By: Serena Brahney, Producer Larry King Now
Suicide hits close to home for me. It runs in my family, and I’ve borne witness to the cycle of depression and suicidal ideation and attempt more than a few times. It’s a brutal, heartbreaking experience – to see the person you know slip away from you with no sense whether they’ll ever return, to watch someone you love battle a pain deep enough that it overrides their natural instinct to survive. It’s changed me as a human being. And it’s one I’m not supposed to talk about.
But I do: because suicide is the third leading cause of death worldwide for those between the ages of 15 and 44, killing more people in the U.S. than car accidents or homicide. Because more soldiers die at their own hands each day than at the hands of others. Because people in pain shouldn’t have to hide it –and because when they do, we’re more likely to lose them.
As a society, we tend to stigmatize mental illness and suicide. Psychopathology is shrouded in shame and a misguided sense of wrongdoing, as though the afflicted party somehow deserves their pain. When a person is battling cancer, she isn’t blamed for her condition. Why don’t we treat mental illness with the same compassion?
I’m not sure I’ll ever fully grasp the solution, but I can tell you Elizabeth Gini is part of it.
Elizabeth lost her son – Everybody Loves Raymond actor Sawyer Sweeten – to suicide in April. He was only 19. As with anyone who loses a child, Lizz’s grief is private and she had every right to keep it that way. Instead, she came to us to help her share her story.
There were hours of phone calls and research and assuaging fears that led up to her interview with Larry, and when Lizz walked into the studio it was the most nervous I’ve been about a guest. It’s hard enough to open up about your pain publicly; it’s harder still to do it knowing you may be judged. But Lizz was brilliant. Brave and genuine, she led with an open heart and the conviction that sharing her heartbreak serves a greater good.
Suicide prevention expert (and wholly decent human being) Dr. Dan Reidenberg joined later in the show to contextualize Sawyer's suicide, and hit home the deep importance of talking candidly about mental illness with your kids.
Lizz shared her story not just for her son, but for every person who’s hurting and afraid to get help; for the parent, or spouse, or child who is worried about a loved one and doesn’t know what to do; for those of us who hold well-meaning but damaging misconceptions about whom mental illness affects. “I want to help other parents,” Lizz told Larry in the interview. “I don’t want any other mother or father to feel what we’re feeling, ever.”
If there’s anything that Robin Williams’ tragic death can teach us, it’s that mental illness is impervious to status, celebrity, and wealth; we’re all vulnerable. And if there’s something we can learn from Elizabeth Gini, it’s that maybe the best way to help people better understand mental illness is to be willing to share your own experience with it.
She’s certainly taught me as much. I wouldn’t have written this were it not for her.
For more information on suicide prevention and healing after loss, visit Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, or SAVE, as well as the website Lizz created in honor of Sawyer. And if you’re in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255. There will always be someone there to talk to you.
My sincere hope is that you never battle mental illness yourself or alongside someone you love. But if you do, know that there are scores of people ready to offer you support and guidance, and that you are never alone.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.