One of the worst feelings in the world is feeling like you’re all alone. Feeling like nobody could possibly understand what you’re going through or identify with the deep, drowning pain you feel. Throughout my life and journey with mental illness, I’ve felt this way more times than I’d like to admit. With help from my mom, friends, therapy, medication and working in the mental health field, I’ve always managed to come out of those dark moments and even help others who’ve felt the same.
When my father died by suicide last year, I was thrown into a new kind of deep pain. I had helped countless others over the years who had experienced suicidal ideation or lost loved ones to suicide, but actually going through it myself left me feeling confused and unsupported. I’ve heard that mental illness is “not a greeting card illness,” and I think that rings true for suicide survivors as well. There is no card in existence offering condolences to family members who lose someone to suicide.
Fortunately, at the time of my father’s death, I was working for NAMI and my coworkers and supervisors throughout the organization offered empathy and compassion. I imagine others don’t experience such understanding at other organizations that aren’t so well-informed about mental health and suicide. Still, I found myself unsure of who to go to for support. I felt awkward, as if people weren’t sure what to say to me or what kind of condolence to offer. Again, mental illness isn’t seen as a “greeting card” or “casserole” illness; although, a well-meaning neighbor did leave a shrimp platter on my mother’s doorstep.
While I have been immersed in the mental health field—both personally and professionally—for over ten years, my mom had never seen a mental health professional or spoken openly about mental health before my father’s suicide. Almost immediately after he passed, we both began to research support groups and ways to connect with others who had gone through a similar experience. My mom found a support group for survivors of suicide, and through it, met other women who had unexpectedly lost their long-term partners to suicide. At a time when she was feeling most alone, she found peers who could relate to her story and throw her a life vest when she felt like she was drowning in an ocean of isolation.
For me, the most powerful support came from a friend and former NAMI HelpLine volunteer who had also recently lost a parent to suicide. Knowing that there was someone who could relate to my experience, and not judge me for my messy tangle of confusing feelings, made all the difference in the world. That’s the power of peer support. Talking to mental health professionals and receiving various treatments can be an important piece to one’s recovery journey, but there is a special power in talking to others who have been in and through similar situations.
Now I work for an organization that highlights the importance of peer support as a key piece to mental health recovery. At 7 Cups, I work with thousands of volunteers all over the world who both give and receive peer support for their mental health. It shouldn’t be difficult to access and connect with someone who can relate to your struggle. That’s what my friend did for me, and that’s what I hope to be able to do for others who have mental health conditions or lost loved ones to suicide. All it takes is one person to say “I get it” to know that you are not alone.
Kate Mallow works with 7 Cups as their Group Support and Teen Community Manager where she combines her passions for mental health and working with volunteers. She has experience working as a crisis counselor with suicide prevention hotlines and has worked with national mental health organizations such as NAMI.