What we do when hope runs out

PHOTO: Creative Commons license, Hot Gossip Italia

PHOTO: Creative Commons license, Hot Gossip Italia

I was vacationing with family the day Robin Williams died from suicide after a lifelong struggle against depression. Had I been around my computer, I’d have shared stories of late night TV appearances and favorite movies with the rest of you. He was, after all, arguably the best late night TV talk show guest of all time. That was certainly my view, as I spent my early years sharpening my sense of humor on nightly viewings of Carson and Letterman.

I’d have joined in the din of stories about others who suffer from depression and alcoholism and other mental illnesses. Between my family growing up, extended relatives and myself, mental illness is as prevalent in my world as the grains in the knotty pine trees outside my window. I’d tell you more, but that was last week’s meme.

Yes, this whole conversation happened with gusto last week and I plain missed out. In a way, I’m glad. What’s been said already by millions of us is probably enough, but we must still fight the battle where it is found. And here in Northern Minnesota, we struggle with not only the widespread existence of mental illness and addiction, but a culture of silence that surrounds these matters. Robin Williams’ death has already faded from the national headlines, just as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s did weeks before that. So let’s talk of something closer to home.

John Bauer, a friend and colleague from Northern Community Radio, experienced the tragic suicide of his 34-year-old daughter Megan last year. This video, from a series of films addressing the issue of mental illness, shows the road he and his family have traveled since that day. It’s well worth watching:

Episode 5 — John Bauer from LoLa Visuals LLC on Vimeo.

You’ll note that in the video, John reaches out to the mother of a Greenway High School student who took his own life this past year. I know John. I also know her. These are regular folks, regular families in Northern Minnesota. Their connection was formed simply by the fact that since few want to talk about mental illness and what happened to their loved ones, they would talk to each other.

John is working on an art project aiming to show the effects of suicide on the families afterward. In talking to someone very close to me who was on the brink, one of the pressing feelings she felt was the idea that life for the family would be better without her. That’s part of the desperate low feeling one gets at the very end. As John said in the video, if just one person sees this and realizes that there are people who want you to stay, then good. Because it’s true.

It’s a hard world. We’ve got light speed communication, but those wires don’t seem to transmit empathy or understanding very well. Kids learning how to relate to each other are often given false impressions of what matters, or feel increased relevance in the easily amplified voices of bullies.

Case in point: Jon Tevlin’s Sunday column in the Star Tribune details a mother’s story of her son’s recent suicide, another Greenway High School student, Isaiah Gatimu, who was bullied over his mixed race and for whom the school, by her estimation, did little to help.

From Tevlin’s heartbreaking column:

Isaiah’s mother said she decided to speak out “to open some eyes. I can’t believe this is happening in 2014.”

Correen said she gave up dealing with the school after the principal told Isaiah he should “look the other way” when harassed, something the school denied in its response.

“My fault was leaving him there that long,” Correen said. “I had faith in the school. I had faith in the system.”

Drugs, alcohol, depression, desperation. These are all around us. Because they are frightening, most avoid confronting or talking about them.

There is no cure for those afflicted, only treatment (treatment that can work wonders if you let it). What can we do when hope runs out? The only way to rebuild hope is through empathy. The only action is reaching out. The only comfort is doing something for others when they need you most. This goes for those with and without mental illness.

One thing that seemed to unify many of the anecdotes about Robin Williams last week was the idea that, when no one was looking, Williams would set aside his fame and status to make people laugh when they were at their lowest points. People carried around these special stories from diners and back rooms, and told them only after he was gone. Many might say that Williams sure was a nice guy, and he was. But what you don’t realize is that sometimes the only way to deal with your own problem is to help someone else. The only way to be understood is to try very hard to understand others. These acts of kindness probably added years to Williams’ life.

We’ll always be sad to lose Robin Williams, or Megan, or Isaiah, long before we should have. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be this way. No, not always. It doesn’t need to be this way for you, or that one person in your life you could help. You know who they are.

What do you do when hope runs out? You’ve got to give hope to others. That’s how hope comes back to you.

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