It’s been barely a year since a father named Buzz lost his son, who had bipolar, to suicide. Yet he was willing to speak of his loss to some sixty people at our NAMI-CS (National Alliance on Mental Illness-Colorado Springs) event at Colorado College last month. I could see Buzz struggle to maintain his composure as he spoke about the son he loved so much. David was a junior in college majoring in creative writing when he took his life. As Buzz describes him, “David was bright, handsome, funny, charismatic, and had made many wonderful friends in college. His life had finally become what he wanted it to be. He felt that he had found his passion, that he had finally connected with his world, and that he had a bright future to pursue.”
How could it have happened? David decided to cut back on the lithium he had taken for over eight years to combat his bipolar disorder. He said the lithium made him feel drugged and kept him from experiencing the fullness of life, a common complaint for those who take it. He knew of the dangers, but he believed that college was the right environment to try it with close friends nearby. He wanted to believe that he didn’t have the disorder and didn’t really need the medication. He might have been “crazy once,” but he wasn’t crazy now.
And who can blame him? He was a young man with a bright future who didn’t want to believe he would have to take medication the rest of his life, who wanted to live fully without it. And mental illness carries so much stigma, so much judgment, so much blame. But David did have bipolar disorder. Eventually, David’s friends saw him slipping into deep depression and urged him to go to the college’s health center, which he did. But he became so overwhelmed by hopelessness, he ended his life.
Buzz says about his family’s horrible loss that “time is a much over-rated healer. It is a topical anesthetic on the deepest of deep-tissue wounds.” But in spite of his pain, Buzz is speaking openly about David’s illness. It takes enormous strength and courage. When he spoke at the NAMI event at Colorado College, he touched a lot of people—students, families, community members. He made it okay to speak out. He encouraged those who suffer to seek help. These are biological brain disorders not flaws in one’s personality. There should be no shame, no fear of judgment.
One in four families is affected by mental illness. We all need to speak out because when we tell our stories, others listen and learn. When we change perceptions, we can break through the barriers of stigma. And when we advocate for better mental health care, we can change a system that currently fails so many.