Mark Henick, a mental health advocate, talks at TEDxToronto on Why We Choose Suicide on September 26, 2013 at The Royal Conservatory of Music.
Mark Henick – Mental Health Advocate
I was barely a teenager the first time I tried to kill myself. If I knew then what I know now, well it probably wouldn’t have changed very much. And it probably wouldn’t have changed very much because sometimes it doesn’t matter what you know, what you feel just takes over. And there are so many ways like this that our perception becomes limited. In fact, our perception is its limits and these limits, they’re created by our biology, by our psychology, by our society. These are the factors which create that bubble which surrounds us, that is our perceptual field: Our world as we know it.
Now this bubble, our perceptual field that has this incredible ability to expand and contract based on changes in any of those factors which create an informant. Most of us have experienced the challenges of the contraction of our perception from time to time.
Think about that time when you got cut off in traffic, in the city, it was probably today let’s face it. When it happened maybe you felt your heart rate start to quicken, your face flushed, you jammed on your breaks in order to avoid a collision. And when you did, you focused in on that one license plate as it sped by. Maybe the only thing to go through your mind at that time was how creative you could be in the words you were about to hurl out the window at that guy. Now eventually your perception would have returned to normal. You would have relaxed, you would have – went on with your day, you probably would have even forgotten about it.
But imagine you didn’t, imagine you stayed there, stuck there, in that narrow dark place. Well that’s what it can be like to live with a mental illness. At least that’s what it was like for me at the depth of my own mental illness as a teenager. My perception had become constricted and darkened and collapsed. I felt like an asthmatic who had lost his glasses in a hurricane.
So when I was sitting in that chair across from my eighth-grade guidance counselor, the only thing that I could think was you’re not good enough; you’re not smart enough, You’re Not Enough. And it didn’t matter if I was because these were the constricted limits of my perception.
So when I held that 8-inch chef’s knife in my hand and I raised it to my throat and I just pressed it there and I felt the blood begin to trickle down my hand. The only thing I could think in that moment: nobody would even know you’re gone.
I heard the guidance counselor asked from across the room, miles away it seemed like – he said, “Mark, please don’t.” I heard him but I wasn’t listening. I just took a deep breath. I don’t have a choice.
Had the guidance counselor not reached for me across the room, tackled me to the floor, wrestled that knife from my hand, maybe I wouldn’t be here today. I think about that a lot.
Now not all days were that dramatic. In fact, most days I probably seem like just any other normal kid if not a little quiet. And because the truth is I was. In fact, I was so normal most people never would have guessed they probably would have even been surprised to find out – how I would hate the way the sunlight came in my window every morning when I would wake up. I know that some of you know that feeling too.
I was so normal that a few years later after not getting the help that I so clearly needed, most people would have never known that I was the one that it caused so much commotion late one night when I tried to jump from an overpass.
Then again if they did now, I would have been the last to find out anyway, because that’s how these types of things go. People seem plenty eager to talk about mental illness and about suicide just as long as it’s behind closed doors and hushed voices.
Well this is the part that I’m doing differently with you today: by sharing with you my experiences I hope to raise my voice and I hope to open those doors. And this is how I do it.
I remember. I remember I was wandering the empty streets of my hometown. I was alone this time unlike that other time. And it’s because I wanted to die alone. My mind was running, screaming, shaking, collapsing in on itself again.
When you’re in that place and your perception is collapsing like that, those old thoughts kept coming back again: you’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough. You’re not enough.
So I walked up and I approached the railing to the overpass. I walked along it. I looked over. I came to a light post on my left hand side and I stopped. Should I hang in there for just one more day? That’s a phrase that people always seem to ask themselves when they’re suicidal I found. I asked it to myself and others with whom I’ve worked, young people today, they’ve asked it too. It’s this instinctual word of hope. Should I hang on there for just one more day?
For what? To be that crazy kid. I’ve already held on for this long and things haven’t gotten any better. Why would I keep trying what hasn’t been working? I’m not crazy. My perception was collapsing. It was squeezing out that instinctual hope that everybody has inside them.
So I climbed the railing in three parts like rungs on a ladder. I was being very careful not to slip.
I climbed back down the other side again. I had very few choices in my life. But this: This was certainly one and I needed something – anything that I could be certain about. So I turned around and I felt the railing pressing against my back just below my shoulder blades. I stretched my arms out on its cool metal surface. I remember feeling raindrops under my fingers.
I looked down at my shoes. My running shoes were old, worn-out, tired. My heels were on the concrete. My toes were on nothing. I looked past my toes to the ground 50 or so feet below. And on the ground I saw a rusted out chain link fence topped by three strings of barbed wire.
As I was standing there in that moment, the only thing that I could think for my collapsed perception was: How far out? Would I need to jump from this bridge so I wouldn’t land on that fence?
Because I just didn’t want it to – I just didn’t want it to hurt anymore. In that moment, my entire life was completely in my control. And when you’re living in a hurricane like this all the time, that’s a really unfamiliar but really satisfying feeling: to feel like you have control over your whole life.
So I stayed like that for a while. I just stood there in that feeling, experiencing that feeling of having agency over my life for a change. Eventually I was brought back into the present by a man’s voice over my right shoulder.
I talked to him for a while but even today I don’t remember about what. He was wearing a light brown jacket but I don’t remember his face. I didn’t look back long enough and I never saw him again. Before I knew it, I could see flashing lights from the corner of my eyes. I looked to my right and to my left and there were three police cars on either side blocking off the street. There were crowds of late night gatherers gawking at me from either side. This was 2, 3 in the morning I guess. Either they came home from the bars or they just walked up to see what was going on.
A male voice from my right side, I heard him scream to me, “Jump, you coward!”
Okay. That’s enough.
Again, I took a deep breath and as I did my arms, they seemed to rise from the railing, like they’d suddenly become weightless and unburdened. I could feel the edge of the concrete under the arches of my feet begin to shift. I started to pitch forward. And as I did, I felt the wind blow around my body and on my face and through my hair and it felt free.
Then an arm reached around my chest, a hand grabbed the back of my shirt. The man in the light brown jacket later told police that my body was completely limped when he grabbed me and he dragged me backward over the railing.
Can suicide really be a choice if it’s the only choice available? We ask ourselves – how can it be the only choice? How can it even be a rational choice? And hopefully we wonder and we ask ourselves: how we can help? Well, we can start to help by better appreciating that our mental health is contingent on the state and the flexibility of our perceptions. Whether we have a mental illness or not, how expanded or how contracted our perception becomes, impacts the choices that we make.
When I was standing on that bridge, my perception was so collapsed that I only had that one choice.
Now when we encounter the suicide of somebody else, we always seem to try to rationalize it. I hear it all the time. And I think that’s because we’re uncomfortable with feeling helpless and with not understanding. But since we know that our perceptions are created and continually informed by our biology, by our psychology and by our society, we actually have many entry points for potentially helping and better understanding suicide.
One way that we can help is to stop saying that people commit suicide. People commit rape. They commit murder. But nobody has committed suicide in this country since the early 1970s when suicide was decriminalized. And that’s because suicide is a public health concern, not a criminal one. And it’s a health concern; we know that. 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable mental illness at the time of their death. And we know that with medication, with psychotherapy, these treatments work. So we need to make these treatments more available in an informed way to everybody.