Mental illness and suicide go hand in hand

This year for my May 20 birthday I’ve asked my Facebook friends to donate to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in memory of our son Paul Sharples who took his life on September 23, 1999 after a seven-year battle with bipolar disorder. The point here is that we need to erase the stigma of mental illness to save people from suicide. The two go hand in hand. Here are my thoughts on  erasing the stigma.


My family is rampant with mental illness. But as far back as I can remember not a one of my relatives used those words. My mother told me my grandmother had a “nervous breakdown” after her oldest daughter, my mother’s sister, died of uterine cancer. She was hospitalized and given electric shock treatments and then she seemed fine.

Also two of my uncles had to be hospitalized for “depression.” In good times one uncle spoke five languages, remembered stories of his childhood in Lithuania and Russia, and told the corniest jokes to anyone who would listen; but when he got depressed, he didn’t know where he lived or who he was. My other uncle had a booming voice and a brash demeanor on his good days. When he would come to visit us in Chicago from his home in the East, he would take my brother and me out of our beds even if we were down for the night and throw us up onto his shoulders. He’d bounce us around for a while and then tell us to go back to sleep. I was scared to tears but always looked forward to his visits.

Later on, his highs gave way to deep depressions. He’d sit staring at the walls, hardly speaking, and worried for no reason that he had lost all his money. Only after he died and my son died, did my aunt tell me her husband suffered with bipolar disorder (it was called manic depression in those days), recounting the many manic and depressive episodes she lived through with him.

Why did she wait to tell me after they died? Why couldn’t she have helped me gain some understanding about what I was dealing with and about how deadly this disorder could be?

I also think my mother had some form of mental illness. Some days she could be higher than a kite, talking nonstop, reveling in everyone’s attention. And on others she just sat, staring off in space, unable to open her mouth. I never knew which mother I would encounter when I called her – the friendly mother or the one ready to pick a fight. But she was never hospitalized, even though I thought on more than one occasion that she definitely belonged in a mental ward. Once when I told her I thought she needed to see a therapist she had fit. In her mind, a therapist equaled crazy.

I never heard that my first cousin had a manic break during her freshman year in college either. She didn’t even fess up and tell me about her experience when my son Paul was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age twenty-one. She also didn’t consider how much I might have learned from it.

That behavior in my family still goes on – long after my son’s death by suicide as a result of his bipolar disorder. For example, one of my relatives came to our house to discuss the family history my husband had been writing. After reviewing the material, he made one request – leave out the part about his father’s bipolar disorder. In fact, he didn’t want to see any discussion in the history of the mental illness that permeates my side of our family.

That’s proof enough for me that the stigma of mental illness still exists. None of my family talked about it or even admitted it existed. And they still don’t want to talk about it. they want to rewrite our history.

And because mental illness was never mentioned in my family, I didn’t thought about it when it was my turn to have children. I worried about Down’s syndrome since I was over thirty when Paul was conceived, and my husband and his former wife had had a Down’s syndrome son. Mental illness never entered my mind.

As a consequence when Paul had his first manic episode during his senior year of college in New York and was diagnosed as bipolar I was in shock. We had seen him two weeks earlier at our home in California and he was perfectly fine – so, we thought he was acting out because of drugs. Even he didn’t know what was wrong – he thought his food and drinks were being poisoned with drugs. And once I knew what he had (no drugs were found in his system), I felt guilty because I kept thinking Paul went crazy because of my genes. By the way, genetics play a part in the cause of mental illness.

He struggled for seven years with bipolar disorder, and I thoroughly believe the stigma of his mental illness stopped him from a treatment program that might have saved him from his destiny, suicide. Once in a while he’d laugh about his “crack up” or say he wouldn’t go into the “looney bin,” emulating the way others characterize and stigmatize the mentally ill. Otherwise, he wore his normal mask. Paul was a master at hiding his bipolar symptoms – unless he was experiencing very extreme highs or lows. He didn’t want to take his meds because he felt he couldn’t create or play music when he was on them. He felt they evened out his mood too much.

Not talking about the realities of mental illness and suicide is just one of the ways stigma is exhibited. Other ways include: bullying, making negative remarks, calling a mentally ill person crazy and other derogatory names, portraying a mentally ill person as a sociopath or violent in films and television, characterizing a mentally ill person as weak and stupid, and abusing them in prisons where most mentally ill people are currently warehoused.

During the last two years of our son’s life, he worked for an internet service provider, solving people’s internet problems over the phone. When the people in the company heard of the reason for his death they were shocked to find out he had any illness whatsoever. I strongly feel that had he followed the current advice, such as admitting something was wrong, not feeling ashamed, seeking out and following treatment and support, accepting help from family and friends, and talking openly and often about it, he might still be alive today.




Speak Your Mind