Mental Health Advocate Works to Lift Suicide’s Stigma
Portland media personality Sheila Hamilton’s life and career changed forever when in December of 2006, she learned David, her husband and the father of her nine-year-old daughter Sophie, had died by suicide. He’d been missing for six weeks after leaving hospital treatment.
“I wish we’d been able to talk him out of it, I wish the care he’d received had been good enough that he’d start to feel better, I wish that the medicine had worked, I wish so many things, but none of those wishes came true. So when I think about second-guessing, I keep reminding myself that it is in the past, to use this for information for people going forward, to provide those options for other people who might still be struggling with mental health issues,” she explained.
As both a journalist and survivor, she was uniquely able to share her experience in a book that is a combination memoir and a resource to others “All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness.” Hamilton has become a vocal and passionate advocate for better holistic mental health services and for destigmatizing suicide. She co-hosts the Beyond Well podcast that explores interior lives, emotional health and self-care.
Her book was one of the first to be written from the perspective of a loved one and caregiver of someone who had died of suicide. “I feel I was on the leading peak for this breakthrough for mental health information for the public.”
Learning more about mental health, which affects one in four Americans and yet is often not talked about, helped her better understand David’s illness. And letting go of the stigma around suicide gave her the freedom of forgiveness.
“Just for me, it was a total shift, like a clarion call, just to have someone say, ‘Why can’t we view their deaths as we would view the deaths as any other human with compassion, with integrity, with total empathy for those who are left behind?’ I just had to extend that first to myself as a survivor of someone who died by suicide and then eventually, I extended it to my late husband. He was in immeasurable pain and had tried every mental health intervention and it didn’t work. It made him worse. In some ways, I now understand his decision. I understand his panic. I understand the extent of torment that he had gone through and I forgave him and it really helped me be able to move on in my own life by forgiving him.”
Hamilton was fortunate at the time to have a boss who had experienced suicide in his own family and have the support of other friends, family and coworkers. Taking time to recover from the trauma, she gave herself self-care with the help of many sticky notes. “I would leave little notes around for myself, ‘brush your teeth,’ ‘drink water,’ ‘go outside and look at the sky.’ I wrote a note to myself that said, ‘stay off social media.’ It was kind of like re-learning how to be human again because the extent of the trauma for survivors is profound.”
Hamilton says she eventually found release in a visit to an acupuncturist when she finally was able to let go of “a year’s worth of grief” for two tear-filled hours. “I think it is different for everyone to find your grief opening, but you have to allow yourself to find that opening that is positively right for you. People do it in all kinds of different ways. Some do it through a parishioner or a spiritual leader, some do it through just talking to family and friends, some do it just through getting back to work. For me, actually, it was having a moment where my body integrated the grief and the trauma.”
A common aspect of being the survivor of a family member’s suicide is the tendency to second-guess the choices made before their death. “(But) the doctors who treated him described to me something that was very helpful. They said, ‘The mind of your husband was like a racetrack that was so thoroughly rutted with suicidal ideation. We couldn’t find an offramp for it. We couldn’t find a new way for him to think about his life because the ideation had become this rutted, obsessive grind in his head.’” Hamilton thinks David may have made his plan to end his life even before receiving inpatient care. In the end, she says she has made peace with his decision.
Hamilton says we can support other survivors by just “dropping the word suicide.” She explained, “Just imagine for one moment that that person has just lost someone they loved by cancer or heart disease or an accident. Bring the casseroles over, fold the laundry, pick the kid up from school, take the dogs for a walk, all of the generosities that people are so good at when someone dies of natural causes … Let’s extend that grace to people who have lost someone to suicide.”
Hamilton says her daughter inspired her to choose life and move forward. “She grieved so openly and so profoundly. She would wail at night and pound her pillow and was so demonstrative with her grief. And then, she would get ready and say, ‘I want to go to school, I want to be with my friends, I want to be normal.’ And that is the wave of grief. It is very tumultuous. It comes in these unexpected moments but if you have the inkling for life and moving forward, just that one foot forward that says ‘get out of bed,’ you’ve got to take it. That is how we model to other people that we are resilient, that we are strong, that we actually can get through these very difficult things that life deals out.”
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Sheila Hamilton is a five-time Emmy award-winning reporter and the author of All the Things We Never Knew. Her company, Beyond Well Media produces mental health content for organizations and private businesses who want to help improve employee well-being. Sheila was the host/news director of KINK’s morning show for more than a decade and a former journalist for ABC stations KATU and KTVX.