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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Psalm 13, Your Deliverance is Ready

Psalm 13, For the choir director: A psalm of David.

Five Questions

 1 “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
2 How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?”

Nothing is as stretching and painful as the belief that God has given up on you.  I have personally experienced this misbelief.  It was like my entire nervous system was ripped out of my body.  Suicide seemed a logical thing to do.

Sometimes, the struggle to remain a believer is difficult.  It is a war, often accentuated by depression and sadness.  It’s relentless and its arena of conflict is in our hearts.  David asks five questions.  They are the questions of the besieged heart when our abandonment seems possible.

 3 “Turn and answer me, O Lord my God!
Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die.
4 Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!”
Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.”

David recognizes that he needs God’s answer.  He also needs meaning to be restored to him.  The “sparkle”, or that joy of having a purpose is what gives life meaning.  Once you taste it, nothing else will satisfy.  Verse 3 tells us that David saw this as a “life or death” matter.

Furthermore, David could see that the enemies of his soul had gathered.  They spoke with a common voice, reflecting a unified purpose, “We have defeated him!”  We must be cognizant of the reality of evil around us.  God has a will for your life, but so does Satan.  It involves your corruption and destruction.

5 “But I trust in your unfailing love.
I will rejoice because you have rescued me.
6 I will sing to the Lord
because he is good to me.”          ~~New Living Translation

We fast-forward ahead to David’s deliverance.  He has an uncommon confidence in the character of God.  David’s declaration, He rescued me and He is good to me!  Both verses 5-6 illustrate that worship finds its root in times of personal emancipation.

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When is Suicide the Solution?

The Contemplative Suicidal

There are times, difficult times when we are maneuvered into a place where we start to think that suicide is an answer.  There is a certain mechanism to it, almost an art, which has a limited “air-time.”.  But I have several suicide attempts to my credit.  Once in a psych ward (and being watched 24/7) I cut my wrists on the broken shards of the clock over my bed.  (Looking back, it was pretty innovative the way I did it.)

I’ve intentionally overdosed a couple of times.  My last effort was to duct tape heavy training weights to drown myself in Kachemak Bay, off a pier.  Numerous times I have slashed my wrists trying very hard to die.

I suppose that for these many attempts there was a distinct and desperate cry for help.  When I went into the cycle of wrist cutting, I did not have a full and an aware understanding of what I was trying to do.  But when I attempt to drown myself, I most definitely did.  Perhaps there is an understanding of the two different concepts of suicidal depression. (But I’ve chosen not to ‘research’ this out.)

Although there is room to be alarmed by the first kind.  There is reason to be mega-concerned with the second approach.  I guess there is kind of a morbid graduation from one phase to the next. (I may speak brazenly, but I know it is a dark thing we talk about.)

To commit suicide is perhaps the ultimate act of vengeance that we can do.

It is final and yet speaks to everyone we’ve ever met  It also is a hard statement to all we used to love.  Family, and friends;  I guess we often can’t inventory or enumerate those we touch.  So many people will be affected by my suicide. I can’t overstate this. There are literally thousands of people who will be rocked by what I have done. I will destroy many when I try to destroy myself.

The pain of the mind of the suicidal depressive is awful.  It saturates all that I think and everything I do.  The suicide person is in a difficult agony.  It’s like being soaked in gasoline and looking around for a match.  There is a fearfulness about it all.  If we were not so enamored by ‘self-murder’ it would shake us to our core.

So very many are on the edge.  It really wouldn’t take much to nudge us over. There must be an understanding that there is a spiritual element to all of this. The enemy of our souls would delight in our destruction.  He salivates over our confusion and lostness.  He is a dark cheerleader in support of our self-destruction.

We must work things out, even with our darkest issues.  We really need to “regrip” and refocus.  Often a good nights sleep and a good meal will incrementally move us through this moment.  This may be trite, but resisting suicidal thinking will often turn on small things like this.

To be honest, patience seems to be the main factor to recovery.  It seldom is a dramatic leap forward.  It seems that certain nuances will push themselves against dark thinking.  As you are led by the Holy Spirit, you will discover exactly how to drive against this strong momentum of the Flesh.  Know this though– the Lord is actively at work on behalf of your loved one.  This should give you a honest peace and assurance.  You will survive, and you will bring Him glory.

For immediate help, call 911. For guidance, call 1-888-NEEDHIM.

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