What would you do if you had a son who was contemplating suicide? Would you panic? Would you get depressed and give up? Would you seek help? In many cases, families experience a host of emotions when they learn a loved one is contemplating suicide. Some panic, some give up and get depressed, and others seek help. Some families do all of these things and go through cycles of emotions. All this week we have been learning from the stories of families who have volunteered to share their stories, experiences, and thoughts with us. Although this is our final story, I encourage you to share with others who may feel supported by knowing that they are not alone. Lets meet Tina.
Tina is the mother of two sons, one of which committed suicide. She shares details and her experience.
1. Most families experience great stress, confusion, and uncertainty when a family member experiences a mental illness. Even families with children who have developmental disabilities (e.g., autism, sensory processing disorders, intellectual disabilities, or learning disorders) find themselves overwhelmed with a diagnosis. Could you please explain the beginning of your journey and how you accepted the diagnosis?
- Our son Richard hung himself in the basement of our home. He was 18 years old. I and my younger son, James found him. That was the beginning of such a devastation of our lives as a family and as individuals, an unspeakable horror one doesn’t believe can ever happen to them. Acceptance for me did not happen for a very long time. For 5 years I tried to run away from this reality, thinking that if I could run hard enough and fast enough, I could make it go away. The grief waits for you, it has the patience of Job.
2. What was the most difficult part of this life change for you and your family?
- As a parent losing a child to suicide, the most crippling part of this tragedy is the guilt. It weighs a thousand pounds and nothing erases that until you can finally understand that this was not your choice, and you did the best you could. Not an easy conclusion, but nothing is easy when it comes to suicide.
3. What was the hardest part for you and your family to accept about the diagnoses?
- I don’t think it matters what age your child is, you are still the parent of that child. It is a difficult thing to accept, but it must be done.
4. Did you see changes within and outside your family due to the diagnoses?
- Oh yes. The stigma associated with mental illness and suicide is overwhelming. One feels like such a pariah! Good friends crossed the street rather than speak to us. No one brings up the name of your loved one. I was very angry about those things for a long time, until I realized they didn’t know what to say, they didn’t want to “upset us”, not realizing we were already as upset as we were ever going to be! Our family unit disappeared, each of us were on our own. It was the only way we could survive, the burden was so great.
5. How did you approach finding services within the system and was it easy or difficult?
- Richard died on a Friday night, early Saturday morning. That Monday morning I dragged my son James and myself to the counselor. James came kicking and screaming, he did not want to go. But I thought “The sooner we can talk about this, the better”. Looking back on it, I think I thought we could go get counseling, put our grief in this little box, wrap it up and put it away. It hurt so much I couldn’t foresee continuing on with my life if this pain stayed with me. It was easy enough to get in to see the counselor, but she admitted to us she was “cutting her teeth on grief from suicide” with us.
6. What was the hardest part about working with the system?
- Richard had been to doctors and counselors before his death by suicide. He was drinking and using drugs. We took him through several avenues, but with addictions, it is difficult. After his death we found notes from him about “voices in his head”, which he never talked to us about. I still wonder if a diagnosis was missed with him, but we will never know now. James, our younger son totally leaped into the drug and alcohol use after Richard’s suicide. He was diagnosed with ADHD at age 5 and has since attempted suicide twice. We find it difficult within the system, as they continue to state it is James’ addictions that are the problem, but as we all know, there are reasons for addictions. It is those reasons that must be addressed. He speaks to a psychiatrist before he is allowed to leave the hospital, and that is it. No follow up plans are set up. Difficult.
7. Did you feel supported by the system or did you feel services were all about “business only?”
- Before Richard’s death, I felt supported, but not since. The business only approach has come to the forefront and that is so unfortunate. We strive to make those changes so individuals and families can feel supported.
8. Were resources offered to you or did you have to ask questions and do your own research?
- Absolutely. Had to do this on our own.
- Today I facilitate a Survivors of Suicide Loss support group, have for the past 7 years. My home number is out there for anyone who needs to talk. I am an A.S.I.S.T. (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Trainer) and also a SafeTalk trainer. I am training in Shamanism, I am on the Board for Turnings, an organization that helps ex-offenders reintegrate back into society. And I am a Marriage Commissioner for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a wonderful balance – the heaviness of working with grief and suicide is wonderfully balanced out by the joy one finds at wedding ceremonies. My outlook on life is that of service to others. If I can help just one person to not take their life, to find some joy, then believe me when I say this – it is worth it.
