In the days since Jovan Belchers murder-suicide, the tragedy has been framed as a controversy about gun control. What about the issue of getting help before its too late?
By JENNI SIMCOE
Special to the Star
I recently returned to Kansas City after living in California for 10 years. In Los Angeles, I was surprised to see how open people were about their mental health. People chatted about how great their therapist was as if they were recommending their favorite restaurant. Friends would debate and discuss their favorite medications for anxiety and depression.
In contrast, during my upbringing here, depression and mental illness were rarely discussed. As a child I recall repeatedly going to visit my grandfather in the hospitals locked-down psych ward. I was told he was sick or sad.
Those with mental illness were known as having nerve problems, an umbrella statement that was never expounded on.
From my teenage years I had symptoms of depression, but I was never encouraged to talk about it or seek treatment. As an adult, when I shared my concern about pronounced periods of sleep and body aches, my doctor referred me to a neurologist, who found nothing wrong. When I discussed my bouts of extreme sadness or crying jags with my gynecologist, she wrote me a prescription for a different birth control pill. It was never suggested that I might have mental illness.
Eventually the dark cloud hanging over my head on a daily basis became unbearable. A few years ago in LA I was walking to work and crossed a bridge. I looked over the edge and thought to myself that if I jumped, I would die. At that moment I knew that I needed to get help.
At the end of my first visit with a psychiatrist, he looked me in the eye and said, Listen to me very carefully. You have severe clinical depression and you will likely need to be on antidepressants for the rest of your life. It was actually a relief to know that finally, this was an identifiable problem with a long-term solution.
After a few weeks on medication, I started feeling better. It was easier to get out of bed and I could focus better on the articles I was writing. A fog had lifted. As part of my treatment, I also saw a therapist. I learned coping skills to deal with traumatic things that had recently happened to me and found that sharing my deepest and darkest thoughts wasnt scary or shameful. Recently I started seeing a doctor here to continue my ongoing treatment. When I gave the receptionist my name, she gave me a weird look and gestured me to the waiting area. Later the doctor explained that seeing a psychiatrist is a very private matter and not something that people like to publicize, so I should just say, I am here for a one oclock with Doctor Smith. I shared the experience with a colleague, who encouraged me not to tell anyone that I have depression as I would be judged or avoided.
So it seems some things havent changed much in the past 10 years. Many still dont understand that depression or other forms of mental illness are not something to be ashamed of. Its just like any other medical condition that requires treatment.
Earlier this year, a good friend of mine produced a four-part series on his PBS show about suicide. He found that we say someone committed suicide as if the person had committed a crime, and that more accurate terminology would be to say that someone died by suicide. Even the semantics of how we discuss suicide vilifies the victim as inherently bad.
I dont know if Belcher, meteorologist Don Harman, or Starkers chef John McClure exhibited warning signs that could have clued in friends, family, co-workers or their doctors before they each took their own life. But I do know that until we open up the conversation about treating mental illness and take away the shame that comes with it, for too many people suicide will still seem like the only way out of the pain that they are enduring.
Jenni Simcoe is a freelance writer and reporter. She lives in Overland Park.