Days after the loss of their son, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md, and wife Sarah Bloom Raskin, decided to issue a public statement about their son’s life — and 25-year-old Tommy Raskin’s suicide.
Kate Farinholt, executive director of the National Alliance for Mental Illness of Maryland, said the family’s decision to go public with the cause of their son’s death sent a powerful message.
Farinholt said it helps chip away at the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illnesses like depression.
“Stigma leads to silence,” said Farinholt. “And silence about a suicide loss just leaves people feeling isolated. And as if they’re facing the tragedy by themselves.”
But by issuing the statement, and explaining that their son Tommy — a bright, talented young man who suffered from depression — the Raskins opened the door to discussion and help.
“When someone dies by suicide, and if the family has been public about it,” said Farinholt, “the aftermath opens up an immediate opportunity to talk about suicide as a public health issue. And that affects all of us.”
Farinholt said one in five adults in the United States will experience some form of mental illness in a year.
“We are all affected” said Farinholt of the impact of mental illness. “There is not one person who’s not affected somehow.”
However, only 43% of those with a diagnosable mental illness actually get treatment, according to Farinholt. And in many cases, that first diagnosis of a mental illness comes as the result of an emergency room visit or contact with the judicial system.
In sharing their loss, the Raskin family was frank about their son’s struggle with depression.
They wrote that “despite the very fine doctors and a loving family and a friendship network of hundreds” that the pain became “overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable” and that Tommy took his own life.
The family published the note that Tommy left. It read in part “Please forgive me. My illness won today.”
Farinholt said that even as we want to help friends and family who may be struggling with depression, it’s important to recognize “that these are not symptoms and disorders that people have complete control of — and neither do we or the family. And so there are sometimes fatal results.”
In talking to friends or family members who have had a suicide loss, Farinholt said it’s important to take the cues the family gives.
“Lots of people are just not willing to talk about suicide,” she said.
If they don’t share the cause of death, Farinholt said, “it’s important that you respect that and you just provide your condolences.”