Making Sense of Suicide Statistics

I just read some disturbing news the other day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate in the United States is at a 50-year high. If that weren’t concerning enough, I’m also seeing multiple news outlets reporting that more than half of the people who died by suicide in 2016 had no known mental health problems. The trend in reporting is attributing the dramatic rise in the suicide rate mainly to opioid addiction and overdose.

Let me preface this by saying I’m not a health care professional, so I’m not an expert. Nevertheless, as someone who struggles with mental illness, I keep asking myself the same questions. Why are so many people getting hooked on opioids? Why are so many of the people dying by suicide not known to have mental health problems? Why is the discussion around substance abuse disconnected from the discussion around mental health? Are we missing some key information here? It’s possible many of these people who died by suicide just had never been diagnosed with mental illness.

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A Bipolar Diagnosis is Not a Death Sentence

I can’t believe I ever wanted to die. But then again, things right now are really good. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what it felt like to be so hopeless I was willing to end my own life. But that’s why the saying “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” makes so much sense. Just because one day, one week, even one year or more of your life is rough, that doesn’t mean things will be that way forever. Death is forever. And you can’t take it back.

I have bipolar disorder, which means I’m vulnerable to emotional stresses that can trigger a manic or depressive episode. My dad—who also had bipolar disorder—committed suicide in 1998. I was numb until four years after his death, when I crashed, suffering my first major depressive episode. I felt like I was encased in a black slimy ooze that slowed my mind and body. I cried constantly. Completely unable to function, I went on disability from work. My mom (who is a therapist) sent me for a psychological evaluation and after six hours of testing, I was given a nine-page document. Laid out in black and white, there it was: I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I was horrified to learn I had the same disease that killed my dad. Would I end up committing suicide too? At that moment, a bipolar diagnosis seemed like a death sentence. I started seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist. I tried antipsychotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants and mood stabilizers. The struggle for chemical equilibrium in my brain was grueling, but I finally found a cocktail of medications that helped even out the intensity of my moods.

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My Thoughts On Kate Spade

Photo by Thomas Iannaccone/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock (6908974a)
Designer Kate Spade with a handbag of her own design on March 13, 1998 in New York

It’s such a terrible tragedy that we’ve lost Kate Spade. I was driving with NPR on and the moment I heard she’d committed suicide, my first thought was (and I even said aloud) “I’ll bet she had bipolar disorder.” I do that a lot, and too often, I’m right. Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, and far too many more that you and I don’t hear about on the news because they’re not mega-famous. As someone who struggles with bipolar, I was deeply affected by Kate Spade’s death.

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Hello From 2009!

Yes you read that right. I’m typing this in 2018, 9 years after 2009, but I actually started this blog in 2009.

In 2009, 7 years after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and 9 years after my bipolar dad committed suicide, I decided I should write a memoir. So I started working on it. And with it, came a little blog called Darkness and Light.

And so much happened. I wrote hundreds of pages of the book. I wrote dozens of blog posts. I submitted query letters to agents and went to writing workshops and writing conferences. I contacted publishers and wrote more blog entries.

And somewhere in there I got married, divorced, started a new career, moved around a few times, lost my 2 beloved kitties, adopted 2 new ones, attempted suicide, survived, was hospitalized, and came out on the other end a much stronger person.

And I didn’t get agent representation. I didn’t get published. So what did I do? I gave up.

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