Yesterday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day. Of course I didn’t know about this until much later in the day and couldn’t really think of anything meaningful to say.
Until I recalled an event from seven years ago that, while I have trouble remembering some details and is something I haven’t thought about in a long time, still resonates with me. And so, I’m going to share it with you.
In the US, student pharmacists go through six years of college education and graduate with a Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD.) Five years are spent in the classroom. The sixth year is spent doing clinical rotations in various areas of medicine at various locations throughout the country and even the world.
In October 2009, I was doing my retail pharmacy rotation at a Wegmans, a chain of what is inarguably the best grocery store in the US, if not on the whole planet. That month, which I ended up thoroughly enjoying despite the fact that I despise retail pharmacy with all of my being, I spent a lot of time counseling patients on their medications and making recommendations for over the counter (OTC) products for various maladies.
One day, a young man, probably in his late teens, came in and wanted to speak to somebody about getting some medication for heartburn. My preceptor sent me out to talk to him. We walked over to the shelves containing the Tums and the acid reducers. I asked him some questions about his symptoms and gathered he’d probably benefit best from some Tums. I recommended the Smooth Dissolve, since the regular ones are disgustingly chalky.
It seemed to me that there was something else on his mind. So I asked him if there was anything else I could do to help him. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was being polite, or that I was close to his age, or that I genuinely seemed to care. But he suddenly revealed to me that he was depressed and wanted to kill himself.
I remember asking, “Well, why?” I really can’t remember too much about what he said other than there was a bad family situation going on.
Then I asked,” Do you have any younger siblings?” He affirmed that he did; he got a smile on his face when he started talking about them.
“Well, what would happen to them if you were gone? What would they do?” I asked.
He thought about it for a moment and then said, “You know, you’re right. I can’t leave them. I need to stay strong for them.”
I agreed that he did, not sure what else to say. I was wracking my brain trying to think of anything I had learned about psychiatry, but all that came to mind were medications- I went to pharmacy school, not medical school!
Then he said, “Thank you. Thank you so much. I think it really helped to just talk to someone who’s not an adult.” (Granted, I was 24 at the time, but if he saw me as a peer, I’d go along with it.)
“Come back if you need anything,” I told him. “I’m around for a few more weeks.” He smiled and said he would, then walked away.
I never knew his name. I never saw him again. I hope he continued to make good choices for himself and maybe eventually sought counseling.
So, in honor of World Mental Health Day, keep your eyes open. You never know when you’re going to be blindsided by somebody who needs help. All I did was talk to this kid for 10 minutes total. I just talked to him like a human being. And it was enough to change his mind so he’d keep living.
Look past the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses. All of us are human beings, no matter what is going on in our heads. Perhaps if we all just treated each other how we would want to be treated ourselves, that stigma will crumble. And the world will be a better place for it.