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A new forever war

I’ve been involved in what I thought would be a “forever war” for me for going on five years now. Of course, I’m talking about the “vaccine wars” where anti-science people continue to endanger the public by actively attempting to discredit vaccines and lowering herd immunity in different parts of the world. This is such a problem that there are now large and active measles outbreaks in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. In the United States (in North Carolina), there is also currently a measles outbreak associated with a non-vaccinating community. Needless to say, this subject is very important to me as an epidemiologist because I’ve seen first-hand what happens when children are not vaccinated.

I’ve seen children die.

Nevertheless, there was a significant event last week while I was visiting my dad and relatives in Mexico. A person near and dear to us attempted suicide. I won’t go into the details because I’m still shaken up about it. But I will tell you that it was very traumatic, and it has taken me a while to stop my brain from replaying the event on a continuous loop. My brain works like that, a blessing and a curse.

With my wife finishing up her master’s in mental health and with my upcoming entry to the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program, I’ve decided to take on a new “forever war”: Mental Health. While I would love it if it weren’t a “forever war,” a war that could last for a very long time, I’ve decided that it is a worthwhile thing to do. One needs to look at the events of the last few months to know this needs addressed, where people with mental health conditions have been blamed for mass shootings, ricin attacks, and of being a burden on society.

One of the first things I hear when someone does something heinous is that they “must be crazy.” People who say this don’t really know what mental diseases are all about. Even worse, they confuse neurodevelopmental delays, like autism, with mental disease. Just look at what people in prominent positions said about the shooter in the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre. As soon as someone mentioned he had Asperger’s, a form of autism, pundits began to scream things like, “See! Only the mentally disturbed kill others with guns!”


Someone asked me if I was angry at the person who tried to take their life last week. “No,” I replied, “not any more angry than I could be at someone with cancer.” It’s true. Mental disease like depression that leads to suicide is no more the victim’s fault than cancer. They didn’t ask for it. They didn’t go seek it. With a few exceptions, they did not bring it upon themselves of their own free will. And they need all the help they can get to live lives that are as close to normal as possible.

Will I abandon my fight against the anti-vaccine people of the world? I don’t know. I know that it doesn’t matter to me as much as my new target does. The petulant and misguided beliefs and actions of the anti-vaccine people are nothing compared to the policies and laws that make it very, very difficult for people with a mental condition to get the help they need to get better. And what can I say about the social stigma? Even I found myself trying to rationalize what happened last week, trying to get away from thinking that it was a suicide attempt and more towards it being an accident.

It was no accident, and I believe I experienced that for a reason. So it’s time, again, to get to work on yet another “forever war.”

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

5 replies

  1. Am I angry and an attempted or successful suicide of someone I know or came to know? Absolutely. Both in myself for not recognizing the signals and in them for not confiding in me their pain.
    I have lived a life as being one that is one of the confidant, even briefly known people tend to tell me their problems and ask for advice.
    I’m also well versed on depression and suicide prevention, I’m retired military, a former SF medic and later, Operations NCOIC and my secondary duty was as an informal counselor for the men, along with any psychological personnel who may briefly embed and our Chaplain staff.
    Still, at our FOB, we had a few men from other units that did manage to suicide and some, I had come to informally know.
    One can be angry about missing any potential sign and acknowledge that one was unable to help. To never learn that detachment lesson is to end up a mental health care patient oneself in advanced first responder and medic situations in the military or in civilian life.
    It’s also the hardest lesson to teach the personnel in that situation. One can teach “until the cow comes home”, but the emotional impact cannot be taught, save by horrific first hand experience, then guided by those in a leadership position.
    The same is true in a NICU environment, for that is a place that eats physicians and nurses alive, unless there is suburb leadership and guidance. Even then, there is a massive loss rate present, for in the West, we’re unaccustomed to neonates dying.

    As for your “forever war”, godspeed and good luck! I’ll help you in every way that I can in each one.
    For, I’m a firm supporter and believer in both.
    And have personally witnessed measles and polio epidemics in small villages. 😦


    1. Thanks for sharing that. Mental health and all that it involves is so complex, so varied, that I wonder if I’ll ever come up with some useful contribution to it. Sometimes I just want to throw my hands up in the air and scream. Other times, I want to help one person at a time. I can’t do either. And it is very frustrating.


  2. Ren: I’ve struggled to post back at you about your unfortunate experience when you observed an almost suicide by a man who is near and dear to you and your family. It certainly brings back an event in my life that occurred just before Thanksgiving, 1986.

    I’ll go skimpy on the man’s background, because it isn’t germane to my post…suffice to state that he and his girlfriend made a major mistake by deciding to live together…and none of us knew the depths of his despair and how he would “remove himself” from the situation

    A little of my own background. I had just brought my 10 year old child home from the hospital encased in 20 lbs of plaster in a body cast, after spending two weeks caring for him in a hospital. He had a supracondylar right femur fracture and his plaster cast covered his trunk down to his toes.

    Within a hour of returning home to be confined to a hospital bed for six months set up in my dining room, (10 weeks in the cast and 4 additional months undergoing intensive therapy. While I was training a registered nurse to care for him, the young daughter of the man’s girlfriend came to my home.

    She described the suicide scene in exquisite detail. No, it wasn’t unsuccessful, accidental or a “cry for help”. It was purposeful and it involved a sharp knife to make certain he would bleed out and for him to be found hanging at the end of a rope.

    I tried, I really tried, to provide the 16 hours of nursing care my child required, spelled by 8 hours of care from the registered nurse, but awoke from my paltry hours of sleep with nightmares.

    Within 5-6 days, I realized I needed my medical help in the form of a mild tranquilizer/mood elevator for my “very situational” depression. A colleague who is a psychiatrist prescribe the exact medicine that I needed to assist me in dealing with my son’s serious fracture and his other medical needs.

    I was angry at the man for months, because of the emotional trauma visited upon the young girl who he knew would discover his body. I was also angry at the added burden he placed on me, at a time when I, my son, my younger daughter and my husband had more than enough stress to care for my son.

    IMO, suicide is not the act of a rational person.


    1. It’s not easy to share these things, so I thank you. I’m still processing everything that happened, and I’m probably not going to be done processing for a while. I need to disagree with you a little bit in your final statement. There are some circumstances under which a rational person commits suicide, but these are very few and only when all options are truly gone. I’m thinking of assisted suicide of someone who is terminally ill, or has been imprisoned by a sadistic captor. Things like that, hope less things. I agree that it is not the act of a rational person when there are objective exits to their problems. But that the thing about it, isn’t it? Even the most rational person loses sight of the forest for the trees under the right (or wrong) circumstances.


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