“Matthew died last night. I’m shocked and sorry to tell you-it’s suicide. Hannah is a wreck.”
I kept rereading the text as though the words would make sense if I inspected them more closely. I grew up with Hannah (For reasons of privacy, I’m not using the family’s real names here.) She and Matthew had been married for more than 20 years. He was funny, smart, and a wonderful father.
Of course Hannah is a wreck. How could she possibly make sense of this confusing, devastating act?
She is, unfortunately, not alone. Suicide is a leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Rates have increased more than 30% between 1999 and 2019. In the U.S., someone dies by suicide every 11 minutes. Among 10-34 year olds, suicide is the second leading cause of death. In Matthew’s age group, 45-54 year olds, it’s the fifth.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month,, created to help and encourage the public to learn about the signs of suicide and listen for them. In Chicago, JCFS Chicago has partnered with the non-profit No Shame on U to offer suicide prevention education and support in the Jewish community and beyond.
Awareness, experts say, is key.
Following his 25-year-old son Tommy’s suicide at the start of the year, Congressman Jamie Raskin wrote: “On the last hellish brutal day of that godawful miserable year of 2020, when hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people all over the world died alone in bed in the darkness from an invisible killer disease ravaging their bodies and minds, we also lost our dear, dear, beloved son…a radiant light in this broken world.”
Raskin described his son’s disease as “a kind of relentless torture in the brain for him, and despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable”.
Is this what Matthew felt too? How did we not know?
The pandemic has made mental health struggles harder. People feel more isolated, and many are managing grief alone. Shouldering their trauma and pain solo, though, has long been a challenge for sufferers.
According to No Shame on You, more than a quarter of American adults live with a diagnosable mental health issue.
Experts now understand that mental illness may not show its symptoms in the same way other illnesses do, especially if sufferers are shouldering the weight privately, as so many do. But that doesn’t mean it’s not just as real. Mental illness can rob sufferers of their joy. It can destroy the will to live, and it can kill. And when mental illness takes a life, it doesn’t mean that person wasn’t fighting hard enough.
These are some indicators, they note, may suggest that someone may be struggling with a mental health crisis:
• Changes to diet
• Changes to sleep habits
• Increased substance use and abuse
• Unstable mood
• Withdrawal from family, friends, and social life
• Loss of focus
The advice: If you’re concerned about someone you know, listen to them. Assure them that they matter and they are important to you. Urge them to seek professional support. Help them find it, if you’re able. Keep checking on them.
Matthew’s memorial was full of hopeful, beautiful stories, and complicated grief. That night we gathered at a friend’s house, where I kept thinking Matthew would have been the center of attention, telling stories and being his wonderful self.
Hannah and I snuck out for a walk, and I was proud that I made her laugh, busting her out of her strange new reality, for just a moment. I’ll try to do the same thing tomorrow and the next day, until Hannah feels a little more like herself again. But Hannah is a different self now.
Tommy Raskin wrote in the note he left family: “Please forgive me. My illness won today.”
If you feel like your illness is winning, the JCFS shares these resources
- Call 24/7 hotline: 1-800-273-(TALK) 8255
- Text 741741: this crisis text line is available 24/7. A live, trained counselor will receive your text and respond fast.
- Visit www.imalive.org (https://www.imalive.org/) this is a 24/7 online crisis chat platform offering immediate contact to a trained crisis counselor.
Eileen Hoenigman Meyer is a Chicago-based journalist.
Letter from Chicago: ’Hannah is a wreck:’ a Chicago Jewish group joins suicide prevention efforts