Statistics Are People, Not Just Numbers

Today my friend Shannon, who started the Matthew Patrick Geary Trust, posted a link to a New York Times article about a sharp rise in the rate of suicide among middle-aged people.  People like Tony.  Middle-aged men, in particular, are at increased risk.  More people now die of suicide in the United States than die in automobile accidents.


And we are not talking about it.  Yes, there’s an article in the New York Times.  But that doesn’t mean people are talking about it.  There is still so much shame, so much secrecy and fear around the topic of suicide.  What I am asking you who are reading this to do is to sit with that statistic for a minute.  Sit with it.  Think about it.  Don’t just think about the numbers.  Think about IT, think about suicide.  You probably don’t have any difficulty believing that someone you care about might at some point be killed in a car accident.  So many of us travel by car, every day.  So many people speed, or drive while overtired or drunk.  So many people get caught up in bad weather, rain or snow.  So many people talk on their cell phones or even text while driving.  I have been in car accidents, one that could have been a lot worse than it was.  I know people, several of them, who have lost their lives in car accidents.

And now, I have lost someone I loved to suicide.  As uncomfortable as this may be to think about, anybody reading this, anybody at all, could find themselves in my shoes someday.  That is how big a problem suicide is. 

And yet.

Mental health coverage in this country is a joke.  It’s practically non-existent.  People who need help can’t get it, and that’s if they can manage to get past the stigmatization of mental illness, past the shame and judgment of people close to them, and maybe past their own self-blame and self-judgment and actually ask for help.  The truth is that if Tony had listened to my pleas, if he had agreed to seek out the professional help he so clearly needed, I have NO idea how we would have paid for it.  His first twenty visits – a drop in the ocean – would have been covered at some pathetic percentage.  The rest of it would have been out of pocket. 

Nobody is suggesting, ever WOULD suggest, that we limit and stigmatize and bar people from getting treatment after a car accident.  Such a suggestion would be completely laughable.  We love our cars here, don’t we?  We love our cars more than we love our hurting, sad and lost fellow human beings.

A person who’s contemplating suicide is driving a car.  The car is his brain.  He knows, sometimes, that something’s not working the way it works in other people’s cars.  He drives through mud and grime, and the windshield gets harder and harder to see through.  All he can see is the mud.  He tries to clear it off, but he feels like he can’t reach out and turn on the windshield wipers.  He wants somebody else to come along and turn them on for him, but he doesn’t have the words to ask.  Or he does, but they can’t reach.  So he keeps driving, but he can only see glimpses of the other people on the road through the dirt and the grime that obscure his vision.  He thinks the whole word is like that, filthy and hardly visible and he is the only one who feels that way.  Everybody else, it seems, drives around with ease.  They flip their wipers off and on as needed, they apply the brakes, give it more gas, and navigate turns and unexpected detours as if it were nothing.  But the suicidal person feels that he can’t do any of those things, he just has to keep driving.  He can’t see the road ahead of him.  He’s tired of trying, and even though he has AAA they won’t come out for this.  It’s not part of the coverage, you see.  They’ll come out, but only if he can come up with a huge amount of money, money he just doesn’t have.  It’s something he’s going to have to deal with alone.  Only he can do it.

And so finally, he gets so tired of the trying; so tired of the people pointing out how different his car is, and how he should be ashamed of being so different; so tired of feeling like people are judging his car for its flaws; so tired, so tired, so tired of trying to drive when he can’t see and can’t get help and can’t avoid getting hit by other cars and can’t afford help or feels that he shouldn’t even have to ask for help, that he sees a cliff coming and he takes his hands off the wheel and he lets the car skid and fly and slip over the edge into oblivion.

And those of us who tried to clean off the windshield, or tried to get him to understand that he could do it himself, are left standing on the edge of the abyss and looking down and wishing so much we could reverse time and make the one we loved come flying back up over the edge and into our arms and into our lives and our hearts.  But we can’t do that, because it’s too late.

If a car manufacturer were selling cars without safety features, without working brakes or seatbelts or airbags or windshield wipers, nobody would buy the car.  If companies decided suddenly that some illness with a huge public profile, breast cancer or leukemia or multiple sclerosis or heart disease, would not be covered or covered at laughable levels, we’d be outraged.  If major HMOs announced they would no longer provide coverage for injuries received in automobile accidents, there would be an uprising.  So why not over this?  Why not now?  Why not to save the people who need saving the most, the people who are ostracized and shamed and made to feel like they are not normal?

