My best friend committed suicide at 16

We were close from a young age and despite that, I never knew he was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts

I met Ryan when, at eight years old,  he invaded my puzzle club. He insisted on taking the last puzzle piece and wouldn’t give it back until I let him finish the puzzle. I was furious and immediately deemed him “my worst nightmare.” Ryan held this title for years, initially as a term of hostility and eventually as a joking nickname.

Ryan and I grew close as friends at the age of 13 when our juvenile hostility faded into genuine friendship. To know Ryan was to love him and to be perpetually bothered by him. He had a sense of humor that thrived off getting under my skin and irritating me until I was red in the face. But as infuriating as he was he was also lovable. He would annoy me for hours and then follow it up with ‘you know I love you right?’ text.

I can honestly say that Ryan was my favorite; everyone who knew Ryan loved him. He was nice to everyone, easy to get along with, laid-back, and universally funny. That’s why his suicide shocked our entire community.

I was in class when my teacher told me to come out into the hall. My principal put her arm around me and told me ‘this is going to be hard.’ She walked me into an empty classroom where our friend was sitting, hysterically crying. She looked up at me and said the three words that would forever change my life: Ryan is dead.

Ryan and I at age 15

When I heard the news I went completely numb. We were sixteen. Kids our age should be making plans for prom and trying to get their driver’s license, not contemplating suicide. My Ryan wasn’t suicidal, he was the guy who stayed up all night on Oovoo with me or raced me on scooters down the hill in front of my house. He was vibrant and warm, he wasn’t depressed.

The stigmas attached to mental health issues make it so hard for people who are struggling to come forward. Negative stereotypes of mental health issues make those who are struggling fear social isolation if they do decide to come forward.

People who do end up coming forward about their depression are often told that their feelings are a phase or can be cured with positive thinking. When damaging thoughts don’t subside, those who are mentally ill develop a  “why try” attitude that often leads to suicidal thoughts.

Suicide is a rampant issue in America. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US with 44,193 Americans committing suicide each year. For each death in the U.S., there are at least 25 attempts.

The statistics are worse for American youth. It is the second leading cause of death among age groups 10 to 34. And, mental health issues can be a driving factor for suicide in young people. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of children between the ages of 13-18 have or will be diagnosed with a serious mental health issue.

Suicide is also not romantic or dramatic. The decision to take one’s own life is tragic. Losing someone to suicide is not thrilling, it’s soul-crushing.

Suicide seems to have become a punch line among American youth. A normal response to an inconvenience is “Oh my god, I’m gonna kill myself.” These jabs seem harmless but consider the impact those statements could make to someone contemplating suicide. Trivializing suicide stops the conversation about suicide prevention dead in its tracks and allows for self-stigmatizing to continue.

The truth about mental health and suicide is rarely discussed or acknowledged realistically in the media. I remember my frustration when 13 Reasons Why became popular on Netflix. My lunch table would talk about the drama and action of uncovering why Hannah commits suicide. I clenched my fist under the table so furious about the rampant misunderstandings of suicide and mental health issues.

Preventing suicide means becoming aware of what real mental health looks like, not a TV dramatized version of it. It also means working towards de-stigmatizing those who suffer with mental health issues and allowing for those who struggle to come forward and seek help. Attempting to lower suicide rates also means working towards creating more access to mental health care for all citizens. Mental health care is expensive and not typically covered by providers. As a society, we need to  emphasize mental health and ensure that people can afford help.

When I lost Ryan I lost one of my best childhood friends. His death made me acutely aware that every single one of the 44,193 people who committed suicide last year was loved.

As much as it breaks my heart, we cannot save those lives. However, there are still Americans struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts that we can save by ending the stigma.

Temple University