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Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Lord,

I was heartbroken this morning when I heard that a 17-year-old young man took his own life, a youth who was well-known to some of you for being outgoing and telling jokes and making everybody around him laugh—while he was dying inside apparently. 

This death touches me personally because as some of you know, I was depressed enough at the age of 28 to take a walk to the bank of the nearest river intending to throw myself in its fast-flowing waters. But God made me realize that if I did that without my parents’ knowing how I felt it could be a long time before they reported me missing, and my body might never be found. That gave me second thoughts, and I walked back to my apartment and called the pastor at the time, John Tenyenhuis, who advised me to tell my mother.

I am still here to this day to talk about it in part because women are still more prone than guys to send distress signals before they do anything irreversible.  But God convinced me not to give up on life by speaking to my heart. I did not hear voices talking me out of it.

I don’t want you to burden yourselves with guilt because you failed to see something he obviously did not intend you to see, but I would urge you to have a conversation with your school-age children about mental illnesses in general and depression in particular, to tell them that those illnesses are treatable, and that there is no shame or dishonor in taking medications to control symptoms. 

If you need information to help you with this there are materials on the The Network’s Disability Concerns section or for tools on how to discuss this topic in age-appropriate language. Young children can be depressed though they won’t necessarily show it in the same way older siblings might. I also have old issues of Schizophrenia Digest and Schizophrenia Magazine but right now I’m not sure I could find them, and most of the stuff can be found on the second website.  

Another thing I would like you to emphasize when you do decide to have this discussion with your kids is to address the fallacy than many people suffering from depression believe that they are doing their family and friends a favor by killing themselves; that their loved ones would be better off without them. Given the reaction of the people I talked to today in church, and what I know from having had two relatives in my extended family who killed themselves, that’s nonsense. People are devastated and confused, feeling guilty for missing something that was intentionally concealed from them.  

But it is a trait of depression that people actually believe this. Why? I’m not sure though sleeplessness probably plays a role. Insomnia is such a frequent symptom of mental illnesses that pharmaceuticals who make medications to treat those illnesses add sedatives to ALL their molecules to put people to sleep. If you haven’t slept a wink in weeks, if not months, you can be made to believe ANYTHING. In fact, the first medication I was prescribed after my initial diagnosis of psychotic depression was antidepressants, and after I took my first dose, I slept a complete night for the first time in AGES.  

And insomnia is not the only symptom. There is sadness, tiredness, isolation—people will often stop seeing friends and keep to their bedrooms, especially if they’re kids living in their parents’ homes—to name only those. The brain’s chemistry is affected negatively in myriad ways, and I don’t know enough about the scientific part to tell you about it all. If you want to know more about that stuff, look it up online.   

We should have had this sort of conversation sooner as adults although I never made a secret of my illness to you. I guess I was hoping you’d ask more questions about how to prevent suicides in youth, but one thing I’ve learned is that until it hits home, people tend to assume it only happens to other people.  I think that is the biggest delusion normal people indulge in, a luxury that is unaffordable to anyone who’s had their brain get sick on them. 

For me, schizophrenia was the psychological equivalent of a Magnitude 9 earthquake, and when you’ve been shaken that badly by your own brain, you don’t feel immune to ANYTHING ANYMORE. I’m sorry this had to happen for people to realize their kids or kids’ friends were not immune to depression, but PLEASE don’t miss this opportunity to address this issue now.

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