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Because September is Suicide Prevention Month and a recent New York Times report shows suicide in the United States has surged to the highest levels in 30 years I want to share with you my story about a song.
There's melody seared in brain from countless nights when I would try to stay up late and watch TV with my grand-dad after he came home from the dog track or driving his taxi cab.
If you're at least 30 years old chances are you have the same tune in your head. The theme song for the 1970s television show M*A*S*H was the sign that is was past your bedtime.
The flutter of the helicopter blades behind the acoustic guitar's signature four note intro is part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Typically, my grandpa and I would both doze off by the end of the episode.
And all was good with the world.
It was many years later, as a pre-teen, that I learned the catchy song that was practically my childhood lullaby, actually had lyrics and an actual title besides just being the "Theme to M*A*S*H"; It was surprisingly named "Suicide Is Painless".
I was still too young to fully comprehend and appreciate the story behind the name and lyrics of the song.
It's supposed to be ironic. In the context of the movie, which is considered one of the great Hollywood comedies, the song doesn't seem as morbid and depressing despite lyrics like:
"The game of life is hard to play/
Over time, as I grew into a full fledged teenager, the song, the lyrics, the melody, and especially the title seduced me like the aroma of expensive perfume. 39 years and 9 months later I can still remember it looping in my head as I tried to kill myself the first time.
I was 14 years old, lost, confused, lonely, and hopeless. I felt like I was a burden. I felt unappreciated. I felt misunderstood. I had little emotional intelligence or psychological maturity. I was naive, impulsive and frankly unconcerned with the consequences of my actions.
And I sincerely thought suicide would be painless. At least in comparison to the emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical pain I was suffering through at the time.
Come to find out, what I was feeling, thinking, and experiencing wasn't at all uncommon for my age group. Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015, suicide was the third leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 14, and the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15 and 34. Specific to my culture, the suicide rate among black children has nearly doubled since the early 1990s.
Now almost 40 years laters, I find myself in a much better place mentally, emotionally, spiritually but also in the most at-risk group to commit suicide, again. Men in their early 40s commit suicide at a rate three times higher than women.
I feel compelled to share my story and this information for the following reasons.
For one reason or another, people have begun to look to me as a leader. Sometimes I feel uncomfortable with that title and the expectations with which it comes but I welcome the opportunity to help those who I can.
Being transparent and honest about my experiences is the only way I know to reach out to those who have the same struggles. Information and affirmation is helpful and comforting. Many times, people who are dealing with depression or other mental and emotional disorders feel as though they are weird.
They feel like no one understands how they feel or can comprehend the chaos in their minds and spirits. Mostly because they don't understand it themselves. Additionally, the perception of mental illness is stigmatized and no one wants to be labeled as "crazy". A recent controversy erupted on Twitter when a person shared a commonly held misunderstood opinion of depression as being "not real" and "just sad."
The truth of the matter is, depression is one of many types of mental illness on a spectrum that includes mild disorders like anxiety to extreme, illness like dementia and schizophrenia.
And of course, Black America is more prone to some of these disorders. According to a 2014 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 6.8 millions Black Americans have a diagnosable mental illness in the past year. and Black/African Americans are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. And while Black/African Americans are less likely than white people to die from suicide as teenagers, Black/African Americans teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.3 percent v. 6.2 percent).
The second reason that I feel obligated to speak out and up on mental illness in my community because generally speaking, Black people, particularly Black men are not very open to acknowledging psychological problems.
We don't like to talk about it. We tend to accept stress and trauma, which are clinical mental disorders, as just part of our identities as Black men.
The topic of suicide is especially taboo. Many, many Black celebrities from star athletes to beloved singers and revered actors and comedians have taken their own lives and we still treat their struggle with mental illness as an anomaly.
I recently facilitated a breakout session at a summit addressing men's mental health, In it I asked the group the following questions:
That hopelessness tends to lend to a recklessness (especially in our teens) that may not be always be as overt as suicide attempts or completions but are self-destructive all the same. Disproportionately high substance use, engaging in high risk sexual activity, short term incarceration, and other behavioral health matters are disturbingly common amongst Black males.
Thankfully, the awareness of the problem has become more common. There are more and more people studying to become qualified mental health professionals, including men and women of color. A simple Google search will bring up the most common coping strategies to address and help mental illness in yourself or others.
I would like to offer an obvious and simple, if not so common solution. Be kind.
In an era where being bombastic, sarcastic, opinionated, cruel and self-centered is encouraged by social media, people who may be emotionally hurting or mentally in distress, may be hesitant to be vulnerable and seek help. A hidden struggle may be exasperated by a snide comment on Facebook or unthoughtful tweet or meme. Everyone has an issue in life which no one else knows about and a little bit of kindness could be all that is needed to make their lives better and safer.
If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential.
Jonathan McMillan is a success strategist and inspirational speaker. He specializes in gang intervention, desistance strategies, community service, goal setting, identity building and inter-personal relationship development.
I am a simple man who has lived a complicated life. The lessons I've learned from the experiences I've been through and the challenges I've conquered have helped me develop a philosophy that life is meant to be lived at a level better than average.
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