Friday, September 30, 2016

Calling Up the Dead

I’ve often pictured what happened to my son as not just a wave of pain that swamped his soul but a veritable tsunami. Like those who try to withstand actual tsunamis, we didn’t see the enormity and power of the oncoming disaster till it was too late.

So when I heard about the Wind Phone in the coastal village of Otsushi, Japan, that lost more than 400 people in the 2011 tsunami, it spoke to me across the miles. It’s an old-style rotary phone that sits, unwired, in a glass phone booth that a Japanese man put up in his garden to talk to his dead family members. Whenever he felt like talking to them, he’d go into the booth and make a call. Eventually, tsunami survivors from all walks of life began coming to the booth to call up their dead. Japan's public NHK TV made a documentary that included audio recordings of people’s calls from inside the booth, which were later woven into a remarkable radio piece for NPR’s “This American Life, called "Really Long Distance." 

Driving home from work the other day, I heard the rough recordings in Japanese, with lots of pauses, cries, and sniffles, followed by English translations and cultural explanations by the matter-of-fact bilingual narrator. The story starts with the piping voice of a young boy greeting his grandpa with the news that he’s going into third grade. It ends with a teenage girl who’d never spoken about her father’s death giggling nervously about what to say before breaking into sobs. In between were outbursts by old farmers not known, as the narrator pointed out, for their expression of feeling. I was crying so hard I had to pull over to the side of the road.

What these tsunami survivors said into the Wind Phone felt like the most private of utterances, yet oddly familiar:
-          Where do I begin?
-          Why did it have to be you?
-          Where are you now?
-          I want to hear your reply.
-          I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.
-          I’m building a house for all of us.
-          Come back.

I and my fellow suicide survivors have said similar things out loud or in our minds, at the grave or at home. We need to call out our anguish. Some of us need to keep the dead person’s number on the list of favorites on our phones—even three and a half years after their death, as I do. We need to hear our voices trying to connect, even if the dead can no longer hear them.

There is such power in the human voice. Hearing the Japanese calls made me want to hop on a plane, find that phone booth with a view of the sea, and join the confederation of mourners who are drawn to it, who all share the trauma of sudden loss in the face of disaster. To affirm my solidarity as another type of disaster victim, though maybe a disaster that could have been foreseen and averted. And to set up phone booths around the world where suicide survivors and other bereaved people could gather and speak to our dead. We could recognize one another, bring together our voices, and be heard in the grief that transcends language. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Suicide Prevention Starts at Home: "The Talk"

It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, a cause I never noticed until three years ago, and I’m reminded that prevention starts at home. Parents know we need to have “the talk” (or talks) with our adolescent kids about sex and drugs—but do we know we also need to have “the talk” about mental health and suicide awareness, whether or not there is a family history? 

I didn’t. I didn’t think our family needed it, despite my father’s suicide and some run-ins with the mental health system. I didn’t see that my talking openly and matter-of-factly about mental illness might make it easier for my kids to talk without shame and seek help with struggles they might experience. I didn’t realize that such talks can be an inoculation for resilience through the storms of adolescence and young adulthood, when many people experience severe stress and most forms of mental illness have their onset. 

How I wish I’d broached the subject with Noah when his mind was still clear and he was still open to talking with his mom. “You know that your grandfather died by suicide,” I might have said, “but I want you to know more about the depression that led to his suicide because depression is really common and can run in families. It could affect you or the people around you  and I want you to know the signs.” I could have described types of depression, its biochemical basis, how it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and how it can be helped. I could have pointed to the high prevalence of depression and anxiety among college students.

I could have mentioned other common mental health conditions--a term I find so much easier than “mental illness”--and how they, too, can lead to suicidal thoughts. And maybe extracted a promise that if Noah were ever thinking of hurting himself, he would tell me or another adult and hold on for another day, hour, or minute. “Cherish your precious life,” I should have said flat-out. “There will be hard times, especially moving into adulthood, but as you get more life experience, you’ll learn how to handle them and get the help you need.” If even a fraction of what I could have said had stuck in Noah’s mind, maybe he wouldn’t have withdrawn in shame and thought he had to “man up” when depression, anxiety, and PTSD swamped his soul.

Except that when Noah was a teenager, I didn’t have this information or a sense of urgency about the message. I rarely thought about my father’s suicide, which was many years and 3,000 miles away. I saw depression as a tolerable problem of the “worried well,” including myself and most people I knew. I’d put aside thoughts of my father’s depression, about which I knew little, and the persistent, low-grade depression of my own teens and twenties. When a friend who was active in NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) asked if she could do a presentation on mental illness for my college students, I didn’t think it was relevant or necessary; I didn’t understand how common mental illness is and how much college students are at risk. 

What if, before Noah left home for college, I’d seen a copy of something like the booklet “Starting the Conversation: College and Your Mental Health,” produced by NAMI and the Jed Foundation, and sat down to go over it with him? What if such a booklet had been prominent on the parent section of his college web site and handed out at orientation, along with wellness information and an online screening for student mental health? What if Noah had put the contacts for the college’s mental health resources on his phone, as the booklet suggests—might he have used them sooner or more often? What if we’d talked about FERPA and HIPPA and whether he would allow us access to his counselors and counseling records, should there be a crisis, before there actually was a crisis and he was determined to keep everything private? What if all this information built on strategies for mental health and wellness that he'd already learned in high school?

All I can do now is to urge other parents to inform themselves, have those difficult talks, and share information like that booklet with their new college students and their kids' high schools and colleges. For National Suicide Prevention Week and beyond, please help spread the word.