Dad, You Don’t Understand

My name is Bob Swanson, and I am a suicide loss survivor. Our oldest son, Michael, died by suicide at the age of 33 on March 13, 2009.

Often, in the months before his death, he would say, “Dad, you don’t understand.” I didn’t comprehend the extreme mood swings caused by his bipolar I illness; I didn’t know all the side effects caused by his medications; and, I didn’t realize the agony that he was experiencing.

Shortly before his death, I remember Michael saying, “I don’t trust my mind anymore.” As the saying goes, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

I now know that Michael’s death was the result of various illnesses of his brain including bipolar disorder I, anxiety disorder, seasonal affective disorder, and alcohol use disorder. These illnesses, like all, were not his fault, nor mine. I also know that Michael did not want to die, but he wanted his pain to end. He did not commit suicide; his death was the result of his illnesses.

Since Michael’s death, I have learned a great deal about mental illnesses, the impacts of substance abuse on the brain, and the warning signs of suicide. My involvement with the Minnesota Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has been of great benefit by learning more about mental illnesses. But what has been most important is knowing that our family is not alone. We have found great support and comfort knowing that other families are living a similar journey with a loved one.

I gained further knowledge by completing certifications in Mental Health First Aid and Question Persuade Refer. Also, as a part of my continued healing, I have chosen to speak and write about our family’s journey, mental illness, and suicide prevention since my retirement from the construction industry in 2015.

Let me share a little bit about our family’s journey. Michael was our second child, and as a youngster, he was very caring, energetic, smart, and athletic. His energy level and outlook changed during his early teenage years, and then he was misdiagnosed as living with clinical depression. Throughout that period, he was receiving inadequate treatment for his illness.

After surviving a suicide attempt at age 29, he was properly diagnosed as living with bipolar disorder I. Also, throughout that entire time, our family was sheltered in loneliness because of the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness. Even after Michael’s death, only by attendance in a male support group was I eventually able to say publicly that our dear son died by suicide.

While speaking primarily at local NAMI events and to construction industry groups throughout the U.S., including a few CFMA events, I have learned a great deal. After a brief introduction, I typically begin my presentations by asking the audience to raise their hands if they have been impacted by someone’s suicide; nearly everyone acknowledges that they have been impacted by suicide. There has not been any group with a different response.

I have also noticed that audience members yearn to discuss in private the impact of mental illness, substance use, or suicidal ideation in their lives. On one occasion, I had a young adolescent tell me of his recent suicide attempt, and many parents have told me of the journey of a child with substance use or suicide loss. These are heart breaking stories because a safe space needs to be provided so that they can be told.

I regret that change continues to be slow in the mental health arena. People experiencing a mental health crisis still languish in hospital emergency rooms waiting to be admitted into a mental health unit. There is still a lack of understanding about mental illnesses, and there is a great deal of shame for those living with a mental illness. As indicated by NAMI, only 46.2% of the people living with a mental illness in 2020 received treatment. This is due to the stigma preventing people from seeking care, lack of mental health facilities, and a lack of psychiatrists and psychologists and is especially true in rural areas.

Thankfully, important progress has been made in the construction industry during the past few years. Many contractors, industry associations, and labor unions are breaking the silence about mental illness, substance use, and suicide prevention. For the past six years, I have had the opportunity to be involved with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) in the development and implementation of their Helping Hand program. In addition to developing resources, the program includes identifying local champions who have been trained to assist those in need and has developed curriculum and ‘train the trainer programs’ in Change the Culture of Construction and Peer Supporter Services Training. Recently, the IUPAT hired an individual as Director of the Helping Hand Program with the sole responsibility of expanding the program throughout North America.

All of us can also take an important step in our use of language regarding mental illness, substance use, and suicide prevention. Common statements used are “he’s bipolar” or “she’s a drunk.” Such terminology labels the individual with their illness and implies that it is their fault. On the other hand, I am not aware of anyone saying, “he’s cancer.” In each of these instances, the individuals are living with an illness, and I would encourage the statement “he’s living with bipolar disorder” and “she’s living with substance use disorder.” I would also encourage refraining from stating that someone’ committed suicide’ and instead say that someone died from or died by suicide. When used properly, words have a powerful and beneficial impact.

The author would like to thank to Cal Beyer of Holmes Murphy & Associates for serving as peer editor for this article and this ongoing series of “lived experience” stories. Cal and Bob met before the formation of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP), and they frequently collaborate on mental health and suicide prevention initiatives.