Wasn’t he just my father instead of a mentally disturbed person?

In February, my father committed suicide. This open letter is not a revenge for almost 25 years of fruitless mental health service, but a call for more empathy.

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The phone call I had feared for more than twenty years came on a cloudy Friday in February. “Your father has passed away.” Even before the word suicide was uttered, I knew that he had not died a natural death. Throughout my childhood, I have seen how my father several times attempted suicide. I still remember how I, as a little boy, tried to convince him not to jump in the car and to throw himself off a bridge or how I visited him in the hospital after overdosing on antidepressants.

The last five years, our father-son relation was almost non-existing. After he separated from my mother and he burned down our new house, we had only contact through mediation. From a distance I saw how, in spite of supervision, he failed to get out of his vicious circle. He continued to suffer from mood swings and could not come off his antidepressants. Moreover, he was not able to build a new life. His circle of friends was limited: he only encountered other psychiatric patients.

Brake on antidepressants

My father had no severe mental illness such as schizophrenia. 25 years long, he was sent from one psychologist to another psychiatrist to identify his mental problems. He was diagnosed with once a bipolar, then an obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to the latest studies he had a mild form of the Asperger syndrome. Am I allowed to find it frustrating that he has been labelled so often so differently? Often I have wondered whether the label itself was so relevant. Wasn’t he just my father instead of a mentally disturbed person?

Every time, I was surprised how antidepressants seemed to offer the only way out. I saw some psychiatrists conveniently prescribed drugs to immobilise my father. It may sound harsh, but that is how it is. The antidepressants made of him an addicted junkie who panicked when he did not have his medicines. The dependence plunged him deeper into the abyss. There was no brake on the antidepressants he was prescribed: he could easily drop by several doctors to get new prescriptions. Our cupboards at home were bulging with antidepressants. I think there should be a database where all the purchased medication is registered. Antidepressants work like drugs. My father has died as an addict.

And our family was in the sinking boat as well. My mother had to work twice as hard to take over the duties of my present, but absent father. She has sacrificed her entire social life for me. My father was physically present, but mentally he almost constantly moved through life like a zombie because of the antidepressants. I rarely played football in the garden with my father. Instead, I played against imaginary opponents.

Bureaucracy stifles empathy

I was never careless. At home I often had to stand in for my father. I was mature quickly. I have missed my puberty. I had no energy left to build my own social life. What did I have to tell to my friends? That my father was once again in the hospital? For the outside world we had a happy family life. Keeping up appearance. I have become a good actor. Never a psychologist has paid attention to me nor to my mother. Didn’t we have to bear a burden as well? Did we have to take the punches alone?

I’m not looking for someone guilty. I do not proclaim the truth. I just know what I have seen and experienced. The death of my father has made it very clear again: bureaucracy stifles empathy in mental health care. A call outside working hours? Impossible. A listening ear? Just sign that paper now. A comforting hug? We have no time for that. Those little signals, however, are so important for the family.

The immediate family is always overlooked. I am fortunate that I could count on a great mom to help me to through the difficult periods and to keep me motivated to study. For other children, whose voice in the media is not heard, it is much harder not to be dragged into this destructive spiral. Mental health problems have a huge impact on family life and the personal development of everyone in the family.

The power of empathy

I am convinced that mere empathy removes a large part of the burden. Attention is healing. I started talking about my real family situation only recently. Only when a good friend lent her ear to me, my personal healing process has started. As long as mental problems are a taboo, there is no discussion possible. It is so important to receive the signal that you are not different. That you can build a beautiful life as well, despite the grief at home.

I do not question medicine. I do not point the finger to anyone. I do not want a big revolution. There are many political, institutional and financial constraints to reform mental health care. Yet, I believe it can be done differently. I just ask for some understanding and empathy. Break the taboo and listen to each other. I believe in the power of empathy. Let us please not forget that it is about people like you and me.

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Wasn’t he just my father instead of a mentally disturbed person?