I’m going to begin by telling you about a boy. This boy had a fairly normal childhood, the kind full of fun and happiness that most would envy; summer days at the pool and trips to Disney World, huge family gatherings and after-school shenanigans. He was a friend to many, and was loved by many more. But something wasn’t right; all wasn’t as it seemed.
By high school, the boy was involved in ROTC, destined for his lifelong dream of becoming a Marine like two of his uncles. After some poor choices, though, he was crushed to find that that dream would never be realized. And so graduating high school became a meaningless chore, and his direction in life remained to be found. He moved into a place of his own and mulled through work and a few college courses here and there. A girl came into his life, and things began to look up. It was his first real love, and he couldn’t be happier. But mistakes were made, and hearts were changed, and she broke it off. So the boy picked up and moved on with his life, or at least he would have, but something wasn’t right; all wasn’t as it seemed.
On the night of January 26th, 2016, this nineteen-year-old boy called the girl he loved and left a voicemail, apologizing for not being good enough. He beat a hole through his roommate’s locked door with a hammer, enough to reach his arm through and turn the handle. He retrieved a rifle, the same one he had fired at the range many times. He went back to his room, put on his best suit, stuck that cold barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. His parents were the first to find him.
This story is one that many of you have heard before, only with different characters; people that you knew. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that over 38,000 suicides happen every year in the U.S. alone. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in our country; homicide falls at 17th on that same list. So what isn’t right in these victims’ heads? What wasn’t right in that boy’s head? What was so wrong that the only possible remedy he could see was to end his life? Any number of things can contribute to mental illness, but the one common factor among all victims of suicide? Trauma. Trauma is defined by Merriam-Webster as a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have long-lasting mental or emotional problems. It can be as severe as watching your friend bleed out on the battlefield because his legs were just blown off, or as seemingly insignificant as childhood verbal abuse. Trauma’s effects are different biological, mental, or social stress responses, including shame, guilt, rage, nightmares, a pounding heart, or depression. Depression alone is a pandemic. The World Health Organization says it is the number one cause of disability. They estimate that 350 million people worldwide suffer from it.
So what can we do to combat this disease of stress responses from trauma? How can we stop these responses from ruling lives and often times ending them? Many turn to various types of substances, like alcohol or prescription drugs. I have plenty of friends that I served with in the Marines who suffer from PTSD that live day to day popping pills from a half-dozen little, orange bottles. Do prescription drugs really work? Well, take antidepressants, for example – and, to be clear, I’m not referring to cases involving chemical imbalances. Prozac and Zoloft have been proven to be the most effective clinical treatment for depression. But, a controversial study published in 2010 in the Journal of the American Medical Association explained that in clinical trials antidepressants had as much of an effect on patients as placebos. Who cares, you say? If it keeps people from being depressed, it’s fine right? Yes, in the short term. But any type of substance, man-made or natural, is only a Band-Aid; a convenient cover up of a deeper problem. If not used properly, these Band-Aids can often lead to addictions, which only compound the issues. I believe that some of the most effective long-term solutions are physical or social activities that allow one’s brain to learn how to deal with the source of the responses.
Psychotherapy is a term for the treatment of a mental disorder without the use of medicine or drugs. Many psychotherapists practice and promote something called right-brain therapy. I will try to break this down as simply as I can, from my own understanding, which is limited. The left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the rational, logical thought processes. The right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the emotional and unconscious thought processes. Traumatic experiences get stored in the right hemisphere’s unconscious, so biological and mental responses may be triggered instinctually for survival. These usually happen without the left hemisphere being able to rationalize them. Basically, you might react a certain way, like a fight-or-flight response or falling into a state of depression, and have no idea why. Right-brain therapy is the process of identifying the traumatic experiences that are the sources of these stress responses and rationalizing them through expression with words, art, or music. It is a therapeutic retraining of your brain to recognize that that particular emotional or biological response is not necessarily needed for survival. This can be as easy as talking it out; sharing your bad experiences with others. It can be done with a therapist, a support group, or even with your spouse or friend. As a writer, I feel an extra pull to the power of a story, be it fiction or nonfiction. I strongly believe that we as a society can help one another treat our traumas simply by sharing, relating, and empathizing.
So what can you do to put this into action? Share your story. Talk about it, and encourage others to do the same. Lend an ear; actively listen; just be there. You could join a support group, not because you necessarily need support, but because others do. You could also donate to one of the many trauma and PTSD treatment centers across the nation, Camp Valhalla Veterans Retreat, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, or The Ranch, to name a few.
Remember the boy from the beginning? He was my friend’s little brother. He grew up across the street from me. I didn’t know what kind of trauma he had experienced during his life, but then, it doesn’t matter what the trauma was. His problem was likely a stress response of depression because of the disconnect between his left and right brain. Could right-brain therapy have helped him? Could talking about his experiences have prevented him from committing suicide? It would have been well worth it to try.
Author S. Kelley Harrell put it simply when she said, “We don’t heal in isolation, but in community.”
“Depression.” World Health Organization. N.p., 2016. Web. 28 June 2016. <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/>.
Fournier, Jay C., Robert J. DeRubeis, Steven D. Hollon, Sona Dimidjian, Jay D. Amsterdam, Richard C. Shelton, and Jan Fawcett. “Antidepressant Drug Effects and Depression Severity.” Journal of the American Medical Association 303.1 (2010): n. pag. Web. <http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=185157>.
Harrell, S. Kelley. Gift of the Dreamtime – Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma. N.p.: Soul Intent Arts, LLC, 2012. Print.
“Suicide and Self-Inflicted Injury.” The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. N.p., 2014. Web. 28 June 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/suicide.htm>.