Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Suicide touches Elyria Schools

     Recently, a tragedy occurred when a school board member in Elyria ended his life by his own hands.  Richard Kaplan, a family man, and successful business person died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, leaving behind a wife and three children. Sadly, he became part of an ever increasing group of people who end their lives with this method. People will wonder why, and though he and I never met, we did share a common bond which may be the true culprit, mental illness. I also must  include because he was honest about his struggle with depression, people should remember Mr. Kaplan as a generous man.
     In a conversation with Elyria School Board President Evelyn France, she describes Mr. Kaplan as an active member of the community, who did a vast deal of work for the schools long before he was elected as a  member of the board. She added that he was also an enterprising member of the business community and the local Rotary Club.
     Mrs. France also went on to say  "the Elyria School system is like a family, and they are mourning the loss of a family member."  She described Rich as a humble, straightforward, and honest person, who never looked for any praise. He was exceedingly giving to his community, and it was obvious she had the utmost respect for him.
    Because of the common affliction, I wish I would have met Mr. Kaplan. Currently, his family is grieving their loss, and my heart and prayers go out to them. Many people will ask an elementary question, specifically, why did he do this?  I cannot represent exactly what was the causation of this tragedy, but I can give the public a first person narrative as to what he faced because I also tried on several occasions to end my life.
     In over five hundred talks that I have given on this subject, I keep hearing the same questions. One that is the most common is, what caused me to decide to end my life? Just like the question, my answer is clear, but at the same time, very complex. I include in my response the one word that only people who suffer from one of these disorders can comprehend, "Pain!"
     The emotional pain that is the result of mental illness is the most grievous feeling that anyone can imagine. If a person has never felt it, he or she cannot understand the damage that is inflicted in someone's life from this invisible torment. When the symptoms are active, they define every aspect of the victims lives, and at times, it is as if the person is in a constant conflict with their disorder. Like many others, Mr. Kaplan had to wake up, accept that he has this disease, and fight either the demons or the ever present threat of their return.
     Like Mr. Kaplan, I served public office, three terms Brunswick City Council, I was on the board of the Local United Way, Jaycees and Kidney foundation, among other activities. During my life, I spent years hiding the malady out of fear that it would be discovered and others would think less of me. Also, I was in denial of my condition, and its life threatening capabilities. In time, it destroys a person's self-worth as it did mine. Because of its relentless nature, it pursues its prey until treated, or destroys its target either figuratively, or literally.
     In May of 2001, on the campus of Lorain County Community College in, ironically, Elyria, security personnel stumbled on me as I was found unresponsive from a suicide attempt. Though the actual act occurred on that day,  it was the beginning of the end of a long battle against the unyielding pain brought on by bipolar disorder. It was the culmination of ferocious psychological battering that ultimately consumed me. What no one knew is that, for many years, I struggled  with suicidal ideation. Additionally, I was in a constant battle with my sub-conscious, which was being monopolized with fatalistic thoughts. Plus, it reminded me that death was the only way to end my constant pain. With my self-worth at zero, I could never see beyond my symptoms and seek the appropriate treatment.
     On the day I took enough pills to kill me, and ran out of the house, it was almost a relief to know that my pain was now going to leave. I had no clue that the cause of my suffering was a treatable disease and that I could be free of the morbid thoughts with proper treatment. Also, I could not envision that once I defeated the illness, there could be a happy life ahead of me. If it had not been for two heroic police officers on the campus of LCCC, I would have never lived to see the life I love today.
     Whenever there is a tragedy such as this one, I hear some, not so witty comments from weak minded individuals. One is that a person chooses to end their life!. The other, it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem!
     First off, no one chooses to end their life! The public needs to understand that It is an illness  which is the basis for this current tragedy; he did not choose this course of action. No one truly wants to die, they just want the pain from their illness to end!  Also, we do not decide on a whim, to generate these disorders, anymore then someone who develops, cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. It is a deadly, misunderstood disease that enters a life uninvited! It is also one that comes with a dark stigma attached.    
     Secondly, the classic statement that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, infuriates me. When I hear this, I want to shout out; the problems are not the causes, it is the disease that leads to someone's death. The  symptomology is what compels people to commit this act, not some ordinary disputes or concerns. This statement falls under the ignorance many display towards these afflictions
     Both of these visceral comments explain the lack of awareness and understanding of mental illness being the causation of suicide. It shows that, as a society, we have a long way to go in grasping the information needed to prevent tragedies such as this one. That is part of the reason why the number of situations like this are ever increasing.
     It is essential to point out one other issue, which is the stigma of being branded mentally ill. Many people like me and others stand in testimony to the idea that the stigma and its accompanying bigotry are significantly worse than the illness itself. After all, I speak from firsthand experience that it is not pleasant be known as being out of control and crazy, the way some people still describe me to this very day. This occurs in spite of my successes and the knowledge that I have been symptom free for eleven years. One characterization of mental illness is that many people spend an enormous amount of effort seeking external validation, but because of the  stigma, many times they fall short of that acceptance. It is only with a greater amount of knowledge and education that this dehumanizing practice can this be alleviated.
     Confucius once said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!" I  hope the Elyria school system pays homage to Mr. Kaplan by taking that first step in creating a means to create awareness, compassion and empathy for those similarly afflicted. Reach out to students, and others who are suffering and in need of intervention. Use this to help cut down the curtain of degradation of mental illness, just like this school board member attempted to accomplish with his openness. This can be a way to influence others out of the shadows of ostracism and let them know they are part of a family that cares! This can also open doors for people to seek treatment, and not feel any shame  nor a need to apologize for having one of these disorders.
    Mr. Kaplan faced his illness with openness, dignity, and candor, and he leaves an indelible mark on his community. He did not lose a battle it was an illness ended his life. He did not take an easy way out as some think suicide is, he fought a courageous battle against a silent killer. People like him pave the way for understanding of mental illness and his actions in life will help protect future sufferers. His family should be immensely proud of the way he lived, and no one has a right to question or judge his final actions. There is no greater adulation then to be helpful to others, and that is the greatest way to honor the memory of this good man. Once again, everyone's thoughts and prayers  should be to his family and friends.

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