When we ask you, our Aerie fam, what’s important to you, mental health issues are always top of mind. We’re proud to start that conversation today with Ashley Prout McAvey’s story, one of strength, honesty and compassion following her older brother’s suicide.
Read Ashley’s story below, then see some essential resources that she recommends, as well as supportive ways to get help if you or anyone you know may be struggling.
On April 9, 2016, my beautiful brother and dearest friend, Ian Uppercu Prout, ended his life. From that point on, my life, and my family’s, was split into two distinct periods: before April 9 and after April 9.
Ian was two years older than me. My big brother. We shared a room when we were little, and when I was three I was afraid of the dark, so every night I would say to him, “Brudy, turn around and look at me. Keep your eyes open.” I knew if he was watching me, protecting me from the dark, I would have nothing to fear. He dutifully rolled his weary five-year-old body toward me and he would watch me until I fell asleep— every night. That was just the beginning. He grew into the most handsome, generous, kind, funny brother in the world. He owned a successful sports car driving business, and he held five track records at the most prominent race car tracks in the country. He had a wonderful girlfriend, amazing friends, an incredible home, a niece and nephew who adored him. And he had me, the proudest sister in the world, and my Mom and Dad, who gave both of us—in equal measure—love, support, and every opportunity imaginable.
In spite of all this, Ian’s desire to keep it all together, and perhaps to not burden us with any of his struggles, became too much. His last act was not selfish. It was desperate. Suicide is not selfish. It is desperate. This revelation changed everything for me, and what happened in the days and weeks following Ian’s death was, for me, the biggest shift in perspective I’ve ever had in my life.
The pain of that finality, that physical loss, cannot be put into words. The deeper layer suicide survivors face—the questions—are haunting, particularly when the beautiful soul who perishes expended vast amounts of energy to keep their struggles so well hidden, as was the case with Ian. For those of us who remained, the questions came relentlessly: When did Ian’s pain begin? When was the first time he thought suicide was an answer? How could we have not seen the degree to which he was hurting? Why didn’t he let us try to help him? How in the world could he think that we would be ok without him?
Several years ago, there was a suicide near our family. I distinctly remember talking to Ian about it. I was deeply saddened for the family and I also recall repeatedly saying, “But how selfish!” Ian didn’t respond and he didn’t argue with me. He was just quiet, perhaps being careful to keep his own inner struggles to himself. Or maybe he didn’t want to defend this desperate soul because if he did, I might start questioning him. Or maybe his silence acknowledged the often-accepted platitude in our society—the fallacy—that suicide is selfish; that it is someone else’s problem; that it is something one does to their loved ones. This could not be further from the truth. I now realize that the only selfish one in that conversation was me.
Before April 9, I did think suicide was selfish. I thought it was for “other people”— people with obvious problems that surely their loved ones could have easily picked up on. I thought, “How sad for them.” I thought, “Thank God that will never be me.” How wrong I was.
The questions swirl and swirl, and while immeasurable pain remains, I have achieved some peace in the realization that despite his inner turmoil, Ian knew how deeply he was loved, and we knew how deeply he loved us in return. It is that simple. To quiet the questions, I have found peace in this reality. To do something with my pain, however, I will shine a desperately needed spotlight on mental health and suicide awareness and suicide prevention. No one should die by suicide; no one should have to live with the pain of having a loved one lost to suicide.
Getting the conversation started, without stigma, is critical. Suicide is currently the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Ninety percent of those who end their lives suffer from a mental health condition (most often depression), and often, as was the case with Ian, it is undiagnosed. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34. Just as someone is never ashamed of battling cancer, we absolutely must not be ashamed as we battle depression or mental illness, in any of its forms.
Since April 9, 2016, I have been grateful to have many platforms to broadcast my message of hope— television, radio, newspaper, Out of the Darkness Walks benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, an Ignite (mini TED) talk, helping to bring Deconstructing Stigma to the Burlington International Airport, delivering testimony at the Vermont State House, and getting certified in the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center’s Umatter suicide prevention training and taking Ian’s story and my message of empowerment to middle schoolers in Vermont. I am also tremendously proud of my 11-year-old daughter, Elle, Ian’s beloved niece. Elle has taken it upon herself to honor her uncle through art and action in her middle school. Elle created two beautiful art pieces that have been posted on her blog through the Young Writers Project and she spoke to hundreds of people of all ages at the 2018 Burlington Out of the Darkness Suicide Prevention walk benefiting the AFSP. As a middle school student, Elle is working hard to make sure that people her age get help when they need it and that everyone knows there is hope and that we all have to help each other. She also works to raise awareness by making sure language around mental health and suicide prevention is always helpful, not hurtful.
