When it comes talking about issues related to the aging population and caregivers’ needs, we must first have a frank discussion about mental illness and suicide.
A growing number of adults in the United States are suffering from mental illness and taking their own lives. Suicide is now a leading cause of death; suicide rates have increased by 31 percent since 2001. And at least 8.4 million people in the U.S. are caring for an adult with a mental or emotional health issue.
My father died by suicide at age 66. One drumbeat thought I had in the days following his death was: “I've been mourning him for years.” Over and over, I kept coming back to the thought that it felt like the father I knew died a long time before.
After my parents’ divorce, his behavior grew increasingly odd. He began to estrange himself, and when we spoke I could sense his fatigue and hear the obvious effects of drinking. He made a few attempts at communicating while I cared for my mother (his ex-wife) through cancer. She didn't want to see him, and I felt hurt and resentful that he had abandoned her (us) and I was left being the sole caregiver at such a young age. I told him I would contact him when I could, once I was less raw and overextended from caregiving. The rest of our conversations were signs of his failing mental health, which I didn't fully understand. I would receive nonsensical voicemails from him. In one conversation, he thought I was my mother (who had passed on at that time). At that point, I knew something was wrong — very wrong. And then he was gone.
After he died, I spoke with several people who had been more present in his life in his final years. They told stories that stunned me. “Well, he talked a lot about having PTSD from his military service,” said a friend. My dad was drafted for Vietnam but was sent home for failing the physical. He not only never saw active duty, I'm pretty sure he never made it out of Boston. As stories like this trickled out, I gained a greater understanding of his mental state. I wonder how aware his spouse was of his dysfunction (she never knew him in his more stable years) and how difficult it must have been for her to bear witness to his decline and passing.
Mental illness: The signs
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental illness isn't always easy. Generally, my father was functional. He worked hard, had friends, enjoyed golf. There was just this jumbo-sized elephant on his shoulder that only some of us could see and should not have ignored, like the alcohol abuse, increasingly erratic behavior and estrangement.