PARISI: We should advocate for mental health awareness during National Suicide Prevention Month

This story has mentions of sexual assault, self harm and suicide. If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self harm The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States is available 24 hours a day at 800-273- 8255.

For many teenagers in the United States, mental health is a big concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a reported 3.2% or approximately 1.9 million children aged 2-17 have diagnosed depression, 1.2 million people attempted suicide in 2020 and 48, 344 Americans died by suicide in 2020. It was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States in 2020.

The number is only increasing. People with mental illnesses may not speak up because they’re scared, and many do not get the help they need before it is too late. I was almost one of those statistics before my friends and parents saved me from what would have been a terrible mistake. This is my story.

“That was your school’s psychologist, it’s time Kristin, we need to take action.”

Those were the last words my dad told me on January 13, 2019 before my entire body went numb.

For years leading up to 2019, I was dealing with severe depression and did not know how to tell anyone what I was feeling. While I was in health class studying mental illness, I was surrounded by kids who made jokes about depression and suicide and said “people were dramatic,” or it is so easy to “get out of the dumps.”

I did not want to be the “crazy” person because I was depressed. I knew I could not speak up because I would not have been heard, I would have been told to just “snap out of it.” Little did I know bottling up those feelings almost cost me my life.

I never knew the exact root of my depression, but throughout my life, I dealt with trauma that I never talked about with anyone. When I was 11, my mom was admitted into the ICU with a severe infection that caused her to be on a ventilator. I did not know what was wrong with my mom, but I did know she was surrounded by a bunch of people who were either dying or already died while she was admitted. I thought she was next, that I was going to lose my best friend.

I was the baby of the family, so all the adults were constantly asking me if I was okay, but when I went to school to share the news, some people had no reaction. Maybe it was because they could not process what was going on themselves, but it made me feel like I shouldn’t have a reaction either. I felt like it didn’t matter that I couldn’t sleep at night or worry that the goodbye I said to my mom as I was leaving the hospital could be my last.

Those feelings stayed inside and every night, even after she was discharged, I still cried myself to sleep because I was scared that one day my mom wouldn’t make it.

Fast forward to August 3, 2016. We were in New Jersey and my dad called me from Maryland and right away I knew something was wrong. Minutes went by and my dad broke the news. My older cousin was murdered the night before while she was on her daily run. I froze. It felt like time stopped. He didn’t say anything else, but when I googled it, there it was: “30-year-old female sexually assaulted and strangled to death in Howard Beach, New York.” My cousin’s death was right in front of me, and I still could not believe it.

I wasn’t allowed to go to the wake or the funeral because it was too traumatic and unbearable for a child like me to go through. When my dad came back, he told me all about it. The service, the butterflies they released (because my cousin love butterflies) and the wake. It seemed like a beautiful tribute for a beautiful person.

That day and that moment changed me for the rest of my life. Although I needed to get the emotions off my chest, I didn’t want to feel like a burden to my friends, so I decided not to tell many of them. I kept it to myself because I was starting high school, and didn’t want to be the emotionally traumatized girl that no one wanted to be around.

I was scared to walk alone, scared to be home alone at night and just scared to be outside. I did not know if I was going to be the next girl killed, so I never wanted to leave my house. It felt like a piece of me died inside. I felt like I was nothing; no feelings, emotions or thoughts. Time went on and my mood kept getting worse. My confidence wasn’t there anymore, and I felt like a failure. I never wanted to get out of bed, did not even want to exist in the world. I felt like nothing, and I just wanted the pain to go away.

I tried many therapists, but they never helped. Yes I talked about my feelings for once, but I got nothing out of it except time away from my room. I never felt like they understood me or my trauma so I stopped trying. I stopped trying with them, with my friends, family and school. I wanted to quit and wanted to give up. I was there physically but that was it.

I was always known as the funny one, the girl who made everyone laugh. It seemed like my life was great, but deep down I was broken into a million pieces. People always told me that I made their day, and made them feel something. But it was ironic because I felt nothing. I was so dead on the inside but so alive on the outside. I needed to put on a front so no one expected a thing. I would be out having a “good time” but the second I got home I just broke down. I cried myself to sleep, and thought about all the ways I could just end this pain once and for all.

Fast forward to November 2018. My cousin’s first trial. I watched on T.V. as the evidence was being brought out, and I felt like I witnessed my cousin’s final moments. At this point, this trial was my last hope. The killer would be guilty and I felt like there was a reason to still be alive. Then the unthinkable happened: hung jury.

After I found out that the trial had no verdict, I gave up all hope. There was no reason to live anymore if my cousin had no justice. All my emotions that were bottled up came spilling out. I thought everyday “What would be the best way to end my life?”

I already made up my mind that I wanted to kill myself, but I needed to wait until I thought of a way that I wanted to go. I started writing suicide letters to my parents, my best friends and to the teachers that made my high school experience worth it. I had already started cutting my wrists because I needed a way to let the pain go. I would go home every night, lock myself in the bathroom and do it. I could not stop, I was in so much pain and I could just not lead myself to stop.

I would listen to “A Drop In the Ocean” and just free myself with the cutting. They were already up and down my arms, swollen and red, but I was so ashamed to let others see my pain that I would cover it up with Band-Aids. Basketball practice was not any better because I could feel the stares and people would come up to me with a concerned look and I would have to say “I slipped on my driveway.” It was the lamest excuse but it sort of worked. My parents were starting to get suspicious because we were always out of Band-Aids and I was always asking for more.

