Me at 9 or 10, while trying to hear what the adults at the “grown up” Thanksgiving table were saying: “Why are they whispering? We’re not a whispering family.” I tried to ease my way into the conversation by tucking myself in next to my Dad; the volume got lower but I managed to catch a few words: “Cancer. She’s just a little girl.” I didn’t know much about cancer except that it was bad and if the grown ups were whispering, it must be really bad. Like, terrible kind of bad.
My Mom told me later that the “little girl” was a friend we played with at my Grandma’s house. My Grandma lived at the top of a big hill that overlooked the small airport near downtown. My Grandpa, who died when I was four, used to put me on his back and run me down that hill, my arms spread out like I was an airplane and we were preparing for landing. The “little girl” lived at the bottom of that hill and we’d play frequently when visiting my Grandma. She lost her battle. I don’t remember when exactly or much other than learning she had cancer via whispers at the Thanksgiving table.
I wasn’t sure why the whispers over someone being sick. I am the oldest of the grandchildren on my Mom’s side and the rest of the kids in our family were content to be at the kid’s table with zero interest what was happening at the adult’s table. Not me. I asked my Mom later why they were whispering and her explanation left me thinking that there were just words you didn’t say out loud or you might suffer the same. It’s no wonder that my suicide attempt got the reaction it did: “She seems so happy all the time.” I learned at a young age, self taught mostly, that there were just some things you didn’t say out loud.
I think often about the correlation between cancer and mental illness. They are vastly different in how each attack your body but trying to survive both carry battles we’d not wish on our worst enemies; each illness comes with a variety of treatments that work for some and not at all for others; both, despite the best care and attempts to treat the demon, will claim warriors who just couldn’t win the fight; sadly, often winning the war is in the favor of those that can afford to fight – neither of these beasts are cheap to battle; often overlooked is the impact that cancer and mental illness have on those who love the warrior trying to win the war.
I’ve seen loved ones struggle against cancer and it sucks – sucks! And while, I realize there are people who still believe that mental illness is “just in our heads” and “we should just snap out of it”, in hearing cancer survivors talk about their battles it feels and sounds a lot like the life of a mental illness warrior. I’m not trying to diminish the horrid fight of cancer in an attempt to elevate the seriousness of mental illness; in no way is the intent “Oh yeah, well mine is worse than yours!” It’s not a competition y’all – they both suck. My point is that somewhere along the way, we stopped whispering the word “cancer” and while it still claims far too many, the strides we’ve made in treatment and prevention are huge. Huge!
According to Susan B. Komen’s 2016-17 annual report, their 2017 Race for the Cure and Breast Cancer 3 Day events brought in $136.2M in public support and revenue. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) brought in $11.3M during their 2017 NAMIwalks. AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) saw $25M raised during their 2018 Out of Darkness walks. The NIH (National Institute for Health) reports that in 2015, breast cancer stole 51,103 Americans; in 2016, they allocated $656M to breast cancer research. That same report says 44,281 Americans died by suicide and in 2016, provided research funding for suicide and suicide prevention of $85M ($52M to suicide and $33M to prevention). The NIH projects they will fund $644M in cancer research and $151M in suicide and suicide prevention in 2020.
Again, I am in no way diminishing the horror that is breast cancer (I picked breast cancer because it is a ravaging beast and the awareness around it is nothing near a stigma we whisper about), but we’ve seen an incredible increase in funding of research and it’s working. Google “breast cancer survival” and the rates at which women and men are beating the beast are so encouraging – there is so much more to do but people are increasingly winning the war. Google “suicide rates” and sadly the results aren’t nearly as encouraging; you don’t need me to tell you that it’s the 2nd leading cause of death in people between 10 and 24 (behind accidents) and the 10th leading cause of death in the US and getting worse year after year. Research published in March of this year by the American Psychological Association showed, among other sobering statistics, a 47% increase in suicidal thoughts or outcomes in young adults (18-25 years old) from 2008-2017; social media burst onto the scene in 2011 and isn’t going away.
Our kids are dying; people across the world are dying at a rate of 1 every 40 seconds and the US is “whispering” in research and funding. Society whispers the words suicide and depression and anxiety and more. There is such an unreal stigma around illnesses that affect the most complex organ in the human body. Many account it to people not being able to understand because they can’t see it and can’t imagine how it feels. Ignorance and “snap out of it” attitudes are still entirely too prevalent. Neither is helped by the fact that trying to explain our chaos to a “normal” person is nearly impossible – it makes little sense to us; there’s no way we can accurately explain it to others. And the layers and factors that make it better or worse are complex. Add in that our increasing use of communicating via a keyboard has sent compassion and empathy plummeting. When was the last time you saw someone struggling to put one foot in front of the other at Target and not judged them for looking like they haven’t showered in days? Be honest. I do it; not proud of it and I know how it feels and still do it!
Whispers aren’t doing us any good against the beast that is mental illness. It increases stigma and ignorance and the next generation of leaders are dying before they even get a chance to show us what they are capable of. We must talk and we must listen. Really listen – not to respond but to hear the voice of those struggling. Yes, we know it can be hard to hear us sometimes; that’s what happens when the world tells you not to speak above a whisper.
Use your voices, Warriors.♥