September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. All month, mental health advocates, prevention organizations, survivors and community members unite to promote suicide awareness. I admit that before my sister Sharon’s mental health crisis I was unaware of the impact on individuals and families. This year on June 3, 2023, I shared with the community that I would be participating in the AFSP The Overnight Walk in Washington DC with my daughter Anna and granddaughter, Meghan. Over 3,000 individuals who understand suicide’s impact walked the 16 miles from dusk to dawn to raise funds and fight suicide. We met people, and I reconnected with individuals I’ve met at previous walks; and we shared our stories. Our goal is to put a stop to this leading cause of death and protect our families.
I remember vividly the last conversation with Sharon the night before she died. It was upbeat with laughter and hope. That evening I felt we had turned a corner. But ultimately the ongoing battle with a mental health illness and the stigma and shame she felt was an obstacle she didn’t feel strong enough to take on any longer.
There has been an increase in the talk about the stigma of mental health illnesses but until
people stop talking about it and start reflecting on how they personally approach the issue,
there will be no change. When an illness threatens our personalities or cognitive function, we find it scary. The last thing my sister, who was struggling with her mental illness, needed was to feel isolated or “different.” I know she did because as a family, we also experienced the isolation of having a mentally-ill family member. Those suffering hide, deny and avoid the issues rather than seek help. In my sister’s journal that we read at her funeral, she talked about the pain of facing the fact that people looked at her differently and treated her as if she was incompetent.
The stigma of a mental health illness prevents 40% of people with anxiety or depression from seeking help. For me as a family survivor of a two-year fight to protect her and save her, the pain and horror of her death has been a difficult journey. Our family’s life was forever changed by the loss of my sister Sharon to suicide. The stigma around this issue is so profound that many chose to avoid me and our family rather than discuss her illness or our loss. The isolation, compounded by the disorienting numerous unanswered questions Sharon left behind, is devastating. I’ve been criticized and judged for speaking out and advocating and fighting for policies to remove the stigma of mental health disorders. As I look back at the days after her death, the pain of being judged, walking into a room, and seeing people whispering and getting up and leaving when I approached only added to the pain. If I talked about her and mentioned her name, I remember being told to just “move on.” It is my goal to provide ongoing support and understanding to those that are mourning. We should talk openly about mental illness and recognize it as a real
Participating in the AFSP Overnight Walk was a special time, where we shared our stories, laughed, and cried. We bonded with those who understand the battle we are struggling with as we fight to support survivors and change the outcome for others’ future. A special moment at the Overnight Walk involved James, a special man who supports his wife who lost her brother in 2015.
James was the GO Man. Throughout the entire evening, he rode his bike throughout the night and encouraged us with hugs and smiles. We would turn a corner exhausted, and he would be standing there with his beautiful smile and encouragement. As my granddaughter would tell you, it was a long night but it opened our hearts to those around us as we all embraced our memories of our lost loved ones. Our legs were sore the next day after a few hours of sleep; but surprisingly, we were energized and of course my granddaughter was ready to go shopping.
Remember: You matter. Your mental health matters. Always feel free to reach out to a friend, family member or your doctor. And as a community member that cares, feel free to contact me.
Written by: Marsha Grilli