10. The mental health system slights families in a lot of ways by not allowing the most important family members access to healthcare records or treatment information. Do you feel you are a valued piece of the puzzle or do you feel you are treated with a long handle spoon?
- As a parent, one is ALWAYS a valuable piece of the puzzle. Valuable and necessary
11. Did you know that in some states a child who turns 14 or 16 can make treatment decisions and reject treatment? How do you feel about this?
- Children aged 14-16 cannot make an informed choice on their own. Of course, there are always different circumstances, but overall I cannot agree that this is a smart policy.
12. Provide us with three things you think needs to change about the mental health system?
- I am seeing more and more talking about mental health issues. That has to happen. We can no longer keep things under wraps, it does not go away – it gets worse. So I would like to see that continue even more so. And support of issues that include mental health, like the World Suicide Prevention movement. This is great stuff and it gets people talking.
13. In a perfect world, mental healthcare, medication, treatment, and services would all be free. What is one essential thing you wish were free for your family?
- Competent counseling. No question there.
14. Many families lack knowledge about the system because no one has time to educate the public. One of my goals is to provide families with knowledge. How would you describe your knowledge of the mental health system? Do you feel you are well-informed or do you feel you don’t know as much as you’d like?
- For the most part, because of what has happened, I feel I am informed about the mental health system, but one can always learn more. And why wait until something terrible happens before we take the time and effort to find out about this. Do it now. See a need, work toward changing it for the better.
15. What are three things you think parents, family members, caregivers, and even grandparents need from the mental health system to cope with a diagnosis?
- Support, information and genuine concern for each person as a human being.
Tina, you offer such an insightful review of your life and experience. Thank you for being brave enough to share this with us. Sometimes sharing is like “talk therapy,” and can have a healing effect. I do hope that somewhere you were able to re-connect with your story and heal even more. When I speak of things that have hurt me and things I have tried to “run” from, I find that I am becoming stronger, even if the pain remains.
You said 2 things that stood out to me:
- The grief has the patience of Job. You are absolutely right. Grief has no time-frame, no limit. You could feel healed and ready for life again on year, and totally broken and tearful the next year. Grief can come and go through certain seasons of your life. Grief can also live under the surface if it hasn’t been dealt with appropriately. This is why it is important that we grief properly, seek support, and face what life has brought upon us. We all have to experience pain and we all do at one point in our lives. Healing is difficult, but in the end, we can grow from it. Over time I’ve learned that flowers don’t grow in the sun, they grow in the rain.
- Parents are a valuable piece of information in every child’s life. Sadly, the system bumps them out when kids get to “legal” age, even if a child may not make the right decisions. In states like Pennsylvania, 14-year-olds can make decisions about treatment and can reject it. Parents are not valued by the system at this point. This needs to change.
Biography: Tina Davies:
I am the mother of two sons, Richard and James. My husband Kim and I moved to Newfoundland from Alberta in the year 2000 because of his job. This was the best thing we ever did! Leaving a high paying, high energy job, my family, friends – everything behind gave me the time and space I needed to heal from this terrible tragedy. Today, I devote my time to helping others. In doing this, it only helps me more. I have joy in my life, something I would never have believed I could have again. The deep hole within me caused by the pain of my son’s suicide has been filled with compassion and love. How wonderful this huge box of darkness my son gave me has turned into a gift!
Thank you for allowing me to participate in this. I love what you are doing!
Again, thank you to everyone who contributed this week. I know it can be hard reliving the experience. I am grateful for your openness and willingness. I hoped to provide all of us with a common ground, a place where we can see that no one is exempt. Through our commonalities we grow, we develop compassion, we heal, and we feel supported.
Thank you to the readers and tweeters of this week. We are appreciative. I am encouraged to continue this type of discussion on Caregivers, Family, & Friends in the future. If you have ideas, feel free to post them or tweet me. All posts to this site will return to their normal posting day (Wednesdays).
I wish you all the best