My brother killed himself when he was 26. It was almost thirty years ago. He had recently graduated with top honors and an MBA from Fordham University, was enrolled in a training program at a large firm, and his latest project had him living in beautiful Tampa, Florida.
Then, one morning, he started his car, ran a hose from the exhaust, and slowly went to sleep forever. The police tracked down who he was and called my family in New York later than night.
I almost never tell this story. But at work I heard about a campaign called #IWILLLISTEN sponsored by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It made me understand that talking about it could help others.
Why did he do it?
“He had so much going for him,” everyone would say. “Why would he do such a thing?” The truth was I didn't know why he did it. How can you really understand what would drive someone to take their own life? Over time, though, I developed a pat answer that would keep the conversation short. “He was always angry,” I would say. “He just had trouble being happy.” As if those answers could sum up a life.
It’s true he seemed like an unhappy child. I remember his temper and being afraid of his outbursts. But he was also funny, smart, handsome, and athletic. He was the kid who built the only igloo in our Bronx neighborhood, complete with a light and comfortably fitting 6 of us. He was the kid who flooded our backyard to turn it into an ice skating rink. The kid who used a blanket as a sail and had us whooshing across Pelham Bay when it froze over until the police came and told us to get the hell back on shore.
As the younger brother, I strove to get even the slightest praise from him. He was a profound influence on me and had so much potential.
“What a waste,” we all said.
A silent killer
Growing up, we thought of mental illness almost like an infectious disease. You stayed away from people who might have it. Worse than any flu, you were ashamed to be linked to it in any way. So we didn’t talk about it or talk about people who might be suffering from it.
There were whispers that one of my aunts or uncles might have suffered from depression. Perhaps my mother struggled with it. I don’t know. I just know my brother was suffering inside and found it easier to snuff out his life than to talk about his struggles or ask for help.
What can you do?
This was a difficult post to write. Just typing the words, almost 30 years after the event, makes me emotional and makes it clear I still haven’t fully processed what happened. But this post isn’t about me or about my brother. It’s about what all of us can do to help others who are suffering silently.
Silence about mental illness is an epidemic, as described in this NY Times article about the “I will listen” campaign:
”Only 61 percent of Americans think it appropriate to tell family members about a mental illness diagnosis...Just 43 percent approve of telling friends about a diagnosis, and just 13 percent of telling co-workers.”
That silence can kill. So please go to iwilllisten.org and learn more more about how to have a conversation about mental illness. Each time you talk openly about it, you can lessen the shame someone may feel. Each time, you can make it easier for someone to share their suffering or ask for help.
Please let your friends and family know: “I will listen.”