TW: MH/S/SI. This story has discussions around mental health, specifically a mental health professional who lost their life to suicide and suicidal ideation.
The Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) is a credible professional body that sets standards for caring, ethical and safe therapeutic practice, for it’s members, in Canada. In regards to “professional impairment”, the CCPA Standard of Practice (2020) notes
“Counsellors/therapists should take steps to appropriately limit their professional responsibilities when their physical, mental, spiritual, or personal circumstances are such that they have diminished capacity to provide competent services to all or to particular clients…in such situations… (they) may need to limit, suspend, or terminate their professional services.”
We invite our community members to read our Unsinkable story if it’s the right time for them. We have also included resources for support:
- Crisis Text Line
- Kids Help Phone
- Better Help
- Canadian Psychological Association – Support lines for front-line health service providers(across Canada)
- CAMH –Resources for health care workers(Ontario)
- Good therapy – Resources for Therapists and Counsellors
A2 : Hesper
“How chronically dispiriting and crooked it feels to live in a world where providers trained in suicide prevention take their own lives,” I typed to my best friend, my thumbs shaking and slipping in the saltwater film that fell from my eyes and coated the glass screen. It was a cold evening in the middle of October 2020, arguably one of the tensest periods this year has seen. My heart had broken in a way I didn’t think it could again, cracking right through a scar. I continued to type, translating horror into words that I never sent. I am only writing them now because this is a story I can’t not tell.
In December of 2015, one of my childhood friends died by suicide. In February of 2017, I sat on the edge of my dorm room bed and decided that the pain of living with Major Depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder exceeded the reasons I fought each day. Blanketing it all was the fact that I was a varsity athlete at Stanford and a member of the Canadian National Team. Even so, I found myself in the Stanford hospital on a 51-50 hold the next day. I worked for four years with a radiant, benevolent therapist, who saved my life. He gave me the courage to write and the bravery to hope that I could still play the sport I loved. In October of 2020, he took his life.
I write today for the people like him, who dedicate their lives to embodying the warm lamplight in the cold, loneliness of our bedrooms at night. As patients, we don’t think twice about potential power outages on our therapist’s side of town, in which the plug of their lamp hugs the outlet, silently begging for life. The thought doesn’t cross our minds, as we lay our stories out bare in fragments of pain, thought and troubled belief. The person who fought for my life struggled to fight for their own. This thought never crossed my mind, because he was a professional.
I’ve learned more in 2020 than I have in a lifetime, whether it be about myself or other people. A common mistake I’ve made is writing about an experience on the other side of it. Many people don’t write about learning the hard way until after the fact. I want to try to do that here. My heart is still broken, and I’ve vowed to write through it, highlighting what I am learning, feeling, and hoping for, as someone who has lived alongside suicide, debilitating mental illness and unbearable loss.
I’ve thrown my phone and my laptop across the room, trying to find words that encompass the failure hovering around me — my own, and the mental health care system’s. I’ve scrambled through my watery vision for paper and a pen, physically pushing words into the page, as if the friction could release some of what I felt. It came out in fragments, almost poetry:
“How heavy is the water that we carry from before us –
the water that is not our own,
the water that is made of everything,
a saturated saline solution of thoughts,
each grain of salt invisible
and not our own, though,
heavy enough that our light
is drawn into the glass bones above us,
used to determine what made us hurt so much,
as we lay
blue cloth, soaked in blood
that is our own,
by our own hand.”
The shadows have grown up the walls in grief, anger, and torment. My heart screams sometimes, retching and begging for answers through the night. The connection between suicide and myself makes my ears burn with how frequent the thoughts have become. At times I feel at fault. I feel a persistent familiar pain now, but on an unfamiliar scale, slowly separating oxygen from my blood. My therapist died by suicide — my therapist — the one who had ensured that I did not fall down that path myself. The person who saved my life took theirs.
People say that there is a purpose for pain. I want to believe that. I want to believe that there are ways in which we don’t have to carry all of our pain — medication, science, Faith in God, sleep, nutrition, and therapy are supposed to fix you, they say. I used to ask: “What do I do when my medication stops working or when God doesn’t answer my prayers?” I never thought I’d have to ask: “What do you do when your therapist takes their life?” I now face two choices: lose faith and hope in the world or try to weave it back in.
