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Jamison and Steel: Interviews on Suicide

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NAMI’s Interviews With Danielle Steel & Kay Jamison

Last year, Steel published His Bright Light, a memoir of her son, Nick Traina, who committed suicide at age 19 after a life-long battle with bipolar disorder (manic depression). More recently, Jamison has published Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, combining research, clinical expertise and personal experience to explore one of the world’s leading causes of death.On February 8, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Resources, Education & Related Agencies will hold a hearing on suicide prevention that will include testimony from best-selling author Danielle Steel and Professor Kay Redfield Jamison, author of several academic and popular books on mental illness.

Interviews with Steel and Jamison have appeared in “Spotlight,” a special supplement to The Advocate, the quarterly publication of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Conducted by NAMI executive director Laurie Flynn, they offer a possible preview of Steel and Jamison’s testimony on Tuesday. Excerpts follow below.

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Dr. Kay Jamison

NAMI’s Interview with Kay Jamison
Spotlight (Winter 1999/2000)

NAMI: What do we know about the linkage between suicide and mental illness?

Jamison: The most important thing to know is that 90 to 95 percent of suicides are associated with one of several major psychiatric illnesses: depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol abuse, and personality disorders. These are obviously treatable illnesses. Another thing people don’t think about enough or emphasize enough is that because cancer and heart disease hit older people, they are seen as lethal illnesses. Because the age of onset for mental illnesses is very, very young, people don’t tend to think of mental illnesses as the potentially lethal illnesses they are. It’s important for people to understand that they have an illness to begin with and then that they get good treatment for it.

NAMI: You have spoken specifically of suicide and college students.

Jamison: Yes. Suicide is the second major killer of college aged kids. It’s the second leading killer of young people generally.

NAMI: You also have pointed out that, worldwide, suicide is the second leading killer of women between ages 15 and 45. These statistics are staggering, yet most people don’t seem to be aware of it.

Jamison: Absolutely. Across the world. There are almost two million suicides a year worldwide. I think people just don’t have any sense of the enormity of it. Suicide unfortunately has been so individualized and, because of the early suicide movement in this country, so separated from mental illness. People working in the field of suicide concentrated on existential factors and vague sorts of things, when in fact the underlying science is very clear that they’re associated with a few mental illnesses.

NAMI: Knowing what we do about illness and its treatability allows us to be able to discuss preventing suicide.

Jamison: Right. [U.S. Surgeon General] Dr. David Satcher’s emphasis has been very strong on three fronts. One is public awareness. Secondly, intervention and all that’s involved in making doctors and others more able to ask the kinds of questions needed to uncover mental illness. And then, thirdly, to support the science that’s necessary to study suicide.

NAMI: What else can policy makers and public officials do?

Jamison: I think we have to have public officials talking about it. When you have someone like Jesse Ventura out there saying these outrageous things-I think it’s really beyond the pale-we’ve got to have the president of the United States saying look we’ve got a real epidemic here, and there’s something we can do about it. People are dying from not gaining access to treatment-or from having three days in the hospital, and then going out and dying.

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DANIELLE STEEL

NAMI’s Interview with Danielle Steel
Spotlight (Winter 1999)

NAMI: “His Bright Light” is a very personal story about a very painful subject, the mental illness and death of a child. What did you hope people would learn by sharing your story?

Steel: I hoped first of all that people would come to know my son, and learn what an extraordinary person he was. I wrote the book to honor him, and to share with people what a remarkable person he was, in spite of his illness. I also wrote it to share with people the challenges we faced, so that they feel less alone and less isolated with their pain, in similar situations. I wrote it to give people hope and strength as they follow a similar path to ours.

NAMI: What did you learn from this painful tragedy?

Steel: I’m not sure yet what I learned from the tragedy, except that one can and must survive. But from his life, I learned a great deal about courage and perseverance, and love.

NAMI: Lots of people in America might be facing signs of a mental illness in one of their children. What about Nick’s behavior made you realize that it was more severe than just the normal growing pains of a child?

Steel: Nick was different. Always. His moods were more extreme. I sensed from early on, that despite his many wonderful qualities, there was something very wrong. I knew it in my gut, as I think many parents do.

NAMI: How long did it take for Nick to be diagnosed as manic-depressive and receive treatment for that condition?

