Mental Illness as a Terminal Disease

After thirty years, there have been many bad days, and generally they involved people who had passed, usually tragically. Many colleges and universities have tall buildings that tend to draw desperate people to them. On one occasion, I was working as the Public Information Officer when a student, a young man had leaped from the top of one of our parking garages and had suffered fatal injuries near the front entrance of one of our service buildings. I avoided the scene, because I could. I was not part of the investigation; I was to provide appropriate information to the people and organizations that needed it. They say that things cannot be unseen; I have enough dead bodies in my head, I didn’t need to add any more. The day was long and sad for students, faculty, staff, neighbors, and others.

About an hour after the scene had been cleaned up and everyone had either gone home or back to their respective jobs, I was in my office, still a little time to go on my shift. The dispatcher called and said that the young man’s father was on the phone and there was no one else around to send him to, could I take the call? The Coroner’s Office had already notified him, but he obviously had some additional questions. Not having any real options, I told the dispatcher to send me the call. I couldn’t bring myself to simply let him stew until someone else could call him back, no matter how heart-wrenching the conversation might be.

The father spoke for a while first; he clearly needed someone to listen and I did that. He explained that his son had suffered from severe depression for several years, since his early teens, that he was on medication, and that he had to be hospitalized several times, including an emergency mental health hold that he had just been released from about twelve hours before he had taken his own life. And then he asked me, “How could I have failed my son, like this? How could I be such a bad father that he had to kill himself? There must have been something else I should have done.” (I’m sure that is not exactly how he said it, but it is how I remember it).

When he finally paused, I explained to him that his son suffered from a serious illness and that he needed to think of it like cancer. Sometimes, even if you go through all the treatments and procedures, the cancer wins and takes the patient’s life. The same is true of mental illness. His son didn’t kill himself, he succumbed to his mental illness; he fought long and hard, but ultimately lost his battle with depression. And nothing the father did caused this.

Mental illness is a killer and the victims need the same support and resources that we provide to people with cancer and other deadly illnesses.