Drug addiction, mental illness, and suicidal behavior—which is often a result of one of the two aforementioned issues—are among a handful of problems that our culture has traditionally viewed as moral failings, rather than from physiological disorders. While some progress has been made in this realm, it has not been nearly enough to effect substantive change. Approximately 1 out of 4 Americans suffer from mental illness—that’s roughly 80 million people. Not all health insurance plans cover mental illness; in fact, states have been pushing back against expanding the Medicaid portion of Obamacare that would cover the mentally ill. The Trump administration plans to push this back even farther, eliminating mental illness and drug addiction coverage as an “essential benefit” for Americans seeking insurance. This could translate to millions of mentally ill people not receiving the care that they need.
Drug addiction, mental illness, self-harm and suicidal tendencies must be destigmatized before we can adequately address the issues as a society. Amy Bleuel made it her life’s work to fight for this cause. It is with profound sadness that I learned of Amy’s death this past week. She was a friend of mine and she took her own life.
As the news of the death of Project Semicolon’s founder hit, I perused the internet, perhaps in an effort to engage in a form of communal electronic grieving. There were tributes, of course, as she did so much for so many, but I was disheartened to find numerous posts condemning her death as an affront to the cause—how could someone fighting for others to live, willingly choose to die? In fact, the inspiration behind the now iconic semicolon tattoo is: “In literature, an author uses a semicolon to not end a sentence but to continue on. We see it as you are the author and your life is the sentence. You’re choosing to keep going.” These were Amy’s words, and she chose not to keep going.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s not a choice. Mental illness is not a choice.
My sister, Briana, was mentally ill. Her illness resulted in an addiction to drugs. She was addicted to drugs when she tried to throw herself out of a car I was driving at 60 miles per hour. She was addicted to drugs when she overdosed at my wedding. She was addicted to drugs when she died at thirty years of age.
Mental illness is a disease, and it killed my sister. It was a disease that not only detrimentally affected her, but also her family—my parents’ entire lives revolved around monitoring my sister’s illness and subsequent drug addiction. They know what it’s like. I know what it’s like. And lots of people know what it’s like. But there are also a lot of people who don’t want to acknowledge the seriousness of the illness. And when people do talk about it, it’s usually the people who know little to nothing about it—these people are largely under the impression that it’s not really a disease, or it’s the type of disease that can be talked out of someone. That’s just not how it works.
Just as you can’t talk someone out of terminal cancer, you can’t talk someone out of drug addiction, or out of suicidal ideation, or out of self-harm, or out of mental illness at large. These afflictions can be treated—there is hope, which Project Semicolon sought, and continues to seek, to bring sufferers—however, we don’t choose to be afflicted by such things. Sufferers are victims of these afflictions.
The people who live with these afflictions must push the boundaries of what is considered the “norm” and fight for drug addiction, mental illness and suicide to be included in the same conversations that include such life-threatening epidemics as cancer, AIDS, other deadly diseases. Those who believe the suicide of someone who fought so hard to prevent the suicide of others invalidates her cause, invalidates Project Semicolon, must ask themselves: If someone fighting to prevent cancer in others were to die of cancer, would that invalidate that person’s cause?
Guess what, it’s the same thing—the only thing separating the two diseases is stigma.
The issue of mental illness must be destigmatized. This is the impetus for making my film “No Alternative,” an endeavor that Amy and Project Semicolon supported wholeheartedly. I’m an indie filmmaker working in a business that has, as of late, marginalized personal filmmaking. The film is inspired by my sister’s story; her story isn’t over, because I’ve made it my mission to tell it.
I made this point clear when I got my semicolon tattoo in support of both my film and Project Semicolon’s campaign to end the stigma. It is a tattoo of a semicolon as part of a typewriter’s type-bar. I’m a writer, first and foremost. In the ensuing weeks after my sister died, I came across a journal of hers, which she kept as a patient in a long-term rehabilitation program for addiction. There was quite a bit of writing in its pages, but the only mention of me was a single line that read: “My brother says I shouldn’t waste my talent.” The context had to do with channeling her tumultuous emotions into her art. It wasn’t until several months later, the grief worsening and my productivity hitting a brick wall, that I thought, perhaps, I was meant to read those words, and furthermore that she wasn’t talking about me, about what I said, but that she was talking to me: she was telling me that I shouldn’t waste my talent.
The semicolon tattoo on my arm is there to remind me of this realization, this post-mortem message from my sister to keep writing, to keep making movies, to keep creating art. It now also reminds me of Amy and her struggle and how we all must keep fighting everyday, not only for others, but for ourselves—until the stigma is lifted, we as a society will continue to suffer. My filmmaker friend, John Sandel, summed it up recently when he said: “History can be charted by our efforts to see the causes of disease. “Miasmas become microbes; demons become neurologies … what do we confront in suicide? What epoch of understanding must we enter, to see this for what it is? Who will live, into that new era, who would otherwise have been lost to the error of our misconception?” I’ve personally lost more people my age from mental illness, addiction and suicide than from any other illness. When will we collectively accept this reality, and furthermore, do something about it?
Our stories aren’t over; we continue to tell them—we must continue to tell them in order to end the stigma, and we must continue to tell them in honor of Amy.
***If you’re in need of help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.***