Electronic pop music duo Phantogram was honored with the Public Awareness Award at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s 2018 Lifesavers Gala, for their work in drawing attention to suicide prevention following the death of singer Sarah Barthel’s sister.
Sarah, thank you so much for making the time to chat with me! First of all, I just want to say I’m so sorry for your loss: I understand your sister took her life this past year. Had your sister talked about suicide before, or had she struggled with mental health challenges, as far as you know?
My sister Becky suffered from depression and anxiety her entire life. Everyday things that seemed normal to me – the first day of school, going to visit friends somewhere crowded – were always difficult for her. We didn’t think of depression and anxiety as being illnesses, and my parents dealt with her like a “troubled teenager,” always hoping she would grow out of it. She also resorted to alcohol – i.e. self-medication – to deal with everyday life situations. She had attempted suicide a couple of times when she was younger…but it was never anything we talked about.
What’s your personal experience been in trying to process what happened? Just so you know, suicide loss is often accompanied by what we call “complicated grief,” meaning it may take longer to come to grips with, for many people.
I did have some friends growing up who attempted suicide or who died from suicide, so I had an idea of how much pain it could bring into others’ lives. But this has been the hardest death I’ve ever had to deal with – and I’ve had a lot of close people in my life pass. Suicide is really complicated, because in a way, it’s like an illness people blame on themselves. Mental health conditions are just as powerful as physical illnesses. What’s dangerous is that people aren’t as educated about it. We never learned about this subject in school. Even our parents, or friends, might have a tendency to brush “mental illness” under a rug because of a sense of shame. This kind of stigma can lead to discrimination and judgment. Sometimes, the discrimination can even be obvious and direct, like someone making a negative remark about your mental illness or your treatment.
Looking back, were there any warning signs that anything was wrong? Just to be clear, hindsight is always 20/20, and most people unfortunately aren’t familiar with the common warning signs. No one should ever feel responsible for a suicide death.
Nobody should ever feel responsible for a suicide death…but that’s easier said than done. That is the truth. I’m growing through this process with the help of therapy, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t blame myself, and the other people in her life, too. It’s the heaviest feeling to ever feel. Suicide is so hard to understand.
There will always be a “what if” feeling when I think back to that day, the night before, and the years, weeks, days, and hours before it happened. I think the more this subject is talked about, the more people will understand the effect suicide has on everyone around the person who takes their life. But I know my sister was overwhelmed with pain. She suffered from depression her entire life. Her illness just overcame her.
Did you feel you got enough support, yourself, after hearing the news of your sister’s death? Losing someone to suicide can be very different than losing someone to a physical illness, because even people who care and want to provide support may not know what to say, and hold back from reaching out. There can also be family members who feel ashamed, and want to keep silent about the fact that it was suicide.
I’m blessed with incredible friends who helped me feel comfortable in talking about my sister’s death. Josh, my partner in Phantogram, who was also one of Becky’s closest friends, and is such an important person in my life, saved me. He’s my rock. Another person in my life who stepped up because she wanted to help me was Miley [Cyrus]. She’s a saint in so many ways. She helped me get to a place that made me feel like I could express myself and not feel judged.
It was hard for me to understand that I needed help at first in dealing with what happened. Since we don’t put enough emphasis on mental health in our culture, opening up about your feelings can make you feel like a burden, and it shouldn’t. It took me a long time to realize I wasn’t being a burden on other people, and that I needed to talk to save my own life. I would never take my own life, but the sadness I felt made me want to run away as far as I could.
After a few months of paralyzing feelings of grief, I realized I felt handicapped by all the feelings I was experiencing. So I decided to get professional help. My therapist saved my life. Miley saved my life. She taught me to open up and speak. This was a huge revelation. I had never felt comfortable talking about my feelings other than in my songs.
Speaking of which, has your music helped you? Have you written any songs inspired by this experience?
I’m blessed to have such an incredible outlet to express myself with. It’s my safe zone… my therapy. My music is everything to me.
Josh and I are great friends, we grew up together, and we lost my sister during the writing and recording of our last Phantogram record, “Three.” We used our sadness and anger and vulnerability to express the experience on it. Almost all of the songs on “Three” are inspired or were changed in some way by Becky’s death.
There are many, many people out there who have lost someone to suicide – every year, thousands come together for International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day at events across the country, for instance. AFSP also has peer support available through the Healing Conversations program, which connects loss survivors with trained volunteers who know what it’s like firsthand to lose someone to suicide. There is a huge community of people who have been there and understand.
I think this is so important. A lot of people don’t understand what it’s like to deal with someone in your life who has a mental health condition, or has an issue with substance use, which I’ve now learned can be linked to suicidal thinking and behavior. There can be a lot of blame and guilt put on those people, by others or themselves. If you don’t understand that it’s out of your control, it becomes a very hard thing to accept. It also allows depression to seep into your own life. I’ve experienced this myself.
Is there anything you would want people to know, now that you’ve had this experience?
You are only capable of changing yourself. Nobody else. Put the work into every possible corner of yourself. Your brain is the biggest, most important muscle in your body; take care of it. Talk to someone about your feelings.
Things can get better. I promise.
The Phantogram songs “Someday,” which pays tribute to Sarah’s sister, and “Saturday” may be found on Spotify and iTunes.) Proceeds from the songs will go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
If you are having thoughts of suicide…have lost someone…are concerned about someone…have made an attempt…or have a loved one who has made an attempt, help is available.
For immediate assistance, see here to be connected to dedicated crisis services.
Help support Phantogram’s fundraising campaign, in memory of her sister.