A Plea for a Different Approach in Preventing Suicide
My daughter, Christina Eileen Kew, or “Pandara Watson” as she called herself, killed herself on July 29th, 2017. She wasn’t famous, but she was my beloved daughter and losing her has changed my life forever, filling it with deep sadness, regret, frustration and rage at the abrupt ending of her life at the age of 44. I am devastated.
I don’t believe that all suicide can be prevented by utilizing a hotline or by suggesting to people who seem depressed to seek out counseling, though these things are helpful to those who are in a fragile state. People who commit suicide are in a desperate and often psychotic state and feel they have no choice but to end their lives. It’s too late for rational thought or hotlines.
I think suicide can be prevented by trying to change our cultural norms and embracing those who are different with compassion and love. Suicide happens because people feel they are completely and utterly alone.
We can start by not labeling depression, anxiety, mania, bipolar disorder, etc., as “mental illness”. This term is offensive though I have used it myself. Diseases of the brain happen, and “mental illness” sounds as bad as labeling a child “retarded” rather than “developmentally disabled”.
Most experts agree that a person who kills themselves is unable to make logical decisions. We need to try to prevent people from reaching this state.
How can we do this? By starting with our children.
I think we should teach children how to manage emotions: how to meditate and detach from anger, depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation and be able to feel in control of their lives. Let’s diagnose and treat children who appear depressed, withdrawn and shy in a supportive environment while being careful to recognize our cultural norms of behavior may not fit all kids.
I think we should teach compassion in our schools to reduce violence, suicide and bullying behavior. Our families are not doing the job, so let’s start in preschool and give kids a chance to understand the fragility of their minds. Let’s provide them with tools to understand how to help themselves.
Let’s change our societal expectations of behavior and try to view those that are fragile as needing more contact rather than less.
Tina was beautiful, talented, brilliant, and spoke four languages. She was volatile, charming, sensitive and sometimes impossible to be with and the most loving and generous human being I will ever know.
She worked as an actor, a singer, an artist and a humanitarian but she always felt she was misunderstood.
She lived a fairly normal life, had happy friendships and did well in school until she approached adolescence. At that time she became angrier, more difficult to communicate with, taking more risky paths with her own safety, and generally shaking up our conservatively behaved family. We went to therapy, tried different tactics to help her, encouraged her to explore her creativity and tried to be patient with her outbursts which frightened our family.
We started to find ways to avoid these outbursts by avoiding her, thinking it would make life easier for all of us. Her siblings loved her but learned that sometimes she would be friendly and other times she would be mean and abusive, perhaps like most teenagers. But our family was no ordinary family, I was the granddaughter of the founder of IBM and had been taught that in life you behave in a certain way. “It’s show time!” was our family motto.
Having a child who didn’t play by the rules was really hard for me, as well as bewildering, frustrating and frightening. I wanted to be the greatest mother around, and yet I seemed to make Tina angry almost daily. I was afraid for her and wanted to find ways to make her happy and to feel safe. I couldn’t seem to do this. My husband and I did our best to help her through adolescence but Tina exhausted us both and she knew it.
I had spent my own childhood depressed and anxious in a household of other depressed and anxious people. No one recognized these disorders in the 50’s, you were simply described as “sensitive”. I didn’t seek help until I was in my 30’s and it took years to learn how to take care of myself and to begin to feel happier. When I had a daughter who seemed out of control, I had no idea of how to help as I wasn’t good at helping myself.
Tina graduated from college, moved away from home and gradually disconnected from her family. We all tried to stay in touch but she didn’t make it easy.
Tina and I spoke regularly and saw each other a few times a year. Sometimes these meetings went well, sometimes they did not. I never met any of her friends and found it hard to understand what she was doing with her days. She moved to Europe and each year moved again as she spoke four languages and could flourish anywhere, on the outside, that is.
What she couldn’t do was make a genuine connection with a man or a woman who would sustain and love her, and this was her deepest desire.
I tried continually to stay in touch, show her my love, and reassure her I was there for her.
She grew further and further apart from her family, communicating with her siblings and stepfather maybe once a year. Finally, about a two months before her death, she wrote to me saying she had found the answer to her lifetime of loneliness and was moving to another country to be with a guru priest whose household she would be a part of.
A part of me was happy for her, but a deeper part of me was very concerned.
There was little I could do as she was 43 and had independent means. I asked for some details in as delicate a way I could and was rebuffed. She said she would be in touch. She was angry at me for not being totally supportive.
About six weeks later several family members received emergency pleas for help from Tina. She begged for us to get her out of where she was and said her life was in danger. Luckily, we were able to bring her home but when we met her it was clear she was not the same person.
Her eyes were filled with fear and her behavior was paranoid and she said she was in fear of losing her life. The group she had been involved with had stolen her money and abused her in ways she couldn’t share with me. She arrived home in an altered state and never recovered.
One month later she took her life.
Tina was vulnerable because she was so alone and disconnected. She felt she had no real support or love she could count on and therefore it was easy to take advantage of her. For all her sophistication she was very naïve. In the end, I couldn’t help her.
I hope that by writing this, others with children or friends or relatives who have fragile mental states will find more compassion and love in their relationships and more tolerance. I think this begins in childhood as I have stated in the beginning of this essay. Feeing alone and unloved is the worst feeling of all. Abandonment is more painful than any broken bone or surgical procedure.
More and more of us feel this way. It’s the nature of our digital lives. My daughter believed all her online friends were her real friends and in the end they vanished.
I hope we can find a way of making the world feel like a neighborhood watch where everyone looks out for everyone else. A world where everyone realizes reaching out to others brings so much love back to all of us. It sounds simple to say this but I believe it can happen, I really do. At this point, it’s my only light at the end of this very dark tunnel.