Barbara Swanston will always live with the pain of losing her only son to mental illness but she’s opening up about her grief and hopes it will help others who have been touched by suicide.
Swanston’s son Terry took his own life Aug. 21, 2010 with a single bullet to his head at the age of 29, just one week before his 30th birthday. Terry was living with his wife, whom he married in 2004, in Philadelphia and had been struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness for several years.
“Sadly we think he was bipolar. We don’t know for sure because he was never diagnosed,” Swanston says. “You look back on his mood swings he had as a teen and as an adult, but it was undiagnosed. I think if he had had treatment he would still be alive today and I think he didn’t go for treatment because of the shame of admitting he was mentally ill.”
Terry’s wife and close friends begged him to seek help but like so many others he refused because of the stigma our society has put on mental illness and suicide, Swanston says. “As far as mental illness is concerned I think we’re just scared of it,” she says. “People don’t go for help because of the stigma. The only way we can dissolve a stigma is by talking about it. We must replace the stigma with compassion and understanding.”
That’s why, as the second anniversary of Terry’s death approached, Swanston made the brave and agonizing decision to write down her feelings about losing her son in an open letter in which she describes her road to recovery and explains the seriousness of suicide and mental illness.
“We now know that Terry had been depressed for some time,” she writes in her letter. “Like many others he was a master at concealing it and we had no idea, although in retrospect there were signals. Eventually he entered his own suicidal coma where he felt the only (way) out of his pain was to take his life. I believe he did not feel worthy of help and that breaks my heart even more.”
The letter, which Swanston sent via e-mail to everyone in her address book (roughly 50 or 60 people) made its way to Swanston’s niece in Ireland. Her niece forwarded the letter to the director of a large counselling firm in Northern Ireland who asked Swanston if she would be interested in giving a 15-minute keynote address at an upcoming Suicide Prevention – What Works conference Nov. 22 in Belfast. Swanston jumped at the chance.
The message she wants to get across is it’s okay to talk about suicide and no one is immune to mental illness.
“We need to understand the difference between mental health and mental illness,” Swanston says. “We all have mental health – it is our emotional, cognitive and psychological state of well-being. If you have a brain you have mental health. Mental illness is a medical condition that affects our brain and disrupts our mental health, our emotional, cognitive and psychological state of well-being. One in five people will experience a mental illness in any given year. We need to talk about the reality and impact of mental illness. That it is sometimes fatal and the fatality is by suicide.”
Swanston says our culture is not taught to deal well with death. She says since her son’s death life has been “unfathomable” and it’s been a long road to get to where she is today.
“Grief is hard work, it takes a long time,” she says. “Our culture is not very good with loss. The silence is deafening. People are afraid to talk about it because they don’t want to upset you. I understand that they don’t want to remind you but you don’t forget. You never forget losing a child.”
Swanston says people were afraid to approach her and her husband Michael and talk about what happened. But her letter helped people realize she wants to talk about Terry.
“If you know someone who’s lost a child to suicide, they need to talk about it. And if they get upset, you didn’t upset them. You gave them the gift of remembering,” Swanston says.
Swanston says often it feels as if Terry’s disappearing because people are afraid to talk about him.
“He lived. I don’t want him to disappear,” she says.
Swanston hopes by talking about mental illness and suicide she can help others who may be contemplating taking their own life.
“People are afraid if we talk about it, it makes it happen more often and that’s not true,” she says.
Swanston and her husband hope to help others.
“If we can help one person to reach out to help someone contemplating suicide then that helps us makes some sense of our son’s suicide,” Swanston says.
If you or someone you know is suffering and needs help there are options: the Vancouver Island Crisis Line: 1-888-494-3888, www.vicrisis.ca; Compassionate Friends: http://tcfcanada.net/chapters/british-columbia/; Parents of Suicide online support group: www.parentsofsuicide.com/parents.html.