Steel: Nick was not clearly diagnosed as manic depressive until he was 16, a good 12 years after we began the pursuit of the causes for his ‘differences’. He received no medication until he was 15, and did not receive the most effective medications until he was 16. A long and very painful wait for all concerned!

NAMI: Prior to knowing of Nick’s manic depression, what did mental illness mean to you? Did you associate stigma with mental illness?

Steel: I don’t think I realized, before Nick, that one could still be functional, or seemingly functional, if mentally ill. I thought of it as something totally incapacitating, and of people who were shut away. I don’t think I realized how intelligent and capable mentally ill people can still be. I’m not sure I did associate a stigma with mental illness. It just seemed like a sickness, and not necessarily a shameful one. I just thought of Nick as sick, whatever it was called, and wanted him to be cured.

NAMI: How did Nick deal with the knowledge that he had a mental illness?

Steel: For a long time, Nick himself was in denial about his illness. And eventually, he accepted it. In the last year, he told people he was manic-depressive. Before that, when he felt ‘normal’ on medications, he believed he was cured. He had a hard time accepting at first that he would be manic-depressive all his life.

NAMI: Are schools able to cope with the mental illness of a child?

Steel: In most cases, I don’t believe they are. It is a huge challenge for all to meet, and certainly hard on the other kids to have one child acting out. We were very lucky, in Nick’s high school years we finally found a wonderful school that understood the problem, accepted him as he was, and was willing to work with him in a framework he could cope with. They were remarkably flexible and creative. But for most schools, it’s asking a lot to expect them to adapt to a mentally ill child.

NAMI: If you could tell a family member who is caring for someone who is mentally ill one thing, what would that be?

Steel: Never give up. Get the best help you can. Keep trying, keep loving, keep giving, keep looking for the right answers, and love, love, love, love. Don’t listen to the words, just listen to your heart.

NAMI: What do you think support groups like NAMI can do for families coping with the mental illness of a loved one?

Steel: I think groups like NAMI can provide support, both emotional and practical—the knowledge that you are not alone. And resources, where to go, who to talk to, what works. You need all the information you can get, and it is just about impossible to do it alone.

NAMI: Stereotyping the mentally ill as violent and dangerous is pervasive in America. How do we change this perception?

Danielle: Information. Obviously there must be some mentally ill people who are violent and/or dangerous. But I suspect that most are not. Nick certainly wasn’t either of those, he was gentle, loving, smart, funny, compassionate, extremely perceptive about people, and very wise. I cannot conceive of Nick as ‘dangerous,’ although ultimately he was a danger to himself. But for the most part, I think the turmoils of the mentally ill are directed within and not without.

NAMI: What do you think the average American should know about mental illness?

Steel: I think most people should know how common it is…I also think people should know how serious it is when it goes untreated. And how potentially lethal it can be. It is vitally important to get good treatment, the right medication, and good support. If you let a bad cold turn into bronchitis and then pneumonia, without medication, it can kill you. If you do not treat serious diabetes, it can kill you. If mental illness goes untreated, it can kill you.

NAMI: We know that having “hope” is important to battling any disease. What hope do you see for people with mental illness?

Steel: I see a huge amount of hope. The medications today can give people whole, happy, productive lives. There are lots and lots of people with mental illness holding down good jobs, even with important careers, happy family lives, and doing great things. It is possible to lead a good and happy life if you are mentally ill. If those who are doing just that would speak up, it would give great hope to all those who are still groping their way along in the dark.

NAMI: What is Nick’s legacy?

Steel: Nick’s legacy is the love we had and have for him, the word we have spread of what a terrific person he was. In his lifetime, he touched countless lives, with his warmth, with his mind, with his music, with his words. Through his experiences, others have and will learn. Through the Nick Traina Foundation, hopefully we can bring help to others, in his name.

 

For more information or assistance, please contact NAMI at: http://www.nami.org/

 

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Prepare for Flames and Floods

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“But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you.
O Israel, the one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
I have called you by name; you are mine.

2 When you go through deep waters,
I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
you will not be burned up;
the flames will not consume you.”

Isaiah 43:1-2, NLT

“YARNELL, Ariz. (AP) — July 1, an Arizona forest fire into an out-of-control inferno that trapped and killed 19 firefighters, nearly all of them members of an elite crew of “hotshots,” authorities said Monday. It was the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters in a wildfire in 80 years.”

“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement. Firefighters have a dangerous job. They put their lives on the line.

