Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Breaking Down the Walls - Mental Illness and Suicide

I don't actually know who found him. I have long suspected it was my mother and that perhaps that moment in time was responsible for some of her later struggles, but I don't know for certain as she and I never discussed it. In fact I never discussed it with anyone until after my mother died unexpectedly because while it wasn't a family secret it wasn't out in the open, either.

My maternal grandfather committed suicide.

From what I have gleaned he ended his life shortly after my maternal grandmother died after suffering a  cerebral aneurysm. My grandparents were very close, apparently. My mother often spoke of their marital bond, and from her words I could see that she worshipped them both. She described her father as "sensitive", likely  in reference to a man who struggled with mental health issues and seemed fragile to others. I never knew either of my maternal grandparents, both gone long before to tragic diseases.

This narrative is one that has hovered over my family for decades. While it was never completely hidden it was never really pulled into the light, either. The stigma of mental illness and suicide is a deep one, powerful and tough to counter. My mother never spoke of her father's death, although she would often speak of her mother's.

I have tried over the past three years to break the cycle. I have shared stories of my struggle with depression, and stories of my mother's long battle with mental illness. I have openly discussed the genetic legacy of mental illness in my own lineage, and yet for some reason I admit it took me a very long time to tell the Intrepid Junior Blogger how her great grandfather died.

I suppose it is because I didn't know how to explain it. I didn't know how to have that conversation, but last year I did. I wrote about World Suicide Prevention Day, and I sat down with my daughter and told her the few details I know about her grandfather's death.

I suppose it is why I have become so adamant about the fallacy of calling those who commit suicide selfish. From my mother's description of her father I know he was not selfish. His death was not about a selfish choice. His death was about a troubled man dealing with a disease he did not choose and that is in the end no different from the disease that killed my grandmother. Her death from a cerebral aneurysm caused by a weakened blood vessel in her brain was not her choice. My grandfather did not choose to suffer from a mental illness that led to taking his own life any more than my grandmother chose her illness. Mental illness is a disease just as real as brain aneurysms, heart disease and diabetes, and can be just as deadly.

Just as in other diseases early intervention can often prevent the worst outcome. In the case of mental illness and those who may consider suicide such intervention is crucial. Things have come a long, long way since my grandfather's death but we still struggle to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide in particular. It is still a topic we try to avoid and one we find difficult to talk about with our family, friends and colleagues - and yet it is so vital to do exactly that.

It is the most difficult conversations we often need most to have. In many ways I regret never talking to my mother about her father's death, but my mother was sensitive, too, and I suspect her fragility was rooted not only in genetics but in the untimely death of her parents. They were both lost to diseases that seem tied to my family through our genetics, not diseases of our choice but ones with which we contend regardless.

It was difficult to tell my daughter about my grandmother's death and the fact that cerebral aneurysms can have a genetic link. It was equally difficult to tell her about my grandfather's death and another disease that is tied closely to our family. But knowledge is power and education is a tool, and these discussions have better equipped her for the future. We have begun to break down the walls of silence in my family and to talk about our genetic legacy, the good and the bad, and all the factors that make us who we are.

Wednesday is World Suicide Prevention Day. It is the day to bring it out into the light, to talk about it with friends and family and colleagues. It is the day to remember how it has touched our life and to learn how we can prevent it from touching the lives of those we love. For me it is another opportunity to tell the IJB about her great grandparents, and not just their deaths. I will share with her the loving stories my mother told me and I will share with her the stories of their deaths. It won't be an easy conversation - but it will be one so very necessary to have.

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