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My sister’s suicide attempt taught me that even when you want to help, you can’t

Mental illness is a heartbreak on every level, but the day my sister tried to kill herself, I felt like my heart would, quite literally, break. My bright and beautiful sis was so good at looking like everything was going great that I wanted to believe her dark days of depression were all in the past, that she really was great now. I shouldn’t have. In hindsight, her overdose was achingly prescient.

But on the day it happened, when we were all still trying to figure out what had gone wrong, only one thing made sense: She needed help, and I was the closest one (both physically and emotionally) to her. So I ran to her side in the hospital. She was stable, but they let me talk to her for only a minute before they transferred her to a psychiatric facility for a mandatory 72-hour lockdown. I remember saying goodbye to her and telling her that I loved her. I remember saying I’d help her and not to worry about anything while she was gone. I remember her blank stare back.

More: What we lose when we refuse to talk about suicide

The next day was Easter. She had five kids at the time — all young enough to still need the stability of bunnies and baskets, yet old enough to know something was deeply wrong. An acquaintance had the kids at a nearby park, and as I drove over there, I alternated between praying and crying. But when I saw their big eyes and confused faces — they’d watched her throw up, collapse, get loaded into an ambulance — I felt an emotion that surprised me. I was angry. It was an emotion I’d come to know really well over the next month.

I knew that the mental illness wasn’t her fault, but as I raced around at midnight the night before Easter, trying to find candy and small gifts for five kids, along with staples such as toothbrushes and underwear, I veered wildly between sheer grief and red-hot fury. How could this have happened?

When I got home from the store, my nephew was vomiting uncontrollably. He has a serious congenital illness that requires a daily series of medications and treatments to control. In the chaos of the day, I’d totally forgotten. I tried calling my sister. I’m not sure how it works everywhere, but in the place where we live, there is no contact with the outside world during the 72-hour period. “It’s for the patient’s safety,” a nurse told me brusquely. “But what about her son’s safety?” I spluttered.

I didn’t know their pediatrician. I didn’t know the names of his meds. I eventually called every pediatrician in their (thankfully small) city until I found the right one. But then I was told that because I wasn’t his legal guardian, they couldn’t release any information to me, much less the medication. I told them the situation. They felt awful — they’d known my sister and her kids for years — but they couldn’t help. By that point, my nephew was turning blue. I rushed him to the emergency room, where they gave him a dose of his lifesaving medication, but they couldn’t give me a prescription. I’d have to call a judge to get an emergency injunction to grant me legal power over the kids until my sister got out. At 4 a.m. On Easter Sunday.

More: I may never get off depression meds, but that’s OK

I thought of all the kids — hers and mine — waking up in a few short hours. So I did what I had to do. That became my motto over the next month, as my sister chose to stay and do an intensive inpatient treatment program (a decision I fully supported). The program required her complete attention on herself and her own issues, and the kids and I weren’t allowed to speak with her on the phone for the next two weeks and then only for several minutes a day after that. And definitely no visits.

Those days were full of healing and understanding for her (for which I am eternally grateful), but in the meantime, I was left with days full of a million little decisions that the system told me I wasn’t equipped to make. I couldn’t make school or health care decisions for her kids. I couldn’t pay her bills or get her mail. I wasn’t able to speak with her psychiatrist or other doctors about her treatment plan.

I understand, deeply, that my sister’s struggle was so much harder and so much more important than any temporary inconveniences I had to deal with. And I’m so grateful she got the care she needed. She’s now healthy, stable and, most important, alive. I still have my best friend, and that is worth every struggle. But the experience really opened my eyes to how difficult mental illness and the system surrounding it can be for everyone. In the aftermath of these types of situations, you often hear, “Why didn’t anyone try to help her?” I can tell you that it may be, in part, because they don’t make it easy — especially when that person is an adult. Even when everything works the way it should, it’s still incredibly difficult.

More: Your ‘I’ll kill myself’ joke is anything but to survivors

As far too many people have discovered the hard way, our mental health system simply isn’t set up to pick up the pieces when a life suddenly falls apart. I was so grateful that I could be available to help my sister in her moment of crisis (and that other family members and friends could step in too) in any way I could, but there also needs to be a way to help the helpers. There needs to be quick and easy access to legal information about how to make medical decisions for an adult incapacitated with mental illness and for his or her dependents. There needs to be psychological support for the caretakers and children. There needs to be a way to convey sensitive care information between caretakers and doctors without constantly running into roadblocks. With more and more adults suffering from mental illness, the issues are only going to become more pressing, and we need a better way to deal with them — for everyone’s sake.

If you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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