Book Review: This Book Could Save Your Life

This Book Could Save Your Life:

Breaking the Silence Around the Mental Health Emergency

It’s Christmas Day and I’ve been reading This Book Could Save Your Life, which I started the other day, it’s a very important book that should be in the hands of every family. I’ll tell you more about it in a minute…

I live with a mental health condition that causes me to have suicidal thoughts and behavior. My mental health struggles began at age 14, I became suicidal at age 16 and enacted a plan to take my life. I survived that experience, only to become suicidal again at age 19. Up to that point, almost no one knew these things were happening to me, and then someone at my job finally noticed and intervened and I got medical and mental health treatment. Unfortunately, I became suicidal again at age 22.

I have been in and out of treatment for my mental health condition for the last seventeen years. Sometimes systems of care and support have been effective, but often times they have failed. There are many reasons why I am still alive today. Medication and therapy have sometimes been helpful, but my condition has been rather treatment resistant. Friends, family, and sometimes even strangers have made a major positive impact, even when they thought their words or actions were only minor acts of kindness.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “I’m not an optimistic person, I’m a prisoner of hope.” The hope that change is not only possible but absolute, has kept me going when everything and everyone else has failed. Not my therapist, my medication, not family, or my friends, not my fitness routine or my meditation practice, not even time in nature have been foolproof. When all else has failed, hope has kept me alive and half the time I’m not even sure what I’m hoping for, just anything different I suppose. Something new and different, doesn’t even have to be better.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, each day, about 130 Americans die by suicide, that’s about one person every 11 minutes. Of those, about 70% are men, and over half involve firearms. There are many factors that contribute to suicide and not every suicide is the result of the same circumstances.

Some suicides are the result of mental illness that is either untreated or that is being treated with a method that is ineffective, but actually not all suicides are related to mental illness. Some are the result of immense pressures such as bullying, or feelings of failure such as losing a job or relationship, feelings of isolation and loneliness, or from extreme grief due to losing a loved one, to only name a few.

While not every suicide is the result of mental illness, every suicide is tied to mental health. Let me repeat that: not every person has a mental illness, but every person has mental health.

No matter the cause of suicide, surveys show that more than 90% of Americans believe that it is preventable.

Prevention is challenging and it takes many elements to be effective. Everything from education and resources, to skilled intervention, mental health crisis services, effective treatment and medical care, systems of community support, and peer support all play an important role in maintaining mental wellness in the face of adversity, whether that adversity is a mental illness, bullying, financial issues, relationship problems, loneliness, grief, or any other contributing factor.

There are always warning signs prior to suicide, but the challenge with warning signs is that sometimes people go to great lengths to hide them by concealing their thoughts and emotions or physical activities, or those around them do not know what is or is not a warning sign. Not every person at risk of dying by suicide will exhibit the same warning signs either, which makes any kind of blanket statement about signs to look for somewhat unhelpful.

Age is another major factor. A 10 or 14-year-old’s life is drastically different than a 24 or 68-year-old’s. A child or young teen is more likely to be experiencing bullying or a mental illness in its very early stages, whereas a young adult or middle-aged person is more likely to be experiencing financial or relationship issues, social isolation, substance use and/or the symptoms of an untreated mental illness they’ve been battling for decades.

There are plenty of resources out there that can provide you with suggestions on some of the warning signs to look for, such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Now back to the book… written by 22-year-old Ben West, the eldest of three brothers from rural Kent County in southern England, U.K., it tells the story of how he lost his younger brother, Sam, to suicide in January of 2018, when Sam was only 15 years old and Ben was age 17.

The book discusses their early life, alongside their youngest brother, Tom, who was only 13 at the time of Sam’s death, and what they experienced as Sam began to display symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as depression. Ben explains how he knew next-to-nothing about mental health as a teenager and reflects on how he wished mental health education would have been part of school curriculum.

As the book progresses, Ben retells what happened the night Sam took his own life in their family home and how that experience impacted Ben and his family as it happened and then later the ripple effects of that tragedy. It is a very raw telling of a horrific experience that has been lived and continues to be lived by so many families around the world.

What sets Ben’s book apart from many others is that he has been immensely active in mental health transformation, primarily in the United Kingdom. In fact, you may have heard of him or seen him before on the news, as he began speaking about what happened to his family and the tragic state of mental health services both inside the U.K. and around the world, which garnered him international attention. The Diana Award, a U.K. charity that recognizes young people for making change in the world, announced Ben as their 2019 Legacy Award recipient.

Ben has spent the last 4 years campaigning hard to make real and positive changes to mental health services, from improvements to the U.K. National Health Service and to support systems within schools. His proximity to and involvement in these causes put him in close quarters with public figures and politicians, including an encounter with the then U.K. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Ben speaks both loudly and intelligently about the subject of mental health, at a time when we need such voices more than ever. While he may be British, I feel that this book is an asset to any family, regardless of whether you’re British or American. It is a reminder that understanding mental health is incredibly important, not just for your own sake but for your family’s.

It’s also a reminder that the warning signs for suicide may not be so obvious and that they may be more subtle than you may expect. It’s also a testament to the fact that both U.K. and U.S. mental health services are lacking and need our attention and support both financially and politically to actually be effective.

And perhaps most of all, the book is an ode to personal resiliency in the face of great tragedy. No one would have blamed Ben for recoiling inside himself and never again speaking of his brother’s death or the mental illness that led to it, or the broken system that failed them. He could have just mucked on with his life, undoubtedly grief-stricken but otherwise unmoved to speak his painful truth to the world and fight for the wellbeing of others and their families.

The least anyone could do in the struggle against the festering and overwhelming epidemic of ineffective mental health systems of care and treatment, and the dimly lit understanding of what to do when faced with the need to seek such services for yourself or someone you care for, is to read this book and perhaps you will discover the inspiration to find your own voice and use it to make these systems and processes better.

Ben’s parents have established a charity in Sam’s honor, The Sam West Foundation, dedicated to connecting those in need to mental health resources and services.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, please access my immediate assistance resource page.  A comprehensive listing of online and phone resources and services is also available.

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