Editor’s Note: Sally Yates is the former Deputy Attorney General and Acting Attorney General of the US. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
It was May 6, 1986, and I was just days away from graduating from law school. Late in the afternoon, my mother called the Law Review office looking for me. I had just left to grab a quick dinner before settling in for a long night of studying for exams. My friend who answered the phone that afternoon would be asked to do something no friend should have to do – tell me that my father was dead.
This was in the days before the advent of cell phones, so there was no real way to track me down. My friend knew that I was going to the local Kinko’s copy shop (another sign of the 1980’s) before returning to the library, and was waiting outside the shop when I arrived. He told me that my mother had called, and that my father had died.
I intuitively knew that it wasn’t a car accident, heart attack, or other accidental death. I knew that my father had taken his life.
My father, then 56, had struggled with depression for years, and in the months leading up to his death, his suffering had been particularly acute. My mother, sister and I had all urged him to get professional help, but he was worried about the stigma associated with psychological treatment. He had been a lawyer and appellate court judge, and he was concerned that it would “get out.” While the medical profession viewed depression as a disease, the general public did not. And like many in my dad’s generation, especially men, he saw his depression as a sign of weakness rather than illness.
My father’s struggle with depression was cyclical, but always present, and the severity would ebb and flow. We would all be so hopeful during his brighter days, but darkness would inevitably follow. We were an incredibly close family, not just talking about everything, but feeling each other’s joys and sorrows. And yet we felt helpless to bring him out of that darkness.
But looking back, I know that we weren’t helpless, and I will live every day with regret that I didn’t more forcefully insist that he get help.
I haven’t spoken much publicly of my father’s death – while it was over 30 years ago, it is still knock-the-breath-out-of-me painful. I also hate that for him, as for others who take their lives, they come to be defined by how they died rather than how they lived. And to me, this diminishes the value of their lives. But I feel a responsibility – underscored by the events of last week with Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade’s deaths, and the disturbing news about the rising suicide rate – to use whatever voice I now have to help to dispel the shame or stigma associated with mental illness and to encourage those suffering to get treatment.
My dad was someone who lived with an intensity known by few, devoted to his family and friends, always looking for those who needed his help with issues large or small. In a memorial, a friend and judicial colleague spoke of him as “the most loyal man I ever knew, and if somehow I were in the innermost depths of danger or needed a strong man by my side, and I was told I could choose one man to go with me, it would have been Kelley Quillian.”
But yet, there he was, drowning in the innermost depths of danger himself, and he was the one who needed help. Several years ago, I talked with a friend of mine who also suffered from depression about how it feels, and he told me that when someone is in that abyss, suicide doesn’t appear as an option, it presents as the only option. But of course it’s not.
No one would expect someone suffering from a broken leg, or kidney disease, or a blood disorder to tough it out and handle it themselves. Likewise, one suffering from a mental health disorder shouldn’t expect that they can cure themselves of this disease. But despite progress, some still view mental illness as a character flaw. It’s not.
After his death, many people told me how surprised they were. I remember one friend telling me that he thought my dad “had the world by the tail.” But as is common with depression, those suffering can often live tormented beneath a facade of normalcy. The fact is that none of us knows what demons someone is carrying around inside of them. And that inevitably leads to society’s desire to divine “why” someone took his or her life – to find a neat answer that will satisfy our need to ascribe a rational thought process to something that is by definition an irrational act.
Some suicides are planned, and others, like my father’s, are the tragic result of the convergence of a moment of overwhelming despair and opportunity. But both are the consequence of illness, and are often are preventable with the right treatment.