Men, Mental Health, and Suicide: A Son's Perspective

Scott and Dave Reilly

My dad tied a noose, propped a ladder to the attic access, and hung himself in the garage.  

January 29, 2007, it was Monday morning; I was in my office in Midtown Atlanta. I remember that  moment like it was yesterday. My phone rang, and on the other end was my dad’s pastor informing me  that my hero, the best man in my wedding, my dad, died by suicide.  

No way. How is this possible?  

David Riley was a highly respected, brilliant, and dependable man in our community. He was the guy who showed up on moving day to help a friend’s friend unload a moving truck. He taught the little kids in Sunday School. He’d help you put a new roof on. He volunteered at the homeless shelter downtown.  And he always did it with a smile. Everyone who knew my dad could tell you about his smile.  

My dad worked as a Software Engineer. I never really knew what he did. No one did. All the projects he  worked on were classified as Top Secret. Government stuff. He traveled the world: Iraq, Australia, Russia  with the same company for 26 years. When I was a kid, we spent a year in Denver and then a year in  Washington DC. He was a go-to guy at work and superior at whatever he did.  

His handwriting was impeccable. He would write flawless letters to friends and family to encourage  them. He remembered everyone’s birthday and wrote thoughtful notes in Christmas cards every year. He  even had a label maker. All his containers got one. He kept records and notes of everything. A detailed and deliberate man, he was equally easy to talk to and would help any stranger in need.  

So how does a guy with a nice six figure stable job, a wife of 30 years, two self-sufficient married adult kids, a paid for house, a nice bank account and a hefty 401K, a church family, and close friends… end up taking his own life?  

When my wife and I arrived in Florida the day after, I still didn’t believe he was dead. No way. But if he did kill himself, I was expecting a perfectly sealed, labeled, handwritten suicide note from my dad. One for me, my  sister, and my mom. There were no notes. Instead, what I found on his closet shelf, were perfectly lined  up pill bottles. There had to be 12 different prescriptions.  

No one is sure of exactly what happened to trigger my dad’s mental health crisis. All I know is that something happened at work. He was working on another one of these uber-classified Top-Secret high profile projects, and he was the only one with the clearance and ability to access this sensitive  information. An issue arose and he couldn’t figure it out. The technology was overwhelming. Or he  missed some deadline… we don’t know. But he had a breakdown.  

All of this was kept hush hush. In hindsight, this was a mistake. I never even knew what was happening  until he died. But he was scared he would lose his clearance if his company found out. Which to him  meant he would lose his job and then he wouldn’t be able to work in government contracting. My mom  didn’t know what to do. So, she took him to his primary doctor. He was prescribed an antidepressant medication right away. He died three months later.  

What hurts the most, is that I never got to know my dad on an interpersonal, man to man, friend level. I went off to college, got married, moved to another state, and hadn’t yet formed that adult relationship  with him. We never got to have a beer together. 

But I did have 27 years with an amazing father. Most men get 50 years with a tyrant, or deadbeat, or no dad  at all. My pops rarely missed a game of mine growing up. Even the away games. To me he was an  incredible man who did no wrong. He loved me unconditionally and led his household well. A man full of  integrity.  

Five years ago, my mom gave me my dad’s 1991 yearly day planner. Each day he wrote out his schedule,  and in the notes section, he would journal a few paragraphs every day. It was all normal stuff, “Took Scott to Ormond Beach for soccer today.” “Last night I cooked supper. Hamburgers on the grill, zesty fries, and broccoli. Ice cream for dessert.” “I arrived in Dallas today around 1 pm. Did not do much work”.  

I flipped each page and read every word. Reading a year in the life of my dad was comforting. That year, he was 39 and I was 12. This was the first glimpse I had into his daily life. It is so obvious how much he  loved his family. He also recorded his swim, bike, and running workouts. He was also wrestling with this new Christian faith. He was searching for more.  

He rarely shared his emotions in this day planner, but on August 30, 1991, he wrote: “I truly want to find my passion and vision”. This was the first time he wrote something deeply personal. I believe most men  are searching for this, and I know my dad was until the day he died.  

