Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people between 10 and 34. After almost three decades of investment in research, education, and legislation, rates continue to climb. Although awareness is gradually increasing and the stigma is beginning to fade, the pandemic is likely to exacerbate the challenges and stressors that can lead a person to believe they have only one way out.[i]
Sometimes, even when mental illness is treated by psychiatrists and psychologists with therapy and medication, and despite the best of intentions, treatment fails. Thomas’s story illustrates how the inaction of a mental health professional left Thomas at risk.
Born in 1995, Thomas grew up in a loving home with professional parents and a little sister he adored. He was intelligent, kind-hearted, and treasured by his friends. His infectious laughter drew people to him, although his sensitive nature caused him to feel others’ pain.
For Thomas, helping others was more important to him than helping himself. A student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, he had aspirations of applying to medical school and becoming a doctor. However, his bouts with depression put obstacles in his way.
On the outside, Thomas seemed like a happy, well-adjusted young man with everything going for him. But on the inside, he battled with mental illness. Thomas suffered from severe bipolar depression. To add to his turmoil, he grew up in a Catholic home, and he knew he was gay, which was not accepted by the church.
In fact, Thomas was told that he would not inherit the kingdom of God as a gay man. He was told to change or at the least not act on his attractions. This made no sense to Thomas. He was born this way …yet it was somehow …wrong.
Questioning his faith, questioning his very worthiness as a child of God, he thought about not deserving to live. Thomas was always under the care of licensed psychologists and psychiatrists through his teens. Over many sessions, he told his doctors he was struggling, and he considered suicide as an option. In fact, he secretly recorded the entire last session he had with his psychologist in Tucson on his iPhone.
His parents found that recording (over 59 minutes) on his phone after his death. They believe that Thomas recorded that last session as a message he knew they would find after his death. On that recording, when Thomas stated that suicide was an option, the psychologist asked no further questions and did no risk assessment. He did nothing more, despite Thomas having multiple risk factors. One month to the day of that last psychologist visit, Thomas took his own life. He had just turned 20.
As a result of the recording he made of his final visit, the AZ Board of Psychological Examiners later found that the psychologist’s conduct was unprofessional. He failed to take reasonable steps to protect Thomas.
Reeling from the loss of their son, Thomas’s parents feared for his soul, worried that he would not have the peace he deserved in heaven. A visit to a Catholic priest left them devastated after they were told, “The devil whispered in Thomas’s ear.” This explanation was the last thing these grieving parents needed to hear.
Desperate to find a path to healing after their son’s death, Thomas’s parents attended a Grief and Loss retreat at their new Catholic church. It was there that they found comfort and reassurance that their son was indeed where he belonged in heaven. They also learned of a talented evidential medium who could provide a connection with their son, evidence that Thomas’s spirit was still with them. After their first session with her, both parents felt relieved that Thomas was happy and loved on the other side.
As survivors of suicide loss, Thomas’s parents want to share the lessons they’ve learned with others. The most important is to take mental health disorders very, very seriously. If the mental health professional you have is not a good fit, find another. Don’t stop until you meet the right one. If there is no therapeutic alliance, look for another provider. If that doesn’t work, find a mood disorders specialist. Even though it’s hard, keep searching. Never give up. Utilize every resource available.
The same goes for faith communities. If the faith community doesn’t comfort you or doesn’t make you feel right, go to a different one. Keep searching until you find one that makes you feel like you belong.
A shift in focus to address the mental health repercussions of the pandemic is needed. There is already a shortage of providers in many parts of the country, and many of them don’t take insurance. But if you or a friend or loved one is struggling, keep trying to find the help you need. Mental health disorders that are pushed aside, ignored, undertreated, or mistreated too often end in tragic loss.
[i] Brian Sullivan, PsyD, The Coming Mental Health Tsunami (Medpage Today, January 4, 2021); https://www.medpagetoday.com/psychiatry/generalpsychiatry/90503