I have been to 14 funerals since turning 17 years old. Fourteen people who were friends, co-workers, crushes, debate partners, school mates and amazing members of the world's community. Fourteen people whose families and friends I sat next to at funeral services, whom I heard whisper "If I would have known," "How could I miss the signs?" and the awful "How could they do this to us?"
As the first of my friends took their lives and I attended their funerals, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I wondered what I was missing, what I wasn't doing right.
Was it because I didn't answer that 4 a.m. Facebook message? Was it because I wasn't open with them about my own struggle? Was it because I didn't try hard enough somehow? Didn't love enough? Wasn't there enough?
I beat myself up for a while. I blamed myself and tortured myself. I sought to better understand mental health, suicide and what resources existed to support people feeling suicidal. I made it my mission to take action, and I read, spoke, researched, met, supported and loved the best that I could. I learnt about hospitals, communities, education systems, treatments, interventions and technology.
I found people with the word "doctor" in front of their name and talked their ears off for hours. I thought if I somehow understood the world that the professionals worked in, I could help my friends get treatment within it. I enrolled in and attended all the suicide prevention and mental health training I could find. I wanted to make sure that if people talked to me about suicide, I would feel ready to help them.
Fast-forward to today: I still find myself standing at the crossroads in people's lives, as the more I have become involved in this mission, the more people I see at the crux of their struggle. I find myself encouraging them to seek help and try for a happier life. That is my goal, and what I truly wish for them to find, and I do my best to help them find the resources to get there, or direct them to where they can find this information.
But while I am directing people towards this goal, at the same time, I find myself scared of, concerned about and oftentimes angry about the system and the resources I am leading them towards.
The mental health system is basically inaccessible
Despite the fact that the people who are lost to suicide in my life knew about the services and that many of them even worked in the mental health system, accessing services when they (or anyone else) need them is nearly impossible.
Appropriate services have wait lists more than six months long, and emergency services are not trained to properly deal with suicidal people. Often times, suicidal people are sent away from Emergency Departments due to lack of resources or beds.
When they are admitted, oftentimes I hear from people that their time in hospitals was sometimes more traumatic and made things worse than before they were admitted. I have not heard any word or progress on a solution to this.
Some people in helping roles still don't think suicide is a real issue (e.g. hospitals and schools)
"You are just seeking attention," "You did this to yourself, why should I help you?" "I think suicide is such a selfish thing," "You just need to pick yourself up and be happy." These quotes (and many more) represent all the things doctors and nurses have said to me while I was suicidal.
My friends and schoolmates used to make fun of the crisis lines and mental health talks we had at school. As someone who was suffering and asking for help, hearing these things just made me more suicidal, and it is still happening in our system despite more research and more education. People who hold these beliefs are still talking to our at-risk youth.
Young people around me keep dying, despite the progress that has been made
One of the scariest things about this journey is to learn that we still have a long way to go to understanding and preventing suicide.
Even with all the discussion of mental health and suicide over the last few years, the suicide rate has been increasing around the world, with one million people dying by suicide last year and the suicide rate has increased by 60 per cent in the last 45 years. Rates among young people have been increasing to such an extent that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of all countries.
While research is ongoing, there is clearly something we are missing, and it scares me that this will continue until we figure out what that missing piece is and how we can help. And then I worry if our system is too broken to even adjust itself in a real way to new information that comes in.
We put all our eggs in one basket
Where resources do exist, we tend to put the most resources behind one model or solution. Whether it's the NHS in the U.K., HeadStrong in Ireland or HeadSpace in Australia for the leading mental health system, people still tend to think that one solution will work for everyone.
The truth is that people who live with mental health issues are as diverse as the rest of the population. One answer (usually the ever-popular cognitive behavioural therapy) does not work for everyone. We need to have multiple therapy types, models and solutions funded to better accommodate people's needs. One solution will not fit all, and this tendency to try to find that "one solution" worries me.
The best brains don't work together
We have a lot of amazing people working to prevent suicides, but they tend to work against each other. Why? Two reasons: ego and funding structures. Everyone wants to author the model that helps the most people, rather then owning it with other people. Our funding structures don't help this, and instead they reward organizations for saying they are the "first, best or only" and don't reward true collaboration.
This makes me so mad, because in order to solve a problem this broken and this tricky, we need to work together. Sometimes it feels like I need to just lock everyone in one giant room and not let them out until they have a workable, truly collaborative solution.
We don't have money to solve this problem
Worldwide, mental health only gets an average of 2.8 per cent of health funding. In places like Canada and the USA, this means that even though more people will live with mental health issues then cancer and heart disease combined, mental health receives only seven per cent of the funding that cancer and heart disease receives.
When you look at all the above concerns, there doesn't seem to be a viable solution in sight, and it keeps me up at night thinking about when the real support will come.
Each of these concerns together makes me understand why so many young people are still dying, and it leaves me really mad. I know that people living with mental health issues often struggle so much before asking for help. They see asking for help as the end of a long battle, but in reality, it ends up being the start of a much bigger and sometimes even more painful struggle working through the system, trying to get support when mental health concerns don't wait around for the system to meet an individual's needs.
Mental health and suicidal thoughts -- the same as many physical illnesses -- need immediate and appropriate care, and this kind of care is becoming harder and more complicated to access as the years go by.
Here is the thing: Things will only get better if we talk about suicide, if we demand more innovation from our mental health experts and governments, if we properly and appropriately fund it, and if we let people know that we care about it. Innovation is stagnating, and meanwhile, while the politics play out, people are still dying.
I have been to 14 funerals, don't you think that's enough?
(Thanks to my awesome friend Cheryl for helping me create this piece after I had been hitting my head against it for weeks. Check her out here.)
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