When I heard the news a few weeks ago about the student who shot himself at Lanier High School, here in Austin, it brought back for me a personal encounter I had with suicide that was one of the reasons I first became interested in mental health.
It was my junior year of high school. I was in drama class and the play we were working on was Death of a Salesman.
There was a gun with blanks as a prop, so when the lead actor was on stage just before class with a gun, no one thought twice about it. There were only a few of us in the room. The lead (his name was James) was saying something quietly and one of the guys in the class yelled out that he couldn’t hear him.
James quickly responded loudly, “I’m trying to decide if I should kill myself or if anyone would miss me.” The guy who had spoken said jokingly, “Na, go ahead and do it, no one would miss you.”
James then shot himself and died immediately.
Needless to say this had a huge impact on many of us. Besides being horribly sad and tragic, I actually think it was one of the first times I realized suicide was an option. It had never seemed real to me before. Now, I knew someone who did it. And in front of me. I wasn’t as afraid of it any more. I realize how strange that sounds, but looking back I can certainly understand why they worry about copy cats.
That’s obviously not everyone’s reaction to an event like this. Watch this video, for instance, that someone made after James’s death (I’m not sure who made it, or for what).
I’m struck by my teacher’s sentiment that she “knows that all 100 students in her drama department all realized what suicide is and the glamour has been stripped away for them.”
It’s true that after the incident we all held a much different understanding of what suicide meant. I would also agree that there was no glamour in the act. No glamour in his dying, in front of us. But there’s something missing in the conclusion she draws from this information that the students would not follow in his footsteps. That we have been hit with reality and it somehow shattered the dramatic fantasy that lies with the mystery of suicide. On the contrary, I believe that for me and potentially others looking for an escape from emotional pain or challenging or abusive home situations, the mystery was stripped away and suicide became a more real, more possible option as a means to alleviate all that was causing such deep pain. He may have been gone, but he was also out of pain.
I get frustrated when people express anger at the person who killed himself. It shows me a lack of understanding of how deep and dark depression can be. I understand that suicide is a selfish act. Depression is selfish too. It is hard to think of anything beyond the self when you are in that much pain. It is hard to pull yourself out OF yourself to see anything but the pain.
But people being angry, though it’s natural, also indicates a lack of understanding and awareness of what the individual might have been experiencing. It leads me to want and wish for more opportunities for education and sharing of experiences between individuals who have lived mental health experiences and their neighbors, coworkers, friends and family members who haven’t experienced the mental anguish that can result in suicide attempts or completion. I’m hopeful that if more people with lived mental health experience felt heard and understood and supported, they would continue to work toward recovery from even the most challenging life experiences and symptoms.
I think about James pretty often. I like to think that if he had some of the options available to people now, that he might have made a different choice. Who knows? To me the biggest tragedy is when someone makes this decision without having all the information or resources available to them. That’s part of the reason I believe so strongly in the work we do at the Hogg Foundation.
For a list of suicide prevention resources, check out this page on the Texas Department of State Health Services website.