COLUMN: When suicide hits close to home

As I write this, I wipe tears from my eyes for all those who have been affected by suicide. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and for the first time in my 36 years, I’m grieving the loss of someone who took his own life.

I guess I may be considered an anomaly. After all, I’ve made it this long without being personally impacted by suicide, unlike the many others who have lost loved ones to the demons that plague so many minds. In that case, I could consider myself fortunate that those closest to me have not been overcome by such demons (I think we all know someone who has suffered from depression or the like).

Justin may not have been a close friend or family member, however, he was a former classmate, one I graduated with nearly 20 years ago and one I’ve really only kept in touch with through Facebook. Not so ironically, it was there where I also learned of his death.

I was sitting at my favorite establishment and had just ordered my first beverage of choice during what was supposed to be happy hour. As I scrolled through Facebook for the first time that day, I read a post from a mutual friend and classmate tagging Justin. The post read: “As much as we wish, we cannot help those who don’t ask. We can’t save those that may not wish to be saved. I miss Justin and the opportunity to tell him how proud I was to call him my friend. I miss how he would give me the biggest hug when we would meet again, and his smile. The brightest stars always fade first, he was brilliant. I will look forward to seeing him again!”

And as I read this, the tears began to fall … right there, as the busyness of the restaurant buzzed around me. This would be the first of many posts I read from Justin’s friends, coworkers and other classmates, paying their respects to a life that ended far too soon.

Justin lived in Tennessee. He was working in the TV/film industry. I remember him posting about filming the TV series “Nashville.” Among the photos is one of him with his big, beautiful smile hugging the show’s star, Hayden Panettiere.

From these posts, I began to learn who Justin became. He appeared happy, successful, and full of life. It just goes to show how so much pain can be hidden behind a smile.

I’ve been trying to figure out why his death has been so haunting to me. My memories from high school aren’t that vivid, but I do remember his sweet heart and joyous nature.

Sharing the same first letter of our last name, we were just down a few lockers from each other all of junior high and high school. I guess in a class of less than 150 students, much of your classmates become your friends in one way or another, whether close or not.

Maybe I’m sad for the Justin I didn’t get to know, and the one I will no longer have a chance to. Maybe it’s mourning for those who were most close to him, and the pain they must feel. Maybe it’s thinking about the pain he was dealing with and wishing this could’ve been prevented.

I don’t know what ultimately led to his death, and maybe I never will. But from what I’ve learned from his many tributes, his smile hid the pain well.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five U.S. adults will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. On average, 44,000 Americans die each year by suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The hurt is real, and pain cuts deep, but wounds do heal. You are not alone in your struggles.

If you or someone you know is hurting, talk to someone. Reach out. Don’t suffer in silence. There is no shame in pain. Your life is way more important than you will ever know.

To learn more about how you can make a difference, whether it’s seeking help or ending the stigma of mental health conditions, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness, www.nami.org or call the NAMI Helpline, 1-800-950-NAMI (M-F, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET). In crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Text “NAMI” to 741741.

Contact Kristen Miller at [email protected]