Pooja is a public health graduate student and mental health advocate. She is also a survivor of attempted suicide and a survivor of suicide loss with her brother’s death sixteen months ago.
This past year, Pooja was a student of mine. I was just as much a student of hers. With courage and clarity, she shared her experience with suicide during relevant class discussions and met with me outside of class to share further reflections for today’s Five on Friday. Her fervent hope in talking about suicide is that she will educate others, eliminate stigma, and build support for programs and policies that will save lives.
How common is suicide? Rates of suicide vary from country to country. Within a particular society, rates are shaped by diverse demographic factors such as age, gender, occupation and education. According to the World Health Organization, in 2019, more than 700,000 people died by suicide globally. That same year, in the United States alone, suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall and claimed the lives of over 47,500 people. According to the same Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Report, it was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.
Pooja’s mental health journey. “At fifteen, I was diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder with auditory hallucinations. I really struggled with the diagnosis due to the stigma associated with it and the cultural taboo that comes with being part of a tight-knit South Asian community. My parents were supportive of me and assisted me in seeking help, but there was an unspoken rule that my struggles had to stay within the family. Even though I got treatment, I didn’t have the right attitude about getting better, so I didn’t. Like they say, ‘therapy doesn’t work unless you want it to.’ At three points in my life, the hallucinations got so bad and escalated to the point that I attempted suicide to stop them. But I’m still here.”
Becoming a mental health advocate. “As a college freshman, I had a panic attack one day in my dorm room. I told my best friend about it and the next day, I received a letter from the university administration asking me to leave campus because I was a ‘threat to myself and to others.’ I felt a huge sense of betrayal that I’d taken this risk of opening up to someone, only to have it turned around and used against me… this experience is what inspired me to become a mental health activist. It led me to form a NAMI chapter on campus. I authored an anonymous op-ed in the student newspaper about what happened to me and garnered a lot of support… Ultimately, I even gave a TEDxTalk about it. I really leaned into this new part of my identity at the time. Since then, however, I’ve tried to strike more of a balance between mental illness being a part of me, but not all of me.”
Grappling with grief after losing a sibling to suicide. “I’m someone who identifies as a mental health advocate; I devote time and energy to giving talks and interviews about mental illness, so [my brother’s ] suicide threw all of that into question. I mean, what kind of mental health advocate am I if my brother dies by suicide? I knew the warning signs and risk behaviors to look for, but it didn’t matter. His death was completely out of left field, with no warning signs before or after the fact. I couldn’t help him; he didn’t give me the chance to. I’ve been told that ‘it gets easier,’ but I don’t think so. I think it just becomes more manageable. You never get over it; you simply learn to live with it. But it’s exhausting, lifting up and carrying that weight. One thing that has helped is that I joined a local group of suicide survivors and I’m part of some social media communities for suicide survivors. From what I can tell, there are similarities between my experience and many others. For me, it was a very positive effort to seek support.”
What advice would you give to Five on Friday readers who feel unsure what to say or do for someone grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide? “I think it really comes down to three things: 1) Open the door and keep the door open. Don’t force anyone to walk through it, but make sure they know they can if they want to. So many people reached out to me in the wake of [my brother’s] death and said that if I wanted to talk, they were here for me. But I haven’t heard from them since. If you really mean it, reach out again and again and again – after a week, a month, a year. 2) Let the survivor call the shots. If I bring up my brother in conversation, don’t divert or try to change subjects – that’ll make me sad. If you don’t have the capacity to have the conversation, then say that, but don’t move away from that topic or conversation because you don’t want to ‘upset me’ — because the question I’m really asking myself is, ‘do I cry with you here to comfort me or alone.’ 3) Manage expectations and hope. I need someone to be available to me when I need them, not all of the time. If you’re unavailable, come back to me when you can. The little things go a long way.”
Pooja knows that advancing understanding of mental illness and suicide risk is a matter of life and death. In speaking with Pooja, I am inspired, grateful, and hopeful. Her willingness to share her personal experience and her commitment to champion advances in research, practice, and policy have the potential to dramatically improve what we know and what we do to advance mental health around the world.
Resources for suicide support and prevention are available from the World Health Organization, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. A listing of lifeline crisis services around the world can be found here.