What I learnt from my teenage daughter about mental health

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My normally composed 15-year old has been an emotional wreck of late. As have many of us, as we encountered the news of a young actor’s suicide. For my young girl though, this was her first exposure to a promising life brought to an end, one that she had looked at (perhaps starry-eyed) on celluloid.

For the first time, as we sat down to discuss death, we had many things to say to each other. The parent in me, of course, had primarily wanted to impress upon her, the importance of mental health. What I didn’t bargain for, is a teary eyed teenager asking me why people were so quick to pronounce his death as cowardly and condone it as a selfish act?

Why indeed? For all the progress that we have made as a society, why must we look down upon depression and suicide with such contempt? Ironically it is our stigmatization that has made seeking help that much more difficult for the person suffering. That’s not where the story ends; the surviving family also goes on to spend a lifetime not just with a sense of loss, but also expending precious energy hiding this fact, for fear of the dishonour that comes with it. Of course, for celebrity suicides, media has already taken all the decisions on the family’s behalf, including pointing out the colour of the cloth their loved one hung by, scanning their social media posts for likely motives and even showing the dead body to the entire world!

For those who are going all the way to build up the rhetoric of cowardice around suicide and are pointing out that it is a personal failing, may I offer one of the most relatable things that I have read about suicide, which comes from David Foster Wallace:

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.

The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant.

The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

Here’s hoping it doesn’t take each of us to be personally trapped to be able to empathise with this terror. The silver lining is that this lesson was reinforced to me by a teenager! Hope springs eternal.

Rinku Paul is an author and a life coach. She is also a Gatekeeper trainer for suicide prevention