Experiencing my dad’s death shattered my entire worldview. Shattered. It forced me to question  everything I said I believed in. All the preset factory programming bestowed upon me by my loving  parents was now uncertain. God. Work. Family. Lifestyle. Health. Religion.  

My dad was 54 when he died. 80% of all US suicides are men and women between 45-54. Eight out of ten! There’s a lot to unpack there. I’ll keep it simple: if you’re a man and you don’t have a passion and vision by 45 years old, you are at risk to fall into a depressed state. Or become angry, resentful, and  pessimistic. Just look around, talk with people, and pay attention to witness this phenomenon. Most  men go the slow suicide route. My dad just ended it quickly.  

I knew from Day 1 that I would never know exactly what happened to my dad. I surrendered that notion right away. Looking back now, that action was a profound mental shift. Unconsciously, I answered all my  unanswerable questions with, “I don’t know”. All I know is my dad was under the influence of drugs and  somehow chose to end his life. No warning signs. That is what happened.  

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” – Henry David Thoreau  

Sometimes I’ll think, “All he really needed to do was quit his job, take 12 months off, and figure out  something else to do for work.” Ah, but that self-crafted Identity is hard to change. Our social  conditioning for comfort and security is hardwired in. Our brains are pre-wired to predict and protect.  My dad just didn’t have the awareness during this time.  

This is where the ego meets the real You. A part of your Ego must change. A type of death is required.  And a new part of You is craving to be expressed. This naturally occurs in nature all day. A sprout springs from decay.  

It’s our Ego’s job to be right. We would rather perpetuate our wrong ideas, beliefs, and limitations,  than to admit we were wrong. This is why apologies are so rare. This is why many men are taking the  slow suicide route. 

We all have an Ego. Over time, your ego has created your identity based on our beliefs and experiences.  This is mostly done unconsciously. Our childhood creates the foundation. We then build our identity  through school, spouse, friends, society, work, religion, etc. We believe that these labels define us.  But there's one problem: The you that you’ve created… that’s not You. It’s a part of you that’s been  shaped, programmed through repetitive experiences, and thought patterns. This creates your personal  reality – Personality. This is how you see life. Your truth. But what happens when this isn’t working anymore?  

What part of Dave needed to die? Change was required. Sadly, my dad never explored the part of him  that needed to be expressed. I believe the drugs robbed him of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kill that part of the ego holding him back.  

My encouragement to all men is to begin the journey of mental health. We already know how important  our physical health is: sleep, diet, and daily movement are the pillars. Mental health includes:  meditation, journaling, breathwork, fasting, brain training, philosophy, yoga, mindset, community, etc.  

For the first few years after he died, I went full on slow suicide. More fast than slow, but I was  unconsciously self-sabotaging. I was consumed by grief which led to all the bad things: addiction,  bankruptcy, almost divorced, drugs, alcohol; you know the story.  

Then, our son was born in 2010. Changed my life. Our daughter was born in 2014. Changed my life again.  My wife always stayed solid and held us together. She’s the rock which sharpens iron. And 5 years ago, I  began my physical and mental health journey.  

Living in the now, the present moment is key. And answering those rattling questions in your head with “I  don’t know” will help remove anxiety. There’s no amount of wishing and hoping that will change the past, and the future is completely unknown, so just live. And once you realize there’s nowhere to get to, freedom unlocks. It’s the kind of freedom you had as a child. That life is available to all who seek. Spoiler alert: Joy comes from within.  

The “Dave100 Challenge” was born last year. It’s a simple yet potentially profound way to kick start your  mental and physical health journey. The real challenge is to slow down to take charge of your day and reclaim one hour for yourself: 15 minutes of meditation, 30 minutes of movement, and 15 minutes of  journaling. Everyday for 100 days straight.  

I started mine on my dad’s birthday October 21 and will end it on the day of his death January 29. Join  me on IG @Get.Fit.Man if you’re searching for a passion and vision.  

Freedom begins with one good choice. Then consistency. 

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