Kristen at her wedding, with Ryan (on left)
I lost my brother, Ryan, to suicide in 2009, and it devastated my family. In the months and years following his death, I became increasingly aware of the stigma that surrounds suicide and mental health conditions. Up to that point, I had never realized how pervasive it was, or how thoroughly it permeated our culture. It is so ingrained in us, in fact, that I didn’t even realize how that same perception had permeated my own being.
As a result of Ryan’s death, I ended up reconnecting with an old friend of ours, Brad, with whom we’d grown up. I was incredibly excited when Brad invited me to his wedding in Mexico two years later; I was looking forward to seeing him and his family. What hadn’t occurred to me, though, was that so many of Brad’s friends would also be Ryan’s friends. Therefore, I was not expecting it when, the night before the wedding, Brad introduced me to all of his friends as “Gilman’s sister.” (Gilman was my maiden name.)
I was greeted again and again with comments like, “Oh, right! We used to hang out with Gilman all the time! He was the greatest! Everybody loved Gilman.” These were all lovely sentiments, but it struck me as incredibly odd that while they all spoke of him in the past tense, not one of them mentioned his death. Finally, one friend, also named Ryan, said to me, “I loved Ryan. I was so sorry to hear about what happened. I’d love to sit down with you later and talk about it.” (I later found out that he, too, had lost a brother — though not to suicide — and I think that is why he was able to speak with me about it.)
Despite this one friend reaching out — for which I was forever grateful — I was completely struck by others’ avoidance of the topic of Ryan’s death. Even Brad’s parents, who were friends with my own, never mentioned Ryan to me or asked after my parents. Please don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t mad. I was just completely perplexed and in awe. I couldn’t help but speculate that if my brother had died some other way — from cancer, or in a terrible car accident — that people would feel comfortable giving me their condolences. But the fact that it was a suicide left them unable to speak about it.
That was the turning point for me. While I had faced this avoidance before, it never felt so blatant: this was a whole group of people in one weekend who were actively avoiding me and the topic of Ryan’s death. I knew then that I had to do something to help change this perception our society has about mental health conditions and suicide being taboo topics that are not to be discussed in public. I had to do something to help demolish the stigma that is attached to these topics.
It occurred to me that this phenomenon is at the very root of the issue we face with suicide today. We have attached such a negative connotation to mental health conditions in our culture that people who are dealing with them feel ostracized: like they can’t talk about what they’re feeling lest they be shunned or shamed. If they don’t talk about it for fear of being thought of as “crazy,” then how can they get the help they need?
So I jumped into action. I reached out to AFSP about how to become more involved, and shared with them an idea I had. And they supported me! I became a Maine Chapter member and created a 5K/10K trail race which continued for two years before I moved to Vermont. In those two years, I publicized the event, talking about suicide prevention, and raised about $35K which was donated to AFSP.
Also, I talk about it. I have been working at high schools since my brother’s death, and every year, I do an assembly for the school about awareness surrounding mental health conditions and how to change our perspective on how we view them. My goal is to educate students while they are young and impress upon them the idea that mental health conditions are the same as any other physical condition that can be studied, diagnosed, and treated. It is important for our younger population to be educated if we want to change how our society thinks about it.
Again, the wedding experience, while a turning point for me, was not the only time I experienced this type of avoidance. For three years leading up to that, I felt the isolation of being associated with someone who died by suicide. I always felt like people were avoiding me, whispering about me, afraid to mention my brother’s name to me. Admittedly, part of my feeling that way was my own projection, because I was affected the same way by the social stigma. I was attaching negativity and shame to my own brother’s death. I wasn’t immune to the social stigma that surrounds the topic. But once I started speaking out, people admitted to me that I hadn’t been imagining it; I had been avoided. However, my speaking out gave these avoiders permission to speak to me about it. And they do. Every year, after every assembly.
At these assemblies, I talk to kids about how to talk. How to talk about how they’re feeling, how to talk about mental health conditions in their life — their own or others’ close to them — and how to talk about grief after loss. And I believe it’s working. Each time I finish an assembly, I make a new connection with at least one, but usually several, people. They reach out to me and tell me their stories. They ask for ways to be involved. They are on board.
And the more people we reach, the more people will get on board, and the more change we can generate. It is so important to speak out and be a voice and an advocate. You, too, can be a person that people come to when they are dealing with mental health conditions or a suicide loss. You, too, can be an advocate and help lead people to resources that are available, educate them about misconceptions, and help to cultivate the change we so desperately seek. Education is the key, so please: get on board.