It was January 2019 and I had just celebrated New Years with my friends, but for me it was not a new year that would be filled with new beginnings, it was the year that would be my last alive. I tried to fill my last weeks with fun and memories so my friends could fall back on them after I was gone.

I thought I would be getting off scot-free until three of my teammates reached out to me and seemed very concerned. I tried to let myself get through it and lie and say I was all okay, but I couldn’t do it any longer. I told them the truth, and from there my secret was out in the open. They went to get me help right away and we are now back to January 13th, 2019.

That day in school, I met with the psychologist and told her everything, which she told my dad and from there my life was never the same.

My dad immediately took me to Sheppard Pratt, a psychiatric hospital in Towson, Maryland where I was admitted for suicidal thoughts and tendencies. From there I worked with staff members to help me get better. I was with kids ages 10-17 everyday, hearing all kinds of stories. It was an experience unlike any other, because I was out of school, and could not see anyone I knew.

I sat there in silence while the workers read out the diagnosis I already knew was coming.

“Major Depressive Disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. PTSD.”

Hearing those words, and knowing that I was actually diagnosed and it was no longer a joke, really hit me in ways I could never understand. You never want to hear those words, but it was my fate.

I was scared. I was worried. I felt so alone.

The staff there was nice some of the time, but other times they were mean. Some complained about pay, while others strived to make a difference.

At first I thought to myself, “No way this will work. I will cruise through this, and go back to my scheduled plan.” But after a week, I knew I was making the wrong decision and needed to change my outlook on life.

I promised my counselor that I would try a little longer, and that he would see me walk across the stage at graduation. He made me realize that my life mattered, and that people would care that I am gone.

I made sure everyday that I would be willing to help myself get better. Each day I participated in group discussion, told my story and let the staff members in. It was a long process, but I made it through, and made some friends that I knew I could count on if I ever needed help. Although no one wants to be admitted into a mental hospital, working with people that have similar struggles helped me get stronger. But at the end of the day, I just really did not want to go back there. I wanted shoes with laces, pencils with erasers and bathroom doors that would lock.

After I was discharged from Sheppard Pratt, I knew I had to change for the better, and it was time to heal. Although the cutting did not stop, I burned my suicide plan. It was all about baby steps, and that was the first one.

I finally found a counselor I trusted, so my journey back to reality was off to a good start. I would go three times a week to vent, journal, paint and meditate.

At this point I had to let my friends know what was going on. Although they already knew I was struggling, they showed me unconditional support, so I knew I had to try for them.

Seeing both of my parents cry while I was admitted showed me that I could not let them go through anymore pain, especially after the pain that was already caused by my cousins’ murder.

It is now March 2019, one month before prom and when I looked down at my arms, the cuts were still there. From there, I knew that I needed to stop, I could not let one of the best days of my life show my pain and suffering. My life was finally starting to look up.

April 1, 2019. The verdict of my cousins’ second trial. Guilty. HE WAS FOUND GUILTY. My cousin was finally free. I broke down in Spanish class as I watched the news, and although my teacher kicked me out because I was crying, I did not care because I finally had closure. From that moment on, I knew I needed to stay for my cousin, live my life for her because she did not get the chance.

Fast forward to today. I am two and a half years self-harm free, I burned all my letters and plans, and am now on the right medication that keeps me going everyday. I graduated high school, and even though COVID-19 kept me from walking across the stage, I still made it. I got the diploma that I never thought I would be alive to get. I can look down at my wrists and see the fading scars, and it reminds me not only how far I have come, but also shows that I am a survivor.

I am now a sophomore at Marquette University and an assistant sports producer for the Marquette Wire. I am doing what I love with the people that I love, and I could not be more blessed.

Although I am still on the road to recovery and still sometimes have urges to start cutting again, I have the tools to stop myself from going back down the road I once was on. I dug myself out of what seemed like a black hole, and I am starting to become content with my life.

I now get to cover sports, meet new people, go to new concerts and experience the life that I once took for granted. If I were to have went through with my suicide, I never would have made all of these memories, or have been able to tell my story to those who are suffering with suicidal thoughts today. I now know that I made the best decision of my life when I decided to stay.

You are not alone. So many college kids like me suffer in silence, and that needs to end today. It is okay to not be okay, but you should not suffer alone.

Never believe the people who say you are “weak.” Your illness is just as valid as any other illness. People need to see that it is okay to be overwhelmed, or unable to handle your emotions. They need to see that asking for help when it comes to depression, anxiety or suicide is the same as asking for help when you have the flu or break your leg. People like me need to feel like they are in a safe space, and will be accepted.

We as a society should be open and empathetic towards those with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. We should not label them as “crazy,” “messed up” or “insane.” They are people who just want to be heard, and guided toward a better solution. I felt alone and helpless because of all the stereotypes and reactions a person would get when they asked for help. We always wonder why they did it, or felt that the person was “selfish,” but we never stop to think about the steps leading up to suicide, or understand why they felt the need to do it. If we come together, and strive to help those suffering, we can end the stigma around mental health. We can save so many more people, and help people feel valued on this earth. We need to make resources readily available for anyone and everyone who needs it, so these suicide plans are never put into place.

Right now, during the month of September, National Suicide Prevention Month, I am here telling my story to advocate for suicide prevention, and to show you all that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t let anyone tell you your feelings are invalid, or let yourself feel unworthy. You deserve to be here, you deserve to do the things you love, and you deserve to live the life you dream of.

You are a miracle, and life is a gift. Live it to the fullest, and live it for everyone else who can’t.

Find your why and never lose it.

This story was written by Kristin Parisi. She can be reached at kristin.parisi@marquette.edu