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The Mental Health Lessons I Didn't Get a Chance to Teach My Son

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month; I would like to think this is an opportunity for people to acknowledge the phrase “mental health” is not something to feel skittish about, it’s not something to avoid, or hide from, or dump in the “other peoples issue, not mine” too hard basket. Open discussion around mental wellbeing is vital, in my opinion.  We desperately need to break down the stigma associated with the word “mental.”

I am a classic case study of the need for change. My whole life, I desperately tried to hide the internal churn that had always been a constant. As young teenager, I remember walking down the street with my head twitching, because I was concerned people were looking at me. I was chronically ill, desperate to be seen as “normal,” yet convinced by the internal churn that people could see straight through me and were judging me as inadequate.

When my mother died in my mid-teens, I experienced situational depression and thoughts of suicide. My anxiety levels were high, I was a massive over-thinker, I would regularly lie in bed at night going over conversations and berating myself for my responses, replacing them with witty retorts inside of my head that should have been spoken during the daylight hours.

My mental wellbeing, my mental health, was something I never discussed out loud with anyone. In fact, I desperately tried to conceal any pain or suffering, and would actively isolate myself to try to reduce the chance of being “outed” as less than perfect. I learned coping strategies through the ebb and flow of stress and anxiety; I learned resiliency, I learned to wear a mask when I had to and I learned to cry in private.

I coped; so why am I a case study in the need for change? Because my son didn’t cope. Because my son struggled with depression in his late teens, and ended up in a mental health hospital after a serious suicide attempt. I didn’t know he was struggling as much as he was. I wasn’t there for him before he was admitted to the hospital because he hid his pain and suffering from me. In all of my coping mechanisms, I never allowed for the lessons I learned about mental health, resiliency and ebb and flow to pass through to my children. I hid all of my “failings” from them, to present as a strong and supportive parent.

My son was a golden boy growing up. He was intelligent, charismatic and confident. He succeeded in everything he attempted: art, dancing, outdoor pursuits, making friends, passing exams at school, being able to build things… anything he put his mind to, he succeeded at.

Except overcoming depression; not that.

Harry lost himself completely in the black cloud that is depression, and he couldn’t see any way out of that. The pain and confusion of depression sucked at his soul, and he had no inbuilt coping strategies to realize this was just a season, that in the ebb and flow that is life, there would be sunlight again, and the heaviness and exhaustion that came with carrying his heavy black cloud would recede. Like me, he isolated himself in his pain, and as much I would try to get him to let his friends visit and support him in the hospital, he desperately blocked that; he was embarrassed for them to see him “failing.”

The heartbreaking reality for me, when we spent three days in ICU with Harry after his last suicide attempt, was the number of his friends who told me they too had experienced depression and suicidal thoughts. They could have (and would have) supported him through his own crisis. Instead, I gathered them in ICU to say goodbye to Harry, to farewell him on a wave of love and to wash out all of those black thoughts that had consumed him, before he died in my arms after life support was removed.

There is no way for me to re-write history, to know with absolute certainty that things would have been different if Harry had more awareness of mental wellbeing before his crisis, and maybe more resiliency and more of a tool-kit to keep him from isolating himself. I’m not looking for 100% guarantees though, I’m just looking at my life and at Harry’s death with a different lens — the lens of “mental health” not carrying with it the stigma that made teenage me and teenage Harry want to hide out in shame.

There is no shame in being ill; there is no shame in acknowledging you are human.  There is no requirement in this life that we all operate (and present) as happy, joyful, fun-loving and perfect all of the time. The stress and the pressure of that expectation is too much for anyone to manage. Life is about the ebb and flow; it is about recognizing the little moments that are present in every day, even when a black cloud is hanging over your head. It is also about acknowledging we do better in community than we do in isolation, and family is not always about blood. “Family” are the people we surround ourselves with, the people we can lean into when life is a challenge. Isolation is OK, and so is acknowledging to someone else that isolation is not the complete answer.

Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportunity to check in on your mental health emergency plan, just as we check regularly on our natural disaster emergency packs (candles and canned food and bottled water… just in case). Mental health is as important as physical health; and this month if nothing else changes, maybe we can all try to feel less skittish and acknowledge this isn’t just another person’s issue. Our mental health preparedness plan is just another way we can show love to our families and friends, and help break down the stigma and isolation too often associated with mental health.

RIP Harry Dillon McLean 24-02-1995 to 24-11-2013

Getty image via Daisy-Daisy

Originally published: May 17, 2019
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