B2 : Phosphor
Over the past year, I’ve left all of my work tabs open, the bulk of which are mental health research, writing, and speaking projects. I like to see them first thing in the morning — they remind me that I have a job to do despite the pain I feel in my heart and mind. I’ve also gone on a research binge, combing through podcasts, webinars, articles, essays, TED Talks, and social media. I absorb as much as I can before noon, mostly in desperation. In the morning, I have to fill the available space in my mind or I’ll break.
People usually like mornings — there is something fresh and confident about the earliest light. Writers, including myself, usually write the feel-good segments of their stories in the mornings before the day has a chance to inhale the air from us. We are seemingly most motivated to do what we do when the sun is out, either externally or internally. This isn’t always the case. Writers typically write the most personal sections of their stories at night — often the motivation behind their work. Both pieces inform the other and are intertwined when published. Contrary to stigma, this isn’t too different from any other profession. The only difference is, that there is limited space for the lived experience that informs the reason why people choose specific lines of work, especially in the mental healthcare field.
We have a terrible habit of merely valuing people for what they do. We separate their body of work from who they are, expecting enthusiasm to be perpetually present, floating above them. Nobody stops to think about why people do the work that they do. The people with the most abundant compassion, empathy, and care for others — mental health care providers — are possibly the ones who have needed it the most in the past. Who is to say they don’t need it now?
In a conversation with Ruthie Lindsey, Miles Adcox, and Morgan Harper Nichols on The Unspoken Podcast, a common theme has stuck with me in the months since it settled on my heart: what we devote ourselves to delivering to the world is what we long for and need most. When you’re an expert, there is no place to struggle with the very thing you’re an expert in. We don’t grant permission to need the thing we give or teach each day. This dynamic is heartbreaking, given that we know, via Marie Curie, that our wounds and our power share a common root. Unfortunately, building the bridge from victimhood to agency each day requires something extraordinary from us: we must constantly re-open our wounds. Though personal history might not repeat in patients, more often than not it shares the same cadence.
I think in signs, I suppose because I’m a writer at heart. I used to see my heart’s subtle, soft murmur as a silent cry for help. I’ve had it since I was an infant. My head also sweats abnormally compared to the rest of my body. I used to be able to wring out my thin braid, saturated with sweat. Throughout basketball practice, it silently dripped salty water across the hardwood. I believed it was releasing the tears I’d held in for so long — there was nowhere else that my body could expel the pain of living as an athlete with a mental illness. I was supposed to be mentally unbreakable. Athletes and mental health care providers alike are not permitted to break — it is their job not to.
We live in a world that yearns to separate who we are from what we do, even though it is inevitable that this cannot be done. Who you are and what you do are forever intertwined. Many people are able to weigh what they can do with their pain, above how heavy it is to carry — there is much we choose to throw over our shoulders though it destroys our bodies and minds. The sinister side of this is the connection: it is easy to believe that only in death is it severed, and that only in death is the mind quiet. We forget to ask: at what point does the voice we have built begin to crack under the weight of life lived and do the eyes begin to eclipse in fear of what lies ahead. In the context of mental healthcare professionals and workers, there has to be a better way to simultaneously carry pain, and allow it to motivate us and give us strength in our work.
C2 : Venus
When we think of the mental health crisis, we don’t think of providers, we think of patients. I was listening to Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us Podcast while running recently, specifically an episode featuring Doctors Emily and Amelia Nagoski, who wrote Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. The conversation was centred around the idea that we often leave the path of emotions unfinished in our bodies. Brené Brown read an excerpt from the book:
“In short, emotions are tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.”
Our lives activate our emotions constantly. However, many of us do not complete the cycle that emotions demand in our bodies — a beginning, middle, and end. Removing a stressor does not remove the emotion from our body. We have to ride the emotion through the tunnel. If we get stuck for too long, we face exhaustion and burnout. While listening, I immediately thought of mental health care providers. How are they finding time to finish the emotions that arise from interacting with patients, perhaps not unlike themselves?
Further along in the podcast, The Human Giver Syndrome, first described in Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne is outlined in the context of the human giver versus the human being:
“Human beings whose job it is to live, to express, to be their humanity, and they have a moral obligation to acquire whatever resources it takes in order to accomplish their moral obligation. And on the other hand, the human givers whose moral obligation it is to give their humanity, their time, their lives, their bodies, their feelings to the human beings.”
