Mark Brazaitis joins us for our series on health care. With so much at stake for the ACA repeal, we must be informed of all repeal could entail. This is the first essay in a series about mental health. This series is co-edited by Rebecca Thomas and Sara Anderson.

I didn’t know Chris Cornell, the lead singer of Soundgarden. I wasn’t even familiar with any of his songs.

But when I read that he’d killed himself, I felt a surge of sympathy and a pang of recognition.

I know what it’s like to be severely depressed. I know what it’s like to think that the best cure to that torture—my depression felt like a perpetual fire burning in my brain—is death.

Chris Cornell and I are not outliers. We are, sadly, mainstream. In any given year, an astounding percentage of Americans are depressed and at risk of suicide.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

  • Depression affects nearly 10 percent of Americans ages 18 and over every year, or more than 24 million people.
  • More Americans suffer from depression than coronary heart disease (17 million), cancer (12 million) and HIV/AIDS (1 million).
  • About 15 percent of the population will suffer from clinical depression at some time during their lifetime. Thirty percent of all clinically depressed patients attempt suicide.
  • Over 60 percent of all people who die by suicide suffer from major depression.

Any approach to healthcare that doesn’t address our country’s mental-health epidemic risks perpetuating situations like Chris Cornell’s in all corners of our country. Although the majority of those deaths won’t be as well-publicized as his, to the families and friends of men, women, and children who end their lives, they will be just as devastating.

—1—

Why do we kill ourselves?

Because our country is no longer a land of opportunity but a plutocracy in which the rich are becoming richer and the poor are becoming depressed both economically and psychologically?

Because even when we have money—even when we can buy whatever we want—we aren’t happy but the soul-crushing opposite?

Because our country is training thousands of men and women to kill and isn’t helping them recover from the psychological wounds of war?

Because we are lonely?

Because we want to avoid the horror of end times, foreshadowed in phrases such as “Arctic ice melt” and “global water stress” and “pandemic influenza”?

Because for too many of us, the apocalypse isn’t coming, it’s already here, and we can’t bear it any longer?

—2—

From the outside, Chris Cornell seemed to have a wonderful life. He was a rock star, after all.

I’ve never been a rock star, but in the summer of 2003, I had what any observer would have concluded was a very good life. My wife and I had two beautiful, smart daughters. I had a good job—a tenure-track position teaching creative writing and literature at a major university—and I was in good physical health.

But my latest book, a collection of stories about relationships, romantic and otherwise, between people from the United States and people from Latin America, hadn’t found a publisher, despite a couple of close calls. Having the book published would have assured me of tenure. Without it, I was in a precarious position—or I feared so.

My maternal grandparents, with whom I’d been close, had both died within the last year. My father was dying of kidney cancer. I’d never been as close to him as I wanted, but I’d always hoped, and perhaps even assumed, I would one day, when he retired.

The United States was fighting two wars, one of which, in Iraq, seemed to me especially savage and unjustified. I was a former Peace Corps Volunteer, having served in Guatemala, and in place of Afghanis and Iraqis, I pictured my Guatemalan friends as the targets of our missiles and bombs and bullets. I didn’t know the people my country was killing, but I knew I could have and it felt horrifyingly wrong.

As we spent billions of dollars in wars we elected to fight, we ignored a far graver threat to our lives: global warming. I thought of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. But instead of fiddling, we were pursuing a third-rate dictator in Iraq and, in Afghanistan, bombing a country back to the stone age even though, in significant ways, it had never left it. Meanwhile, it wasn’t only Rome but our entire planet that was burning.

I had helped bring two children into a madhouse, I feared. What horrible world would they inhabit?

All of this weighed on me. All of this made me feel helpless. Before long, I couldn’t sleep, and my sleeplessness reinforced my hopelessness and propelled me into psychosis. A deep sense of shame and a stubborn machismo—What the hell is wrong with me? I have to pull myself out of this!—compelled me to hide my condition from my family and friends. This, of course, made it worse. Publicly, I said, “I’m doing OK.” Privately, I longed for oblivion.

If I’d owned a gun, I would have found it.

Mark Brazaitis, Professor of English at West Virginia University and a Councilor-Elect in Morgantown, WV. He is the author of a book of short stories, Truth Poker, among others. 

Photo Credit: Rebecca Brazaitis