that I had experienced to some extent in the past but had never "felt" in this way. I remembered a chapter from the book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life that talked about the areas of the brain that were overactive in people with depression. The heat was localized at the top of my head, at the temples and behind my forehead, along with a duller pain at the nape of my neck. It's my brain; it’s not me, I thought. My brain isn’t working correctly.
I took a pause from my mental tailspin to think about next steps. After one of my close friends killed herself, I'd always said that ending my life was not an option. Even if I feel like no one cares right now, I'm wrong, I told myself. If nothing else, my mother would be destroyed if I did it. I've got to think of something else.
I went to the computer and did a Google search for "suicide hotline." I dialed 800-273-TALK (8255).
A voice on the other end asked me the reason for my call. I don't remember precisely what I said, but it was something to the effect of, "I don't want to kill myself, but I keep thinking about it." I had made a similar statement to my therapist when I first started seeing her. I said: "I know you have to report me if I said that I've been thinking about that, but I don't actually want to do that, I just think about it."
She assured me that she wouldn't commit me for admitting to having suicidal thoughts. If I was talking about it as more of a plan, with arrangements for my belongings and a mode of action, that would be another story.
The worker on the phone referred me to emergency mental health services at a hospital within walking distance of my house. I went to bed with an appointment for the next morning.
What happened next? The crisis center billed me $200 for my consultation and referral to a local mental health center, which I stopped attending after three appointments because I had a pretty bad experience. To make a long story short, the counselor was a deeply religious man who insisted I was depressed because I didn't have Jesus in my life, some weird guy in the waiting room kept making comments about my legs, and the doctor who was supposed to prescribe me the antidepressant medication that, at the time, I wanted to take, never showed up for my appointment.
I also made it to the following week, to my regular therapist, to my co-workers who were very understanding, and back to friends and family who, contrary to the mean voice in my head, didn't hate me or think I was a terrible person.
I was lucky. But as I continued to manage my own depression and practice better thinking habits, I paid closer attention to how people discussed suicide. Two sentiments stood out, and they bothered me deeply:
1. Righteous indignation (How could they? How selfish! They took the easy way out.)
2. Misguided empathy (Who can blame them, after what happened to them?)
The first reaction is understandable, especially if the person who ended his or her life was a loved one. After the initial shock of my friend's suicide, I was angry at her. My anger subsided once I remembered that one of the main ways that depression kills is by making temporary, specific situations seem permanent and general. Sarah didn't kill herself to hurt me or anyone else. She just got stuck in a temporary moment that the disease told her was permanent.
The second response may seem like the more compassionate of the two, but it may be worse, and here's why: Yes, depression can be brought on or be aggravated by stressful or tragic life events, but it is a disease that prevents the person from developing effective coping mechanisms. In other words, even if you have experienced extreme loss, a real desire to end your life is a sign that depression is interfering with your healing process.
If you are thinking about suicide, take a step back. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or another service and talk to someone.
If someone tells you he or she is thinking about suicide, stay calm and encourage the person to talk. Avoid saying anything on this list, and talk with the person about seeking help. This last step is crucial; you can support someone who's depressed or suicidal, but you can't help him or her on your own. The person needs to talk to a professional.
The trick with depression is doing what you need to do to make it to the next day. Even though my experience with public mental health services was comically bad, it got me to the next day, to the next week and then to the one after that. I am reminded of this each time I hear about another person who got stuck, felt their temporary stretched out into forever, depression firmly insulating their hearts and minds from the love that was around them.
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