I was caught off guard by how heavily I was struck by the report of Chester Bennington’s suicide. He was the lead singer of Linkin Park, a band I listened to throughout some of the most emotionally tumultuous years of my adolescent life, and my artist’s heart was moved by their immeasurable talent. I remember going to Projekt Revolution at the age of 15 and seeing Chester bring his wife and baby onstage for a brief hello before continuing their set. I remember watching documentaries of the band recording their music, and admiring all they did. I was talking about all this with my husband just last week, and in seeing the heartbreaking headline announcing the singer’s death, I was wishing I had somehow sent a message to Chester telling him how much he had touched my heart. Would it have somehow made a difference? I don’t know. But now I am asking myself, who around me might be at a similar risk? How can I reach out?
There are certain parts of our lives that are totally accessible to the public. Meeting someone new, odds are that I can look up on the internet where they live, their job or school, their relationship status, and possibly their family members - without asking them a single question.
These reflections lead me to an intense frustration. Why, despite the openness of communication in the world today, is mental health still so difficult to talk about? Why do we have so much trouble helping those (or ourselves) who feel alone? Before we even open the subject of the lack of access to public mental health aid, what about the lack of real interpersonal connections? Why is it that we only ask these questions when a celebrity has died… but it keeps happening? Nothing seems different in the world since Robin Williams passed away and we asked ourselves the same shocked questions. So many of us have an instinct to isolate when struck with anxieties or stress. So many of us isolate a certain part of ourselves and bury it deep where no one will ever find it. It is too easy.
I went to a seminar which trains youth workers to intervene when we see signs of mental illness in a teen. In all of the witness accounts we heard of those who had survived suicide attempts, they said that if one person had asked them that day if they were thinking of committing suicide, it would have been enough to stop them.
One person. One question.
I don’t even have to know someone’s deepest, darkest secret. I don’t have to get them into therapy immediately, or “fix” them. Maybe it won’t even help, but how can I not try? I can just ask one question that might make all the difference.
Can this become something we begin to ask each other regularly? Can we not assess the risk of suicide more often? I don’t think we can check in too often with those we love, when we see them struggling. We begin with, “How are you doing?” but it must progress if we care for and want to reach that isolated heart - “Are you thinking of hurting yourself? Do you want help? I don’t know what to do, but let me be here with you so you’re not alone, and we’ll figure it out together.”
How can we change the world so the individual is really seen? So many of us have silent struggles that we can’t talk about because we are afraid. I have dealt with this myself. Right now I’m struggling with postpartum depression, and I’ve dealt with anxiety for several years. I haven’t been open about it except with my husband. At work, with those I don’t know well, even among family, I do have fears surrounding my struggles. Maybe I’m afraid of being seen as weak, or like I caved into my feelings. Afraid I’m not handling it properly, that maybe everyone feels this way and I’m just bad at managing it. Afraid I might seem untrustworthy, or unreliable - or afraid that others might doubt my abilities even if I’ve learned to cope. Afraid of the sympathy of others - that they will look at me and see “depression” instead of who I am.
Every aspect of our lives can be touched by this fear in regards to mental health. It’s hard to admit at work that we’re struggling, because, at best, no one will know what to say and, at worst, our supervisors and peers might doubt our ability to perform our duties. Typically we are taught to leave our personal lives out of the workplace, especially discussion of our mental health. In our personal lives, it’s hard to admit we’re in pain because we don’t want to “bring people down.” We think no one knows how to respond to someone being depressed, because no one ever talks about it. It can seem laborious to express our needs to one another, but we need to start having those hard conversations.
Our God is not one of fear. Our love must not only cast out fear, but draw it out of those around us and allow everyone to name their own fears. Speaking it out loud rids it of its power. I want to be able to say out loud, “I’m struggling with postpartum depression. I’m on a medication and I’m going to weekly therapy.” In that moment I wouldn’t feel like I’m hiding anymore. It wouldn’t “fix” me, it wouldn’t make me stop feeling sad, but if I could say it, free of fear… I would feel less alone.
Ironically, it is often those who are hurting the most who are able to help others feeling the same way. Chester Bennington was struggling more than anyone knew, and yet the music he created brought hope and healing to so many people because of his authentic recognition of the struggle. Our wounds are given so that we might heal - but we cannot allow our own wounds to fester in the process.
If Jesus taught us anything, it is that our lives are a gift. We can use our wounds - our empathy - to reach out to those around us, but we must also reach up. If we have nothing to lean on, we will inevitably fall. Where can we find the hope our faith offers us? How can we share that hope with others? But first, how can we open ourselves to receive it?
The answers to these questions might be unique to each of us, but they cannot go unanswered. “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15). This is not just a matter of apologetics, of explaining the tenets of what we believe and why. Our faith teaches us that the human person is the crown of all creation, that we are made in the image and likeness of God and that each one of us is precious. Our life is inviolable and immeasurably valuable. We must recognize this in ourselves and one another and show, through our love, the value of each life. We must care for ourselves, and also reach out to those in need around us. We all have wounds and struggles, and we are all hiding to some extent. Let us begin to come out of hiding, to use these wounds to help one another, to really look at one another, to see each other and be unafraid. Let us reach out when we are in pain, and let us all speak about our pain. When we join hands, fear becomes so much less powerful. Even amidst the despair, the sorrow, and the emptiness - love, empathy and hope do have the power to save us.
Casey Esser is a recently married mother of one. She grew up just outside Chicago, the best city in the world, then studied at Franciscan University of Steubenville. After an amazing two years living in France, she settled in Maryland with her husband. She works as a youth minister in Washington, DC and in any remaining free time enjoys swimming, playing the flute, and walking by the bay.