The promises here in Isaiah 43 meant to prepare us, and promise us. Fires burn and consume. Floods keep growing and multiplying. Yet in this world full of fires and floods, we have these promises of His presence in the middle of it all. He intends to be right there when things are going very, very wrong.

And dear broken believer, trials and tribulations are a fact of life for us. Life is often full of badness, but my God, we learn. (Oh, how we learn.) You may be struggling now, but we are being made into something wonderful.

“Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.” –1 Peter 4:12

No surprises– burning trials– something strange? Hardly, it’s just the life of a saint, as he travels home to heaven. And isn’t heaven is worth just a little temporary pain? (I walk with a cane, so I’ll be behind you a bit.) 

The reality is this, the Isaiah verses declare that there will be floods, and rivers to cross, and fires and flames. These are going to happen. But, the Lord does promise that He will walk with you, as your Companion, and Protector.

“It is quite useless knocking at the door of heaven for earthly comfort. It’s not the sort of comfort they supply there.” –C.S. Lewis

We are looking to be given comfortable things, naturally easy things. Like lots of money in our bank accounts, bills paid off. A redesigned kitchen would be nice. And one of those huge refrigerators (big enough to hang a cow in.) A new VW Jetta, maybe. But this is not the comfort that God is supplying us.

You may have to shift things in your thinking. But maybe you have already learned this, and might just need a tiny reminder. There is a definite upside to this– the presence of the Holy Spirit. He is standing at your side, and you will know his true comfort and assistance. It is a promise. And it is yours. (But not the VW, most likely).

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ybic, Bryan

Kyrie elesion. (Lord, have mercy)
 
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Forget Yourself

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Self absorption is one of the traps that we can become ensnared. Many sociologists and psychiatrists are united at this point. Mental health is improved by thinking about others, instead of yourself. We are healthiest when we put others first.

My biggest issues are a result of my preoccupation with myself.

The times when I focus on the Lord, and on others are a blast of cool relief to my overheated soul. Healthy thinking can be evidence of what our gaze is set upon.

Healthy periods of self-examination are necessary, to a point. But prolonged focus can only be injurious. 

My own flirtations with suicide have caused me to reflect on how I arrived at such a point. Suicide is the inability to construct a future and feel loved. I get ensnared by all of my ponderous issues and can see no light and have no hope. I become hopeless; despair is all I can see and feel.

But we must never trust the seemingly “certainties of despair”. The promises of God and the steady witness of the Holy Spirit are to be our very life. Especially in this matter. Miring yourself in your problems will only damage your heart and mind. You may have a mental illness, but we can reduce the tension that life is giving us.

I have both bipolar disorder and epilepsy. I have experienced the “mega-ton” kind of depression. I know that I stay healthy when my attention is not on me, but on my family, my church, and my community; and my God. I gain nothing when my soul is mesmerized by my issues. (This isn’t humility– it’s the opposite.)

For the disciple of Jesus Christ what is called for is self-denial. A committed self-forgetfulness that energizes the “basin-and-towel” service to all those around us. Healing comes when we give ourselves completely (Isaiah 58). Our mental illness doesn’t nullify our discipleship. If anything at all, it enhances it.

I realized there is a fine line here. But I believe that my despair is “anti-God.” When I feel like giving up that should become my finest hour. God is closest to those who need Him most.

For thus says the high and exalted One
Who lives forever, whose name is Holy,
“I dwell on a high and holy place,
And also with the contrite and lowly of spirit
In order to revive the spirit of the lowly
And to revive the heart of the contrite.”

Isaiah 57:15, NASB

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When Despair Empties You

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“It is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of Heaven.”  

Acts 14:22

As a broken believer this happens. I breakdown, my faith is questioned, and I feel all alone. Issues like a simple hot shower and eating something seem impossible. I’m embarrassed to say I once went 34 days with a shower. I laid in bed unable to function. That is the insidious truth about chronic depression, I know it well. God seems far, far away from me. Life doesn’t matter anymore.

There is much I can do before  it gets to this point. And although life seems insurmountable. Clinical depression kills people. It slowly devours “a sound mind.” It cripples before it takes away your life. There is nothing quite like it; people tell you it will pass, and that you’ll see the sun again. But at the time that seems to be the worst advice ever given.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

2 Timothy 1:7

Meds help a lot. I take Zoloft and that is a godsend. I never miss a dose. I know I’m not bulletproof. I’ve taken it for several years now. (It’s like insulin for a diabetic).

