Content warning: This story discusses suicide, self-harm, drug use, abuse, and death. If you are in crisis and need help, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1(800) 273–8255 or text HOME to 741–741.
Suicide is one of those things no one ever wants to talk about — but that’s exactly why we need to.
As a young Latino man, I heard all my life that I need to “suck it up” and “be a man” no matter how hard or traumatic things get. When I was young, I was sexually abused at the hand of a relative. At the age of five, I watched my dad die in front of me. At the age of 12, I was jumped into a gang and began selling and using drugs. Suck it up. Be a man. I felt as though all the trauma, violence, and abuse was somehow my fault — that I had allowed it to happen — and there wasn’t anything I could say or do to change that fact.
My self-worth was nonexistent. I spent many of my teen and young adult years angry at the violence, angry that I was hurting my family, and angry at myself. I never felt like I had an outlet or anyone to talk to about it because it was my responsibility.
Ultimately, all the self-loathing and repressed emotions led me to attempt suicide three times. After each attempt, I was directed towards counseling services and even in-patient treatment, but often I felt that made my anger worse rather than helped. I felt hopeless and like no one could really see me. Fortunately, my story changed when I met my wife, Bianca.
She listened to my story and saw me for me. When she said, “I don’t know what to do but we’re going to do this together,” she saved my life.
Bianca is one of the first people I allowed myself to open up to. I told her about my childhood and the years of trauma and abuse. I explained that there were times when I felt there was no other way to cope with all the pain I was feeling without ending it myself. I told her my story, and she listened. She didn’t judge me or my past but showed me it was okay to look forward to the future.
As I began the process of building myself back up and re-focusing my thoughts, I also began to allow my experiences to help others. Recovery is a daily commitment and doesn’t always take the same path. Sometimes, all it takes is one person to listen without judgement and provide you the space to not be okay.
This simple but impactful idea of being present that led me co-found the Santa Barbara Response Network, a team dedicated to supporting fellow community members through traumatic experiences and toward resilient recovery. Our team’s work isn’t anything big or flashy, but it is making a difference.
As we spend time each September discussing the importance of suicide prevention and recovery and raising awareness for programs making a difference in communities like mine, it’s important to understand that mental health conversations need to expand beyond a single week or month. These topics need to be top of mind 24/7.
Leaders need to understand that mental health affects us all and conversations about these issues need to be prioritized in every industry, every sector, and every level of government.
Employers can make a huge difference — starting today — by being conscientious of their employee’s mental health and providing appropriate resources through employee assistance programs, flexible schedules, or other things workers may need to cope with any of the internal battles they may be facing.
Schools and health systems need to incorporate mental health training for staff so they can better identify the signs of mental illness or addiction in those they care for. And if the youth need additional support, they should work to connect them to a wide variety of community resources to ensure the options fit their unique needs.
Policymakers need to find innovative solutions to provide direct care to those who need it most during times of crisis — especially as we continue to deal with the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
No matter where you come from or what your background is, you matter, you have value, and it’s okay not to be okay.
My story is proof that anyone can be a survivor. No matter where you come from or what your background is, you matter, you have value, and it’s okay not to be okay. Let’s use National Suicide Prevention Awareness day as a call to action to be more present in the year ahead and work together to keep this conversation going.
Anthony Rodriguez is a co-founder of the Santa Barbara Response Network (SBRN) and serves on several committees at organizations including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Safeguard the Children, Santa Barbara County CERT and Proyecto Heroes.
To learn more about Anthony’s story, listen to his speech at Unite for Change: California, a Mental Health for US event that was held in January 2020. To learn more about how we can improve America’s struggling mental health and addiction care systems, please visit mentalhealthforus.net/platform.
This article was originally published on Medium.
Mental Health for US is a nonpartisan, educational initiative focused on elevating mental health and addiction to national policy conversations by empowering grassroots advocates and improving candidate and policymaker health literacy. The Mental Health for US coalition is comprised of 95+ organizations from around the country dedicated to uniting the American people to make systemic, long-term change with civic engagement tools and resources. For more information, visit www.mentalhealthforus.net.