Can we help people with mental illness?

Cleve Pinnix is a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors
Cleve Pinnix is a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors sbloom@theolympian.com

Our son was just a month shy of his 35th birthday when he killed himself. Until three weeks before his death, we hadn’t the slightest inkling that anything was wrong.

Jack made his home in the Chicago area, teaching at the university level, as well as leading academic seminars for high-achieving high school students. He had a lovely wife and a teenage daughter. He was the brightest light in any room, kind, funny, a joy to his friends and family.

What we didn’t know is that he suffered from bipolar disorder. At least that’s what we now believe. He was never diagnosed. He never submitted to treatment. He hid the illness well.

He must not have wanted to risk the stigma that goes with mental illness, the loss of status and control. We think he must have feared the consequences of treatment, the ending of those manic periods when he could feel superhuman. So he died.

Grief from such an unexpected loss is a tsunami. For those closest to the epicenter, it crushes joy. As the wave spreads outwards, it slams into family, friends, and colleagues. The pain expands exponentially. There’s a bonus, too: survivor’s guilt. Surely there was something more we could have done to save him.

The road back from that loss was long, slow, and hard. We still miss our son every day, but we are grateful for his life. Over a decade later, his family has adjusted; we are living our altered lives. But the questions remain.

Couldn’t we have known somehow of his illness? Weren’t there resources that he, and we, could have used to battle this? Wouldn’t it have been possible for us to help him, to relieve that burden which at last became too heavy for him to bear?

Here in South Sound, the numbers of suicide deaths are grim. Look at 2015. Thurston County: 48 deaths. Grays Harbor County: 15 deaths. Lewis County: 14 deaths. Mason County: 13 deaths. Our regional death rate — that’s deaths per 100,000 population — is higher than the statewide average.

Numbers can be numbing. Think instead about each suicide death causing that wave of grief that hits families and friends. Think of the lives cut short. Suicide is now the second greatest cause of death for adults younger than 35.

In our region, we are fortunate to have mental health professionals working to help those afflicted by mental illness. But they need support from the rest of us, too. Here are a few examples.

The Crisis Clinic of Thurston and Mason County has volunteers staffing the telephones 24/7, offering access to resources in the community. Program the number into your smartphone directory: 360-586-2800. Want to do more? Volunteer with the Crisis Clinic. Check the website — crisis-clinic.org — for information on the services offered, as well as volunteer opportunities. Did you know that the Crisis Clinic offers suicide awareness presentations in local high schools and middle schools?

There’s a one-day training course available locally: Mental Health First Aid. It’s just what the name implies, basic education and awareness building for people like you and me. Taking a Red Cross first aid course won’t make you a doctor. Taking this mental health course won’t make you a qualified counselor, either. But it’s a start. It gives you tools you can use, not the least of which is an understanding that you shouldn’t just turn away from someone experiencing mental difficulty. Get course information at the website: mentalhealthfirstaid.org

We all know about dialing 911 in an emergency. But do you know about the 211 number? Dial this number to connect with staff who can guide callers to a wide variety of social and community support services. 211 coverage is nearly nationwide. One simple number for access — 211.

People with mental illness are our family members, our neighbors, our colleagues. Don’t turn away from them. Lean in. Lives depend on it.

Cleve Pinnix is a retired State Parks Commission director, a Panorama resident, and a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors. Reach him at cfp.ranger44@gmail.com.