It’s been three months since my friend Scott died by suicide.
And it still weighs heavily on my heart every day.
Grief is a strange experience. Everyone’s journey through it is different.
A week before Scott died, I had volunteered to present at a local library conference. I said I would discuss the importance of children's books about mental health and neurodiversity. Once I learned of Scott's death, I deleted the entire introduction to my presentation, and wrote a new one from scratch - one that was filled with emotion and sharp with pain.
I talked about being an awkward, weird kid with few friends. I talked about how Scott was one of the first people I reached out to when I began pursuing an autism evaluation - something that would help explain a lifetime of awkwardness, frustration, and anxiety. I talked about how Scott had been a huge part of my life for over a decade. How much Scott cared about helping people.
How none of us knew Scott was suffering until it was too late.
And how much his death just wrecked me.
Over the past three months, I’ve dealt with my grief by losing myself in learning. I read a lot about mental health and suicide, and one of the most important things I have learned is how powerful storytelling can be.
At events for survivors of suicide loss, you'll find that one of the first things people do is tell their own personal stories of grief. After suffering through a mental health crisis, many patients are encouraged to read other people’s stories of recovery. And when young people feel lost and question who they are or who they love, there are some amazing initiatives ready to support them - ready to share stories. These stories tell kids that no matter who they are, their lives still have meaning, and no matter how much it hurts right now, it does get better.
Stories are important because they give us hope. Stories connect us with others who feel the same way that we do. Stories can also inspire empathy for those who are different from us. Stories help us understand each other, and let us see the world from someone else’s perspective. A good story can teach us how to be a better person, or a better friend. Sharing stories can also help reduce the stigma that discourages people from talking about mental health.
Stigma, or the negative perceptions that people have about mental health, can be a huge barrier to diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. One of the best ways to combat stigma is to talk openly and honestly about mental health. Children’s Health has produced great infographics that talk about stigma and debunk some of the common myths about mental health. Sometimes, adults fear that talking about suicide and mental health will inspire kids to harm themselves. Research has shown, however, that talking about suicide is safe (when done responsibly), and it can actually help to prevent people from seeing suicide as a desirable option.
As a librarian, I especially recommend books written by authors who have real-life experience with depression and suicidal thoughts. These books show readers that other people have found a way through the darkness of depression, and survived. Books like Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork, My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero and Erica Moroz -- and thankfully so many others. These #OwnVoices books can have a huge impact on a young person who is feeling alone and misunderstood.
I can’t promise that any single story is going to change someone’s life or save someone. Mental health is far too complex for anyone to make a claim like that. But stories do have the potential to make the world a kinder and more understanding place. A place where, hopefully, more people will feel comfortable talking about their struggles, instead of keeping them locked away inside.
We need that. We need that because suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people between ages 10 to 34. We need that because my friend Scott grew up in a world that didn't always know how to talk about mental health. When we were kids, we weren't given the words and the tools needed to have nuanced discussions about our emotions. There was often a fear of being seen as weak or broken.
As a society, we have come a long way since then, but we can still do so much more. I want kids today to know more. I want them to have more strategies at their disposal, and to be able to say more about their thoughts, feelings, and mental health. I can't wave a magic wand and make the world a less traumatic place, but I can try and help kids to become more resilient to that trauma. I can try and give them hope.
And if those librarians that I spoke to back in November make a commitment to talk more about mental health, then maybe they can reach kids in their communities who have been suffering alone in silence. Maybe they can help put those kids on a path to healing and recovery.
Maybe together we can save lives.
So today, I’m sharing my story -- and Scott’s -- in the hope that it might help others. Perhaps it will bring comfort to someone who is having a hard time, or inspire someone to reach out to a loved one. Maybe a librarian will find the justification they need to buy more books about mental health. Maybe an adult will find the words they need to start a conversation with the kids in their lives.
Because ultimately, that’s what stories are. Stories are powerful conversation starters.
In the three months since Scott’s death, I have told our story multiple times, and the response I have received after each telling has been incredible. Librarians have thanked me for recommending books and sharing why they’re so important. Other survivors of suicide loss have shared stories of their loved ones. And parents have even asked me for resources for coping with grief. All of these responses fill my heart with joy, and make my own burden of grief a little bit lighter.
With every telling, I learn a little more about myself and my grief.
I hope that I can use everything I’m learning to help, in some small way, to make the world a better place for everyone.
If you’d like to learn more about mental health and neurodiversity in children’s books, you can view the slides for one of my presentations here. I am also putting the finishing touches on a website with additional resources - look for it soon at bit.ly/AWStories.
Adriana White is our newest staff editor at A NOVEL MIND. She is an autistic school librarian and former special education teacher. Since being diagnosed with autism in her 30s, she has set out to create more autism-friendly schools and libraries. She is also passionate about supporting #OwnVoices books by autistic authors, and thinks that every library collection should include them! Links to her work, including her Geek Club Books column on autistic books, can be found on Linktree. She can also be found on Twitter at @Adriana_Edu, where she tweets about autism, libraries, and diverse books.
Adriana has earned Master’s degrees in Education and Information Science, with specializations in Special Education and Storytelling, respectively. Adriana currently lives in Texas with her husband Kyle and their 2 dogs. She spends her free time reading, writing, and playing video games. For more of Adriana's writing on autism, neurodiversity, and education, click here.