It’s scary.  That’s why.  The human brain is a mysterious territory, different for everybody and largely unmapped.  We are each alone inside of that territory, and we have to make the map ourselves.  Some of us are born cartographers, and even if we have moments when we fear we are lost, we find our way back again.  We have a compass, we have a sense of direction.  A sense of confidence in ourselves that we can work through it, come out of it, find our way back to the path.  Some of us don’t have that.  Some of us don’t, and that scares the hell out of those of us who do.  We can’t understand it.  We fear it.  We shy away from it.  We throw around words like “nuts” and “crazy” with ease, because it’s so much easier to label than to learn.  It’s so much easier to run than to sit with the idea that we all, any one of us, could lose someone we love to suicide.  It’s so much easier to turn away, to lalala our way past the words, the terrifying words, that suicide is a problem that’s getting bigger.  It’s not going anywhere.  It’s a monster.  It’s the child in the basement in Omelas.  We know it’s there but we pretend it’s not because it’s so much more comfortable to pretend.

I’m done pretending.  It’s time to get noisy.


10 thoughts on “Statistics Are People, Not Just Numbers

  1. May our noise ring through this land and across the earth until no one can ignore it anymore. Love, Madre ❤

  2. Very well put. I listened to a young man speak last week at an Out of the Darkness Memorial Walk about his depression and suicidal thoughts. He couldn’t stop thinking of crossing the yellow line into oncoming traffic. He is receiving support and feeling better at the moment and talking about it.

  3. Make noise, my friend, make a lot of noise! Mental illness, especially depression is so misunderstood in our society. My brother, like your Tony, fought his very best to stay with us in our world for as long as they could. He worked in a public school system that continued to berate him with threats of down-sizing, so that he was continually having to fight for his job,… his position,… his tenure. They didn’t care that he had worked as a teacher for 22 years and was the most popular English teacher in the District. They only cared about their bottom line. My brother was so tired of fighting,.. it was just too hard for him to continually fight the fight to keep the job he had worked his entire life to do.

    Make noise for all those people who can no longer be heard. All those who have tried so hard to make a difference in their lives by making people see,… really see things other than what society tells us to see. That’s the kind of teacher my brother was. He was loved by all his students but his administration was too narrow minded to see what a difference he made in the children’s lives he touched. Just like your Tony, he just got tired of society’s lack of understanding and seemed disassociation with their pain.

    You have a beautiful voice, Aimee. Tony and my brother, I’m sure, appreciate your words. If they could talk, my friend, they would ask you to help the world hear their pleas to understand them,… to at least try to understand the struggles they had to endure to live in a society that places more value in they physical than the mental.

    • Thanks Loretta. That’s what I want to do – help the world understand. Get people to take it seriously. What you wrote here made me cry, but in a good way. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  4. Amen, sistah.

    On our current health insurance—considered some of the best in our state for mental health coverage—psychologist and psychiatrist visits are covered 100% for minors, with no cap on number of visits. This is awesome.

    Inpatient crisis care is a $200 copay, then covered. This is not bad.

    Inpatient residential care—proven much more effective than crisis care, by the way—costs half what crisis care does and isn’t covered at all. Anywhere. At any time. This is APPALLING. Life-saving treatment for my child (who, incidentally, has THREE middle-class, full-time-working parents) nearly ruined us financially and statistics show that it DOES bankrupt families with regularity.

    It’s not okay. But no one is willing to say that until they’re the ones holding the bill. Can you IMAGINE a similar set of circumstances for cancer? “Oh, sorry, see, we only cover the first chemo treatment, because after that, it’s really your CHOICE of whether or not to continue. It’s not really medically necessary.” Uhhhhhh….

    /rant (sorry)

    • Rant away, my friend. That is ABSOLUTELY appalling. Yes, cover the crisis care, which means that you have to wait until things BECOME a crisis instead of getting treatment that might avert one in the first place. That’s like saying we won’t cover mammograms, but we’ll pay for it once you’re really sick with breast cancer. The treatment at that point is more expensive, less effective and often, too late. It’s infuriating. Getting life-saving treatment shouldn’t be that hard. When you add in the shame factor, and a lot of people being afraid to even GET help of any kind… it’s a national health crisis, and it’s being ignored. Grrr…

  5. this is all so horrifyingly true…I once worked as support staff for the underwriting department of a large perhaps huge medical insurance company…people with other medical conditions than mental health were denied coverage EVERYDAY…no doubt mental health has a very low priority for coverage if you’re trying to impress stockholders with mega profits…having lived with a suicidal man for almost 27 years (the only thing that stopped him after his attempt in 1996 was the arthritis that left his hands and body crippled) I agree with you the public, this society of humans we belong to, is remarkably scared to death of anything that involves the mind. apparently this hasn’t changed for thousands of years. there’s certainly enough information available for those who want to be enlightened…why so many don’t want to know, don’t want to understand is beyond me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s