Understanding Suicide: One Father’s Story

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — January 15, 2021 — 4 min read
This story contains personal experiences and information about suicide, mental health, trauma, and substance use disorders which may be upsetting to some.

Charles “Chris” Sherrill has been involved in suicide prevention for a large part of his life. In fact, while in the U.S. Marine Corps, he was a suicide prevention officer.

“I had to ask that question—'Are you thinking about taking your life?’—more than one time,” Sherrill said. “It doesn’t roll off the tongue very easily.”

Several of Sherrill’s close friends have attempted or died by suicide. One fellow service member attempted suicide twice, “and I found him both times,” said Sherrill. In January 2020, he lost another friend and veteran to suicide.

Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than non-veterans, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But it was outside of the armed forces that Sherrill was impacted by several suicide attempts close to home—those of his son.

Seeing Mental Illness and Addiction in His Son

“The first attempt was when he was 15 years old,” Sherril said. “Then he was diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD) and severe anxiety disorder. In college, he started binge drinking.” After college, Sherrill’s son moved to another state where he began his struggle with other addictive substances.

“Cocaine was his drug of choice,” Sherrill explained.

Suicide Attempt via Social Media

Of the five times Sherrill’s son attempted suicide, four instances where when he was in active addiction. During one attempt, he blacked out after mixing sleeping pills with heavy drinking.

“He had posted a video of himself with a pistol in his mouth on Instagram,” said Sherrill.

*It’s not entirely uncommon for those with depression or other mental illnesses to post alarming messages on social media. If you see a concerning post that relates to suicide or self-harm, here’s information on how to respond.*

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Call **ASK (star-star-2-7-5) from your cell phone or 1-800-939-5911.

A Shift in Perspective

Sherrill explained that he had mixed emotions as a parent when dealing with his son’s suicide attempts.

“I didn’t understand what was going on with me at the time. I had not yet been diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or severe anxiety disorder. My thought was still: ‘Pick yourself up by the bootstraps. Things get bad, but we still go on.’ But again, I didn’t understand what was going on with me.

“I was actually forced by my command to get screened for PTSD and anger management issues. What I’ve learned is that often when men are depressed, our depression comes out in anger, agitation, and irritability. I didn’t understand that until I was diagnosed.”

After receiving and accepting his diagnosis, Sherrill said he was better able to understand his son. “This is real,” Sherrill said. “I started looking at mental illness through a different lens.”

Openness and Empathy Led to Better Conversations

Oftentimes, Sherrill’s son wouldn’t share with him when he was headed toward a downward spiral. Not until Sherrill was candid about his own diagnosis.

“Once I shared that I could relate to him, then he would share bits and pieces with me.” These conversations strengthened their relationship and helped Sherrill’s son feel that he could open up to his father.

Even when his son’s addiction strained their relationship, Sherrill never stopped the conversation.

“When he was in active addiction, I was everything but a child of God to him. But since then, he has made amends and asked for forgiveness. I told him I was his dad and would always be his dad and that I would love him regardless. But when you’re in active addiction, maintaining relationships is the furthest thing from your mind.”

The Path to Addiction Recovery through Mental Health Treatment

His son’s mental health and recovery journey wasn’t a straight line. “We always knew that when he was doing well, he was taking his medications. As soon as we started to see changes in his behavior, we immediately asked the question: ‘How long have you been off your medication?’ ”

In these lapses, Sherrill’s son would cope by binge drinking or using cocaine (or cannabis if cocaine wasn’t available). “He would self-medicate until his mother or I noticed a change.”

Fortunately, his son has now been in recovery for over two years. Part of maintaining his recovery has been the acceptance of mental health treatment. Sherrill said, “He’s come to the realization that he has to take medication for the rest of his life for MDD. And he’s fine with that.”

Anyone Can Develop Thoughts of Suicide

Regarding mental health stigma, Sherrill said, “We’ve got to be the ones to start the conversation to break down the stigma. It’s okay to ask for help. Stigma is one of the biggest things that prevents people from asking for help. People automatically think they’re being judged for having suicidal ideations.

“Suicide has never been an option for me—that doesn’t mean it won’t ever be,” Sherrill said. “I would hope I have enough trust and confidence in my support network … that if I were on my way there, I would be able to reach out to them and ask for help.”

mental health screening

An online screening can help you figure out what you are feeling and how to find support.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, there is help.

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