We’ve progressed to the point on social media where discussing mental health no longer carries the awkward stigma that it unfairly used to. People have become more comfortable sharing their own struggles with mental health issues, and there is a lot of support to be found in online communities.
But one topic that still makes many people squirm with discomfort is suicide.
It’s obviously a heavy, traumatic subject, but one that is not talked about openly enough. When someone dies by suicide, that detail is often deliberately omitted when loved ones talk about their passing.
We don’t like to think about someone choosing to die. To someone who’s never experienced the daily torment of mental illness, it seems so unimaginable. People are often left baffled by the very act; how could someone have so little hope that death seems preferable to life? Outsiders naively question why the victim didn’t “try harder”, or why those around the victim didn’t “pick up the signs”.
Suicide seems so avoidable, so preventable when looked at in such a simplistic manner.
One man’s compassionate & painfully honest eulogy written for his best friend is a reminder that mental illness is indeed an illness, & despite the very best efforts at treating it, it can be terminal.
Ryan Salter of Peterborough, Ontario recently penned a Facebook post revealing that his best friend, Mark Ross, had killed himself one week prior. Salter felt moved to share the eulogy that he had personally written & delivered at Mark’s memorial service.
Ryan describes how he & Mark originally met eight years ago when Ryan joined a martial arts class that Mark was teaching. They became the best of friends, & lived together for years until Ryan moved in with his partner Allie. Ryan shared several sweet observations and anecdotes about their years of friendship- and there were countless stories to share.
When he asked Allie what her favorite memory of Mark was she simply stated, “every moment with Mark was special”.
But despite his love & support for his friends & his students, Mark struggled immensely. As Ryan explained, Mark battled mental illness:
Mark had obsessive compulsive disorder. 1 in 40 people have OCD, with varying severity, for the most part they remain invisible because they become experts at hiding their illness. Mark’s was severe.
Many people assume that OCD is merely the compulsion to repeat behaviors, such as repeatedly washing hands or switching a light on & off a specific number of times. But OCD can go far deeper than surface behaviors. It affects one’s thought process as well, leading to an agonizing mental turmoil:
They become trapped in anxiety, painful thoughts, rituals they feel they can’t control, and the frustrating knowledge that they logically know their fears and compulsive actions make no sense, while surrounded by people who understand even less.
Like any illness, Mark had worked hard to fight for his health. He was in counseling. He tried exercise, & meditation.
He maintained consistent, healthy relationships with a supportive friend network. All of the recommendations that people could offer a person struggling with mental health issues were assiduously applied by Mark. But despite his efforts,
Over the past 3 years, Mark’s OCD got worse. His brain became stuck – his nervous system unable to calm.
We all know what the “fight or flight” rush of nervous adrenaline feels like when we’re in a scary situation… now imagine living like that every.single.day.
The anxiety never went away. It was just there, always getting louder and louder.
Mark’s illness led to weeks of insomnia, constant head pressure, & the inability to quiet his own mind enough to be at peace. The symptoms of his illness took a further toll on him- one of extreme desperation.
He craved quiet, but was unable to quiet his own brain enough to ever obtain it.
He became scared of his own brain. It was a terrifying place for him, full of pain and anxiety.
Ryan mentioned that Mark had confessed to contemplating suicide as a possible option within the last two years. Though there were brief periods of respite for Mark, he lived in constant fear that “something”, anything would trigger the OCD symptoms to unexpectedly plunge him back into the hell he had managed to (barely) survive.
As far as “trying harder” to manage his mental illness, Mark could not have tried harder.
Ryan describes Mark’s efforts to find healing in numerous ways: CBD oil, diahpermatic breathing, exercise, psychiatric medications, acupuncture, Reiki, & various psychotherapy disciplines.
Nevertheless, his symptoms would gradually return, with a vengeance.
Ryan described how Mark’s suicide is precisely the type that is most difficult for people to understand. We often hear stories about circumstantial suicide- when a fairly psychologically healthy person suffers from a variety of crisis circumstances (ex- physical illness, death of a loved one, etc.) that can, without intervention, lead to suicidal tendencies.
Mark’s situation, however, is the type that is far more difficult for most of us to understand. And that’s precisely why Ryan Salter’s explanation is so meaningful:
Mark is part of the second category. Mark had what we call a ‘severe and persistent mental illness’.
Now, this of course does not mean that suicidal tendencies are an inevitable aspect of being diagnosed with a mental illness. But Ryan’s point is that just as it is in the case of those with a physical illness, such as cancer,
Sometimes people fight their hardest, with the best medical support, the most supportive families, and they die anyways.
If physical illnesses have a certain lifespan, even with all of the “right” treatment, isn’t it possible that some mental illnesses may as well?
Instead of automatically blaming the individual or heaping guilt upon themselves that they “should have done more”, Ryan urges people to consider that sometimes doing all of the “right’ things still isn’t enough:
Mark had all the protective factors. Work he loved, a supportive family, a caring community of close friends, a deep spirituality.
Instead of thinking about Mark’s suicide in a guilt-stricken way, Ryan poses an alternative question: what if the love & support that Mark received actually prolonged his life?
That Mark was able to stay in this world for so long because of all the wonderful people and communities in his life. That his timeline was extended because of the loving support of the people in this room.
As in the case of physical illness, maybe it’s time we re-evaluate how we perceive suicide.
It will always be tragic, as death is in any form. But instead of simply blaming the victim and/or ourselves, perhaps it’s time that we look at suicide as not simply as a “weak” or shameful choice as it’s often perceived.
As we understand the brain further, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make any meaningful distinction between physical and mental illness. Mark was sick.
Mark was sick, but as Ryan points out, he did his best. He fought his illness just as hard as a cancer victim fights their illness, & his memory shouldn’t be tainted by how he died. He should be remembered by how he lived.
Ryan Salter’s eulogy is not only a beautiful tribute to his dear friend Mark Ross, but an eye-opening view of what the painful struggle of living with severe mental illness can really be like.