On Suicide in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Community: One of Those Stories I Wish Nobody Had to Write



I know I am not alone in feeling sad when I hear about someone taking his/her own life; indeed, sad is an understatement. It is extra surreal when I find out the person in question trained. It would be nice if the effects of jiu-jitsu were so magical that people who train never experienced depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. Then those of us who are evangelical about it would feel that much more justified.

But jiu-jitsu is not magic. I know this because of the too-frequent reports of people in our community acting on their suicidal ideations. I know this because of the work of groups like Submit the Stigma and the more informal but equally well-intentioned efforts of people like me who try to be forces for good in the world. And I know this because of my own experiences with anxiety and depression.

I am fortunate because in my case, a combination of meds, coping strategies, and support from family and friends ensures that, while I do still go to the dark place, I do not go as often, and I do not stay as long. Whatever suicidal ideation I experienced never got past the very vague what-if stages, and is now, for me, a thing of the past.

So, I cannot say I fully understand, but I can say that I have felt so null and void at times that That did seem like an explorable option. I know I am not in a hurry to get any closer to being able to understand, because what I experienced was dark enough.

If there are things I can do to help someone feel less like That is their only option, I want to do them. I do not know how to prevent suicide, and so sometimes even believing I could help in some way feels presumptuous. I have realized that all I can do is what feels right, based on what experts tell us, my own experiences with depression, and my beliefs about the kind of person I want to be. I know others feel a desire to help too. I know this because of the Facebook postings I see after news circulates of a suicide, in which the poster entreats others who are feeling down to reach out.

If I am any indication, one challenge I remember from times I was at my lowest is that the thought of reaching out for assistance was another thing I was unable to make myself do—and therefore, in my mind, another way I was a colossal failure. I (still) retreat when things get bad, primarily because during those times I do not have the energy to do much else. When I was at my worst, I do not think I even realized I needed help; it was usually when I came out of a particularly bad patch that I was able in retrospect to recognize how rough things had been. In other words, it was the times when I probably most needed help that I was least likely or able to reach out.

Fortunately, there are resources for people like me who want to be proactive in providing support to those experiencing depression but are not sure how. If you want to learn more, here are just a few of those resources:

Perhaps these sites can help us recognize people who experience depression like I do: as a heaviness that makes them want to fold into themselves and cut off interpersonal contact. Of course, some people who are feeling symptoms of depression may have the capacity to reach out, and if they do, I am glad so many people are willing to be available to them. And there are also many hotlines for them and the loved ones who may be concerned about them. Here are just a couple:

These hotlines are staffed 24/7, and people who are considering suicide or who fear that someone they know is doing so can get routed to the nearest crisis center for support.

Another moving tendency among those of us left behind is to enumerate all the many amazing qualities of the person, to bear witness to just how large a void his or her absence leaves in our lives. When I was in the depths of my own depression, I could not fathom that I was loveable or valuable in any way. The “depression machine” in my brain (as my psychiatrist terms it) was very good at convincing me that any evidence I could come up with on my own was sketchy at best and ridiculous at worst.

For this reason, I clung desperately to bits of positive feedback from other people, any evidence I could collect that I was a worthwhile person. Reflecting on how important those kind words were to me when I was at my most vulnerable has made me realize that perhaps it would help someone if I paid it forward, that maybe sometimes people do not see in themselves all the good things others see in them. Particularly if I suspect someone of having a hard time, perhaps telling people how much I appreciate something they do, say, or are could make a difference.

I recognize it is impossible to control people’s behavior. Placing too much emphasis on what we can do to help prevent suicide might make us feel overly responsible or hopeless ourselves. There may be absolutely no overlap between my experience of depression and that of others, so this conversation may not resonate at all with some people. But even though all those things may be true, I cannot think of any downsides to being more present with others and to making sure the people—friends/family, acquaintances, and strangers alike—who make my life better know it anyway.

At the very least, I will have a fuller experience of my own life and the people in it, and at best, perhaps some people will rethink their plans for long enough to get the support they need to make a different choice. Though I am not always successful, I try to act with compassion and non-judgment, and to be kind. Maybe you do the same. Perhaps we will never know that our actions made a difference in someone’s life, but I am willing to take that bet.

What are your thoughts about how we, individually and as a community, can show compassion and support for people who are experiencing suicidal ideations or suffering from mental health issues? Please post your thoughts and experiences to comments.

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Comment on this post (2 comments)

  • Jeff Liwag says...

    Thank you so much for writing this and for advocating for us all. I’ve suffered from anxiety, suicide ideation, and the resulting insomnia which started last year. You’ve mentioned it in the article but Jiu-Jitsu played (and still plays) a big part in my coping toolkit. I’ve tried medication, therapy, and meditation but they barely helped. Getting on the mat was the only thing that helped me but it took everything I got just to get out of the house and onto the mats. My insomnia got in the way — I was literally dead-tired every single day. Cycling various sleep aids (natural and pharmaceutical) allowed me to muster barely enough energy to go to the academy at least 2-3 times per week. I got a tattoo as a little tribute and testament to this. I wrote a little more in medium.com/resilient

    September 11, 2017

  • Suzanne Gallego says...

    Being a person who has depression and has thoughts of suicide I can say that what helps me is being around positive people. People who bring me up rather than tear me down. But I guess that’s a given. At this point in my life I’ve accepted that on the occasion the darkness sets in. While I’m in it I remind myself that it is like a storm and just as it came it too will pass. I pray the most during that time. Somedays are easier than others to get out of bed. On those days where it’s hardest to get out of bed, to be honest, I tell myself “Right now, across the world, there are women and men fighting so you can live free. Women and men who are away from their families so you can live this life. So shut up and get up!” That gets me up 100% of the time. Then I shut the voice inside my head up. And I get on with the business of life.

    August 31, 2017

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