Many people become trapped and stuck in their emotion cycles because of this syndrome. These words stopped me in the middle of my run. In some ways, though not all, I’ve crossed a bridge from the midnight that was manifesting in my heart and mind four years ago as a Stanford freshman. I have felt an obligation to share my story and my pain, often finding hope and power in the verse 2 Corinthians 1:4:
“He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”
As I have strongly advocated for mental health through my writing, speaking, and connecting, I have felt that deep bone exhaustion. I cannot imagine how mental health care providers feel, especially if their patient’s stories are reflections of their own. Notably, being a therapist, for example, is not a steady or well-paid profession. It might be one of the few jobs where money isn’t the sole motivator. Therapists often lose money on appointments due to sliding scales and struggle to retain their patients. Yet, they choose to carry another’s pain, suffering, experiences, and healing journeys with them, on top of their own. The weight must be immense, regardless of lived experience with mental illness or mental health challenges. I cannot speak for anyone else, but it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that holding another’s pain is our duty, above and beyond taking the time to hold our own. There needs to be a space for the resulting emotions to run their course in the body before it is too late.
Of course, there are places not to do this. For example, there is a reason why mental health care providers must be wary of sharing their lived experiences with patients — there is a specific time and place for these exchanges. There is also no root cause of suicide among mental health care providers. What I hope to highlight, is that sometimes the strongest people and the ones lifting us up, need support or even need it the most.
Throughout history, we’ve seen many instances of mass unrest and chaos. Somehow, people find peace in knowing that they are treading the water together. The most dangerous place to be is in comparison, which is the thief of that feeling of togetherness. How do we ensure that people in the mental health care field feel that they are in this together, especially now?
Ariela Safira, the CEO of Real spoke about mental health innovation in a Business Casual Podcast titled Mental Health Innovation Starts Here. Safira discusses the mental health language needed to describe our experiences of trauma, pain, and suffering — it is a language most people don’t know how to speak. Overcasting this is clinical jargon, much of which is confusing and difficult to use. Listening to this podcast made me think about my own experience in one-on-one therapy, and why it worked for me. While at Stanford, I majored in Human Biology, concentrating in studies on the brain, behaviour, and mental health. As I went through therapy, I was learning the language required for it. I was privileged in this way. However, when I think of the moments which truly saved me, it was the comfort I felt with being raw and digging into the depth of my trauma. My therapist went there with me, and helped me craft a narrative of my experience with words I still use today. I wish I could have done the same for him.
There needs to be a space for mental healthcare providers to do the same, and I believe, with one another. It is admirable that they have the command over the clinical lexicon that they do. However, like many other business settings, this breeds the potential for comparison. I’m still learning how to walk the tightrope between working with relentless passion, and knowing when I need to unpack its toll. It is challenging for both to coexist. I don’t necessarily know what I’ve been searching for these past few months – perhaps answers I won’t find because I am hurt. I pray that heartbreak brews the most promising potential for growth and learning. That’s why I’m here. With that, I’m learning that we must pause, and recognize that what we deliver to the world, we may need most. I’m learning that we have to allow difficult emotions to run their course within us to fend off burnout. I’m learning that our painful experiences do not inform a duty above ourselves, and that we are human beings, not human givers. I’m learning that we must foster and search for togetherness over comparison. I’m learning that breaking free of clinical jargon and mental health as a crisis can build a capacity of language that allows us to communicate pain and trauma. If we do these things, we can find and save ourselves. If we help those who lift us up to find these things, we can save lives. We must find a way to give back that which they have given us.
Learning is arduous when its initiated the hard way, and I’ve struggled to find peace in myself through it. However, I have learned that I don’t have to be all pain or all joy. I can be a complicated mix of the two at any time. People are both, and so we must craft space for both.
There are always signs that someone is going to take their life. The strongest step forward we can take is knowing that we aren’t necessarily the ones meant to see them. This is why everyone needs to be educated, because nobody is immune. We cannot blame ourselves for the lives we can’t bring back. We can’t change someone’s actions. It’s never due to a lack of faith, or love, but it is a recognition of something my great grandmother used to say: “we’re not all in the same boat. We’re in the same storm.” If we have a good boat, we ought to share it, or help others build their own.
Pythagoras discovered that a2+b2=c2 and that Phosphor and Hesper, the morning and evening star, are one and the same: Venus. So should be our view of people — our day and night are equal, inseparable, and needed. You cannot separate who you are from what you do, when you give light because you’ve been in the dark.
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