When Ian made the decision to end his life on Earth, he gave us a clarity about suicide that otherwise we never would have had. And with this gift comes the responsibility to speak and to act and to affect change. I know that we can grace this world with a wave of compassion, research, and advocacy to save others and to spare their families the absolute devastation that we as survivors know all too well. We can do this for our loved ones gone too soon and for ourselves. There is no more beautiful way to honor those we have lost. No more beautiful way to be sure that their suffering was not empty—that it was not meaningless. Indeed, it is their suffering that fuels us to act and it is their suffering that will ultimately be life-saving for others.
To anyone who is suffering, I say emphatically that you are not alone and you are not frail, you are not crazy, you are not broken. You are a human who has needs that have not been met. And whether it is a chemical imbalance in your brain or other natural psychological needs that are not being met (feeling like you belong, that you are valued by friends and family, that your life has purpose, that you feel you have a future on this planet) or a combination of the two, none of this is your fault. You are part of the human experience and above everything else, there can be no shame at all in whatever is going on in your mind, body, and soul. You did not ask for this. No one asks to live with a deep depression or addiction, with a palpable pain. No one asks to be confused by their life’s path or to feel a pain so profound that it feels as though that pain is oozing out of them or that they have a heavy boulder on their chest. No one should feel that the only way to end their pain is death. What a terrifying and horrible way to live— the only thing worse would be to be feeling these things alone, in isolation, in shame, all the while feeling hopeless. Perhaps those who end their lives are, as a friend said to me hours after Ian passed, too beautiful for this world, too sensitive for this world. If this is the case, let us make it perfectly clear that we are even more so looking out for each other. Let’s look for signs, known as co-morbidity factors, such as substance abuse, mental illnesses, eating disorders, and addictions. Let us look for these signs, and most of all let us ask the question: Are you ok? Are you thinking about suicide? We cannot be afraid to put these questions out there, clear as day. And particularly to those who suffer silently: You will never be a burden to me. You are so precious to us. You are not alone. There is no shame in being human. Most of all, let us remind them that in sharing their burden, they will be trusting us to help them, and that is a gift to all of us. More than a gift, it is their obligation to ask for help. And for anyone who is suffering, while none of this is your fault, it is up to you to take care of yourself, to ask for help, to get help, and to know deep in your soul that it will get better. It is then our obligation as a society to be there with open arms, without judgement, and with a promise that it will get better— and that we will stand by them every second until it does. We are in this together. And, together, we will create a world without suicide.
I share the following resources as they provide excellent information to help you or anyone suffering. The three websites have a tremendous amount of information dealing with prevention, education, and hope for those affected by suicide so that we truly can create a world without suicide. These resources provide the tools we all need to be an intelligent and proactive society—and they remind us that no one should be hurting in isolation. You are not alone and you must ask for help:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), a vital, toll-free number. You can also text “HOME” to 741741
- The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), a voluntary health organization dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide.
- Brian’s Healing Hearts, a foundation dedicated to the healing of grieving adults as well as community education on suicide prevention and awareness
- Vermont Suicide Prevention Center (VTSPC)
Here are some ways to get involved in mental health and suicide prevention efforts. There are over 400 Out of the Darkness walks benefiting the AFSP and the feeling of hope and togetherness at these walks is palpable. If you prefer to ride a bike for mental health, check out the following charity bike ride started by a friend of my brother’s and mine in honor of his son who suffered from mental illness. And look in your community for talks such as my Ignite Talk—and if there isn’t one, create your own event to get the conversation started!
- Out of the Darkness Walks, charity walks that benefit the AFSP.
- The Ride for Mental Health, a charity bike ride that benefits McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate for the education, research and treatment of mental illnesses, and that hopes to end the stigma surrounding mental illness through education and awareness.
- Ian Prout Forever Fund, created by Ashley’s family and benefitting the AFSP.
- Ashley’s Ignite Talk, about Ian and suicide awareness.
Last, it’s important to remember that language matters and words can inadvertently perpetuate stigma, shame, hurt, and the epidemic that is suicide. Please be aware of what you say and how you say it and when you hear someone speaking in a way that continues the shame and darkness, take a second, embrace the two seconds of awkwardness, and say something. You have no idea how much you will be helping my mission when you do so!
- Instead of “committed suicide”: Say….. “died by suicide” or “ended their life.” A person commits a sin, a crime, perjury— there is the implication of “fault” with the word “commit”. No one should ever feel it is their “fault” when dealing with depression or any form of mental illness.
- Instead of a “successful suicide”: Say…. “took their own life”
- Instead of “I could kill myself!”: Say… ”I am really mad that I…..”
- And speak up when you hear hurtful language!
We are so grateful to Ashley for sharing her story.
We’d love to know what topics related to mental health are important to you. Comment below and tell us, and stay tuned from more topics that are close to our hearts.