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The Importance of Leaning Into Conversations About Mental Health and Suicide Prevention

That.

Sinking.

Feeling.

When.

You’re driving a 57-year-old car in a state that isn’t your own; you’ve put over 900 miles between you and home and the engine starts backfiring and the little car starts bucking. You strain to hear, as if your brain could somehow interpret the messages ensconced within those small tailpipe explosions. Chemistry. Spark and fire. Speed. Energy. The last embers of hope.

I pushed that little car as far as it could go that day, to the very mud-soaked driveway that led to the little repair shop in Colchester, Vermont. I stopped the car to take a picture of the sign at the foot of the driveway, and the engine stalled. My heart sank. “Are you kidding me?” I asked the steering wheel. I turned the key and it sputtered its reply. There would be no more combustion today. No more spark. The only energy expended from this point forward would be that of my body, braced against the rear of that old bug, as I pushed it, several hundred feet, one trembling hand on the wheel to keep it out of the sloppiest puddles, to the shop’s garage bay.

“Woof! That was a deep one!” I can be heard exclaiming on one of the video cameras mounted on the exterior of the car as my left leg got completely soaked with the muddy Vermont clay.

“Oh, no!” Jay, the bearded mechanic exclaimed as he saw my Herbie the Love Bug replica ambling, injured, toward him, its owner panting breathlessly alongside of him.

Oh, no. 

I took my bug from 1963 on an 11 day, 1,100 mile road-trip in May of 2018 to do something that we can no longer really do anymore, thanks to COVID-19: to look people in the eye—suicide loss and attempt survivors—to talk to people I knew, and people I didn’t, about suicide. To raise awareness. To let people know that not only is it OK to talk, it is essential to talk. My old theatre professor, my father, my friend in Manhattan, in Syracuse, on the Vermont/Canada border. Students at Cornell. A first responder therapist. A veteran at a gas station. Waitresses at diners. People in parking lots. To make a documentary film. Why? Because, in spite of marked progress, suicide is still spoken in whispers, if at all. It is still “suddenly” or “unexpectedly” in obituaries. It is still the cloud of shame that hangs over families for generations. It was something that touched my own family that we didn’t talk about for fifteen years; until the day before I set off on my trip. I knew I had to start by talking to my father about his sister. I knew we had to hug.

There was a lot of hugging. On that trip. In my film. 

We can’t hug anymore. For… now. Whenever I put my hands on that car—slide my fingers through the door handle, or give him a pat on the roof—I feel his steel and I think of skin, or clothes. The way people smell when you bring them in close for comfort and warmth and love. That electricity of connection. 

Spark and fire.

My Herbie the Love Bug replica has had the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on its rear window for nearly three years. Together, we have logged thousands and thousands of miles, and we have devoted ourselves and our unique love for each other to help people know and understand that there is both hope and help, that suicide is preventable. I use this gentle, sweet little car as a way to lead and lean into conversations around mental health and suicide. It happens at gas stations and grocery stores, even—briefly— at red lights. 

My father’s sister killed herself in Israel in 2004. My friend’s mother killed herself in 2001. It just goes on and on and on; and it will continue to do so. Maybe now more than ever. But we don’t know for sure. I sit here on Instagram and scroll through mindlessly repeated memes talking about how “the suicide rate has gone up 200 percent; can I get someone to repost?”

Two hundred percent from… what? Where did that statistic come from? Where is the citation? Stats and numbers are so abstract—and the truth can be eclipsed by family members who are ashamed, and suicides can get mis-classified. Only the survivors’ stories are true. Only hope is true. And so that is what I hold onto.  

I will never forget riding up to a hillside on the Vermont/Canada border sitting next to my friend Hayes Johnson, whose father, Daniel, took his life in 2010. Hayes was very open about not only his father’s suicide and the profound impact it had on his and his mother’s life, but on his father’s behavior in the weeks and days leading up to his suicide. 

“All of a sudden,” Hayes recalled as the lush greenery whizzed past the car’s windows, “he started being real helpful around the house. ‘Oh, I’ll do the dishes for you, Becky—you keep reading.’ Things that were so out of character for him, which we then learned is something that somebody who’s preparing to take their life can do cuz in their mind it’s like, ‘Well, I wanna leave a nice image behind.’”

Hayes went on to express regret that he and his mother were not educated about suicidal behavior, or risk factors, or even uncharacteristic behavioral warning signs like the sudden mood improvement/helpfulness exhibited by his father as a precursor to the event. Hayes said, “if my mother and I had known we could have maybe, in those moments, in that time, done something preventative.”

This is why talking to these incredibly brave and vulnerable human beings was so important—to spread education and awareness, so other children don’t have to go through what Hayes went through, so other wives don’t have to become widows in the way that his mother did, so that we can just talk more openly with one another when we need or want to, about hard things. 

So much has changed since my bug and I rolled out together to “drive out suicide” and, yet, much has stayed the same. Our commitment to spreading awareness has not wavered—there is even a 20 foot tall mural in West Philly devoted to our efforts for suicide prevention, encouraging passersby to “KEEP GOING” in the face of… everything. Sometimes we have to get out of the car and get our feet – and legs – wet as we push. But no matter how, no matter what: We. Keep. Going.

Please know you are not alone. If you or someone you know is struggling emotionally or has concerns about their mental health, there are ways to get help. Please see a list of resources below.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Call the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)

Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-626-HELP (4357)

Text HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis support in the U.S.

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