Yesterday, several families in America lost a young adult child to suicide. Today, several more families will lose a young adult child to suicide. And tomorrow, several more families will lose a young adult child to suicide. Mental health professionals and families would like these deaths to drop to zero.
Ryan Bealer was a 21-year-old man who, from the outside, looked to have a bright future. Intelligent, from a good family, hard working, and was a year away from graduating from Kansas State University with a degree in computer engineering. He had been offered an excellent post-graduation job with the Cerner Corporation in Kansas City, Mo.
Ryan took his life on Sept. 20, 2011. He had been struggling with depression for several years. He did not want his family to know of private battle.
“He felt profoundly ashamed of his illness, as do many who suffer from depression,” said his father, Rick. “There are many frightening aspects to major depression. It compromises decision-making. It makes life painful, both psychologically and physically. It alters our ability to remember accurately. You will recall the dark and be unable to remember the positive. It produces a profound pessimism and pathologically low self-esteem. It creates sleep problems. It also strips those who suffer of the ability to feel lasting pleasure. That may be one of the worst aspects – no other illness strips its victims of the ability to experience pleasure.
“As difficult as it has been to deal with Ryan’s death, it is also very difficult to accept that he was in such profound pain for as long as he was,” Rick said. “Every parent wants a happy child and depression produces a miserable daily existence.”
Ryan successfully hid his pain from his parents, but his father thought he had likely begun developing depression in college. Rick was willing to speak about this family tragedy so that others might learn from the experience, to remove the shame and stigma that too often surrounds mental illness.
He said he tells his classes at Barton Community College that people rally around those who, for example, have cancer. But too often those who have a mental illness suffer in isolation.
When asked how he has coped with this tragedy, Rick gives credit to his many deep friendships and the discipline he teaches, psychology. “I am blessed with profound friendships. They did not offer platitudes. They sat with me while I cried. They listened as I spoke my grief.”
He was quick to point out that psychology is not only a course he teaches at Barton. “Psychology is a friend to me – as much a friend as any person I call a friend. It offers lessons that can be applied to one’s personal life.”
Rick said that the only sentence he has ever memorized from a book is the first line from M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled.” “The sentence is ‘Life is difficult’. No one asks for it,” he said of tragedy.
“Adversity comes with living,” he said “and adversity introduces you to yourself. When adversity strikes, we can be knocked down, never to rise again, be defined by it, or we can grow from it. There is an element of choice in each path.”
Rick said that he firmly believes in asking those who display the symptoms of depression if they are considering hurting themselves. “Always ask. The worst that can happen is that the person says ‘no’ and you might feel a little foolish for asking. You have shown that you care enough to ask. I can assure you that asking will not give them the idea to self-harm. Thinking about self-harm is part of the depressive process.”
Rick also said it is important to “study” closely those we love, so that we can see what might be subtle changes in behavior. “Inquire if something isn’t right.”
He emphasized that he is willing to share the painful story of his son’s suicide because he is hopeful that it will cause another suicide to be avoided.
He will participate in the Suicide Task Force activities scheduled for Sept. 28, which include a walk/run/ bike and a remembrance ceremony. He encourages others to get involved in this worthy cause.