Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
This is always a tough time of the year for me.
It has been nearly half a century, but I am still haunted by the memory of an ominous knock on my college apartment door just before Memorial Day, 1974. A police officer, standing in a darkened foyer, asking my name and, as tenderly as he could, sharing devastating news.
My father was dead.
My dad, Joseph Axelrod, was my hero. Gentle and warm, he provided me much-needed ballast during a turbulent childhood. He was always there to help me through my struggles, but almost never hinted at his own.
Oh, how I wished he had when that police officer told me that my father had taken his own life!
The bitter irony of my dad’s suicide is that he was a mental health professional. At his funeral, one after another of his tearful patients consoled my sister and me, telling us that our dad had saved their lives. Yet, he was unable to reach out for the help he needed to save his own.
For 30 years, I didn’t talk publicly about how my father died. I felt that it would somehow sully his memory; that people would interpret it as weakness or a defect of character. I loved and admired him and didn’t want his life to be defined by how it ended.
It took me far too long to realize how wrong that was. Depression is an illness, just like cancer or heart disease.
The very stigma that caused my reluctance to talk about my father’s suicide may be why, in part, he failed to seek help. (He left no note or explanation, so I will never know for sure.) It is what too often prevents people from reaching out for the hand they need to climb out of the long dark tunnel that claims tens of thousands of lives each year.
As soon as I began writing and speaking about this, I quickly learned how many others had received that same dreadful knock on the door or call in the night. I’ve heard from people struggling with depression and countless people who had lost loved ones to suicide. It is a pain so many share.
One of them is Sally Yates, the former deputy attorney general of the United States, whose father, Judge John Kelley Quillian, died by suicide in 1986. On The Axe Files podcast this week, Yates and I spoke about her own journey as a suicide loss survivor – with her initial reluctance to share her family’s story giving way to her powerful advocacy for mental health awareness today.
When I first spoke with Yates about her dad during a 2018 interview on CNN, she teared up. As with me, the memory was still raw, all those years later; the instinct to withhold the story, still strong.
“I had not spoken about it much publicly. It was hard for me to do without getting emotional and still incredibly painful to think about and to talk about,” Yates recalled during our conversation this week. “But also, I think I had felt very protective of my dad.”
Yates received an outpouring of responses after her moving testimonial – from people seeking help or comfort or simply expressing gratitude. She told me the experience prodded her to begin speaking out.
“I feel a real responsibility to bring mental illness out of the shadows so that people will feel more comfortable reaching out for the help that they need with this illness,” she told me.
“I know with my dad, that’s a big part of why he wasn’t comfortable seeking help. He was worried about the stigma. He had been an appellate court judge. He was worried about what people would think. Now, (that was) the mid-80s, and I think we’re in a somewhat better place now – but not where we should be.”
For Sally Yates, me and so many others, nothing can completely heal the hole in our hearts. The loss of loving advice and counsel. The special moments and family occasions missed. The grandchildren our dads will never know.
But by sharing our stories, perhaps we can encourage others to seek the help that eluded our fathers.
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“Until we can talk about mental illness with the same kind of ease that we talk about heart disease or kidney disease,” Yates told me, “and not expect someone who is suffering from depression or from bipolar disorder or anxiety or whatever it might be to tough it out … there’s still more work to do.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Let us resolve to, once and for all, defeat the stigma. And if you are struggling with depression and suicidal impulses, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.