When a childhood friend tried to take her own life, it caused Heather Miles to recognize the same warning signs in an older family member.
Miles had known her friend since the two girls were about 7 years old.
“She was a regular kid, a happy kid,” Miles recalled. “We’d have sleepovers.”
In high school, Miles saw a change come over her friend.
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“I noticed she would get stressed out over things that to me and other people wouldn’t seem like a big deal,” recalled Miles, now 22 and attending Pacific Lutheran University.
Her friend began to withdraw from social activities.
“There would be seasons where she wouldn’t be as present,” Miles said. “Even if you were right with her she would seem emotionless. It was very up and down with her.”
Then, during their junior year, her friend stopped coming to school.
A week later, Miles learned she had been hospitalized for an anxiety disorder and for an attempt to take her life.
The news shocked Miles.
“The automatic response is, ‘What did I do wrong as a friend?’ ” Miles said. “Maybe I’m not a good enough friend.”
But that was the wrong response, Miles said.
“You can’t put that on yourself,” she said. “It’s not anybody’s fault.”
Miles tried a proactive approach.
“I would go over to her house and listen to her because that’s what she needed,” Miles said. “As a friend, that’s all you can do — listen. You can’t promise them it’s going to be OK because to them it’s not.”
The girl’s family did not know how to cope.
“I remember her mom saying, ‘Stop having a pity party. Just get over it,’ ” Miles said. “Which isn’t very helpful.”
Her friend eventually got professional help and medications. Now she’s in college and married.
“She’s really, really happy now,” Miles said. “She’s learned to deal with anxiety.”
After watching her friend struggle, Miles realized that an older member of her family was dealing with suicidal thoughts.
In junior high school, Miles had noticed cuts on the family member and asked her parents about it.
“She was struggling with self-harm and depression,” Miles said.
Dealing with her friend’s condition made Miles realize the potential ramifications of her family member’s condition.
“It gave me a new perspective on it,” she said.
Now, like then, Miles’ family is reluctant to bring the subject up.
“It was kind of a taboo subject,” she said.
Miles has learned enough to know that the older family member has made attempts to take her life. She’s now getting counseling and other support, including from Miles.
“I had written her a card telling her all the things I love about her,” Miles said. “She just looked at me and said, ‘I had no idea you felt that way.’
“It made me sad because you have to say it. You just can’t assume. You have to let them know how important they are.”
The stigma of suicide can make a bad situation worse, Miles said.
“It makes the victims feel alone,” she said. “A lot of the time all they need is someone to listen to them about how they feel or what they are thinking.”
The reluctance to talk about the subject extends to her generation, Miles said. When she mentions the walk she’s helping to organize to fight the stigma and raise awareness about suicide, her friends change the subject.
“They just say, ‘Oh that’s awesome,’ and then that’s the end,” she said. “Nobody ever says, ‘Tell me more.’
“The No. 1 thing we can do as advocates is to get the conversation going. Let people know it’s OK to talk about. It’s OK to struggle and have these issues. There are things you can do to help yourself and help your loved ones.”