A Million Steps To Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention

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December 29, 2017 – When I share my plans for Memorial Day 2018, most people react with some degree of astonishment. Starting that holiday weekend, I’ll be pairing up with a friend to run 40 miles a day – the rough equivalent of one and a half marathons – every day for 25 days in a row. This 1,000-mile trek will take us along the entire Bruce Trail from north to south in Ontario, Canada, then on to the Erie Canalway Trail from Buffalo to Albany in upstate New York.

The 1,000-mile run will be the biggest challenges of our lives, but the physical pain that will inevitably creep into our bodies is dwarfed by the anguish of those affected by mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts.

I have seen this anguish firsthand. In April 2017, I lost my mother to suicide. This run won’t bring her back, but its purpose and its title – “See Our Symptoms Run” – is to allow her memory to thrive while publicly elevating mental health awareness and suicide prevention. If my family had recognized the signs of severe depression that my mom was exhibiting leading up to her death, she might still be with us.

For 70 years my mom was the embodiment of joy, affection, compassion, goodness, tenderness, and selfless love. A devoted wife of nearly 50 years to my father, she adored her four children almost as much as her 12 grandchildren. She touched the lives of countless young children as an elementary school teacher, an occupation to which she was divinely called. Each person she met in her church, school, and community couldn’t be in her presence without breaking into a smile and feeling at ease.  

Yet something changed after her 70th birthday. Gone was the jovial family matriarch in her golden years of retirement, replaced by someone who became overly preoccupied with the various physical ailments she was experiencing. It took nearly a year and countless doctors and tests before we realized she was suffering not only from physical ailments, but from anxiety and a mental health condition as well. We encouraged her to seek therapy, see a psychiatrist, find a support group, and be forthcoming about her fears and the underlying causes of her anxiety. We still didn’t realize she was battling severe depression. She had hidden her symptoms so well that no one among her family and team of doctors could see how much anguish she was in. Shortly after her 72nd birthday, she took her own life.

In retrospect, the signs of severe depression become apparent: self-isolation; cutting herself off from family and friends; inability to find joy in things that previously brought her happiness; comments about being a burden to loved ones; and fear of leaving the house, among others. We realize now that my mom had exhibited these signs, but we hadn’t connected them at the time with severe depression or thoughts of suicide.

Let’s remove the stigma surrounding mental illness and embrace a discussion of these issues with those affected by them. The conversation starts with recognition of the signs. Equipped with this awareness in an environment in which people are comfortable sharing their thoughts, we have a better chance of preserving lives and pursuing healing.

Click here for information on how to donate to the “See Our Symptoms” Run.  

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