Afflicted souls are special to God. And that truly comforts me. Sometimes it seems like there is an invisible tether that holds from completely dropping off the edge. When I do pray, it is desperate and brief. More like a quiet scream for help. There are no frills and no eloquence, but I know I’m being heard by Him who guards my soul.

People for the most part, are of little help. I admit that my attitude can be less than stellar. “Unless you have been lost in this section of hell yourself, it’s best if you just shut up.” (I don’t really say this, but I’m tempted to.)

But there are a few that can speak. Almost always these are the ones who have been through some affliction themselves. They have been hurt and they ‘walk with a limp.’ I’m convinced that they can speak in direct proportion to the pain they themselves have suffered. I once woke up to another pastor praying prostrate on my bedroom floor. He didn’t have to do or say anything else. He left without saying some ‘pious’ word to me, what he did was wonderfully done.

“I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain.”   

John Henry Newman

Take care of yourself. If this isn’t your first major depression, prepare in advance spiritually for the next. Identify those ‘dear-hearts’ who can help you in advance. Keep taking your meds, even if you think your o.k. And speak often with the Lord, and learn to listen to His voice. That “sound mind” is a promise for those who truly need it.

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Kings in Chains [Cold Hard Reality]

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“He who masters his passions is a king even if he is in chains.  He who is ruled by his passions is a slave even while sitting on a throne.”

-Richard Wurmbrand

Sometimes, I absolutely need a spiritual ‘wake-up call.’  The last few days for me have been taking on the general theme of freedom.  It’s very easy for me to accept being a slave.  The bait that’s used is very desirable and attractive.  It’s hard to let such wonderful morsel go by without a taste. I will sin– and repent later. But hidden deep inside me there is something very small, but very potent. It is a desire to be free from sin. God has placed that within.

Freedom, or that characteristic of walking unencumbered, doesn’t seem incredibly important, at times.  But it is a question of identity.

As a Christian believer, am I really a child of the King, a prince in a spiritual world?

Royal blood was spilled to set me free.  Is choosing to sin really in my calling?

There are many things that ‘trigger’ my Bipolar depression.  Triggers are those things which set off symptoms, ‘kindling’ a sequence of events that leads to total catastrophe.  All it takes is one–a lie perhaps, or a delusion that gets ‘airplay.’ I just slide right into the ‘paranoid’ trap set just for me. I essentially experience a total collapse of mood and emotion.  Life will crash in all around me. I am left sitting in ashes, in a heap. I have become a ‘king in chains.’

My hospitalizations all have come as a result of giving myself over to ‘twisted thinking.’  My suicidal tendencies are intensified, in part due to becoming enslaved.  I become chained and held captive  to these dark forces.  Meds and ‘talk therapy’ can really help.  They are limited though to what they can do to push back the inky darkness.  But when I use these things, and add to them:

  1. prayer, as intimate as I can make it
  2. reading the Word, searching for insights
  3. and fellowship, anything more than a handshake

I have a ‘recipe’ for freedom. But, I must initiate a believer ‘s response. I would like to suggest that “freedom” and “intimacy” are synonyms. You can’t have one without the other. Is Jesus real to you? Is His presence ‘more-than-life’ itself?

Whoever you are–it’s time to get free. Really free. Fall in love with Jesus again and the chains will fall off. Unless you do they will remain.

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Galatians 5:1, ESV

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A Simple Gospel for Really Simple People

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The gospel is a profound mystery that has been made quite simple. A little child could grasp it. We have the deep sense that it is quite complicated, but it is really straightforward. For years, day after day after day, I have tried to jump high enough to attain a semblance of peace, but to no avail. After a long period I finally realized I couldn’t make it work. If God was going to save me, He was going to have to personally intervene. I just didn’t have it in me. The simplicity of our faith needs to be declared; too many believe it is unattainable. C.S. Lewis once wrote about this simple gospel:

“We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. … That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.”

–C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Over time I realized, (actually it was more like a lightning bolt) that it wasn’t how high I could jump— but how low I could go. The ‘good news’ is designed for the simple; not for the spiritual athlete. We must become as “little children to enter the kingdom of God.” There is no other way. Jesus has made it clear. I simply can not attain salvation by my own merits, rather it is given out to those who can’t arrive at some vague legal standard.

“Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:3

We are a people who are engineered for achievement. We value those who have ‘arrived.’ But what if the opposite was true? What if it wasn’t greatness, but ‘smallness’ that opened heaven’s doors? Would you qualify? I ask these questions not to demean you, but to reassure you. I would only suggest that you reexamine your faith. It is only prudent after all.

Adopting the world’s attitudes is not surprising. We are saturated by her presence. She makes her presence known by everything we perceive. It is the basic environment that surrounds all that we do or think. Jesus’ gospel asks us to rethink some basic things:

  • Do I belong here?
  • Is this my real home?
  • What am I living for?
  • Am I a loving person?
  • What am I living for?

We ask these questions, not because they are somewhat profound; we ask them because they are basic. Yet so much rests on each. We must clear away the world’s confusion, in order to grasp each question. We must become like little children, again. When we start to ask these questions— we are on our way.

 

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What’s the Role of God’s Word in the Fight Against Depression?

SPIRITUAL BROMIDE OR FUEL FOR THE SOUL?

Years ago, in a public venue, I extolled the value of wielding God’s Word as a weapon against depression. Before I finished my comments, a listener blurted out, “That’s oversimplification of a complex condition! You think you can cure depression by flinging a Bible verse at it? That’s totally unrealistic.”

If he had allowed me to finish, he would have heard my comment in its larger context.

When I tout God’s Word as a weapon against depression, I’m not saying that depression suddenly evaporates when I read the Bible or ponder a verse I’ve memorized. I’m not saying that having regular devotions in the Bible will forestall the onset of depressive episodes. I’m not advocating the neglect of medical or psychological treatment, nor other resources of the Spirit, such as fellowship and prayer. But I am saying that anchoring myself in God’s Word is nonetheless integral to my endurance. In particular, the promises of Scripture keep me from giving up and yielding to the despair.

In Future Grace, John Piper emphasizes that “wherever despondency comes from, Satan paints with a lie. The lie says, ‘You will never be happy again. You will never be strong again. You will never have vigor and determination again. Your life will never again be purposeful. There is no morning after this night. No joy after weeping. All is gathering gloom, darker and darker.’”

When I’m bombarded with a similar message of hopelessness, I buttress my faith with verses that combat Satan’s lies, such as these words from Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Another buoyant promise that keeps me from drowning in discouragement is Nahum 1:7: “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in Him.”

No matter how I’m feeling, I strive to cling to a right view of God, as depicted in these words from Isaiah 30:18: “The Lord longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion.”

I can’t prevent an onset of despondency by memorizing Scripture, but I can shorten its stay and minimize its effects by focusing on God: Who He is, what He has done for me, and what He has pledged Himself to do.

The author of Psalm 73:26 also fought despair by riveting his attention on truth about God. He acknowledged weakness and despondency with these words: “My flesh and my heart may fail.” But he refused to yield to discouragement. He battled back by telling himself, “But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

An occasional effect of depression in relation to my work is the inability to feel God’s presence as I prepare for and teach classes at Columbia International University. That’s when I lock my mental lens on Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Like the Psalmist, I “preach to myself,” or engage in biblical self-talk. I remind myself that He is with me whether or not I feel His presence. I tell myself that God’s Word, which promises His presence, is far more reliable than my fickle feelings that question His presence.

When I go to Scripture, does the depression magically evaporate? No, yet I work with renewed confidence and vigor, and take the next step rather than yielding to despair.

I don’t give in to the urge to cancel classes or quit because I don’t feel God’s presence. I wield God’s Word because no matter what causes my depression, I still have a spiritual battle to fight. Will I believe the hopeless message that permeates my mind when I’m depressed or will I believe what God says that puts my current despair in the context of eternity and His character?

When has the Lord sustained you through His written Word?

your brother,

Terry

Terry teaches in the areas of Church Ministry and Ministry Leadership at Columbia International University in South Carolina. He has served as a Christian Education staff member for three  churches, and he’s a licensed preacher in the Presbyterian Church of America.  His current books in print are Serve Strong:  Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants, and  Now That’s Good A Question!  How To Lead Quality Bible Discussions. Terry has been married for 46 years, and has two sons, a daughter-in-law, one grandson, and a dachshund.  His constant prayer is, “Lord, make me half the man my dog thinks I am!”

Check out his blog at https://penetratingthedarkness.com/. His ministry is focused on Christians experiencing clinical  depression and other mental issues.