Mark Henick, a mental health advocate, talks at TEDxToronto on Why We Choose Suicide on September 26, 2013 at The Royal Conservatory of Music.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Why we choose suicide – Mark Henick – TEDxToronto
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.