SHE FOUGHT AGAINST THE STIGMA. NOW, HER LOVED ONES ARE CONTINUING THE FIGHT.
Coco M. Orsland showed up to work three hours late.
Jan. 7 was one of those days. One where she was so drained that she didn't want to get dressed, get ready or even get out of bed. But at least she came in to the office, she told herself.
"Today I made myself get up. I made myself shower. I made myself put make-up on," she said in a Facebook video. "I'm three hours late to work but I'm going in. But I can just say, 'Hey, today was a difficult day, but I'm not going to stay in this space.'"
The video was just one instance of many where Orsland — described by friends and family as a bright, bubbly person — openly discussed her struggle with mental health. She wanted others to be able to share their stories publicly and not feel stigmatized or as if they were begging for attention. To her, it was just part of living with a mental illness.
"It's accountability. It's important — and I've said this in previous videos — that if you're struggling, you should be able to say, 'I'm not OK,' without people taking pity on you," Orsland said in the Jan. 7 video. "I don't want people's pity. I just want them to try to understand that I'm not going to be in this place forever, but it's OK to have bad days."
Four months later, on April 17, Orsland, a 29-year-old from Nampa, died by suicide.
Orsland's family and friends hope her story can help others understand mental illness is just like any other ailment — it can affect anyone. And they say it serves as a reminder that mental illness isn't logical, nor is treatment a quick, simple process — while offering assurance that together, with a social safety net, it can be done.
Those close to Orsland said she was constantly helping others. If someone was feeling down, friends said Orsland was quick to help or listen.
“Even when she was struggling herself, she wanted to help others. I think that's what drove her to want to help other people — her struggles,” Orsland's mother, Jeannie Kirk Orsland, said. “She wanted to be that person who cared.
“I’m just brokenhearted because she just brought light to our family, because as big as her struggles were, so was her light and sparkling personality,” Jeannie Orsland said. “As much as she took, she gave.”
In the Facebook video, which has been viewed over 15,000 times as of June 6, Coco Orsland took aim at the self-reliance mindset. “If you try to physically pull yourself up by your bootstraps, you’re going to fall straight on your face,” she said.
She also spoke about living with and treating mental illness.
“A lot of times depression is not due to circumstance. Depression is not a logical thing,” Orsland said. “A lot of times you can be so debilitated that you want to be able to apply the advice and things people give to you, but sometimes your brain can’t even comprehend.”
Orsland's childhood friend, Chelsea Williams-Jenkins, said, “She’s always had a form of mental illness, but it really intensified.” Nonetheless, Williams-Jenkins said, “If she could go back, I think she wouldn’t (have done it). She would tell people to keep fighting and not give up.”
Orsland connected easily with people, even strangers at the grocery store or people tucked away in a corner at a party, Jeannie Orsland said. She'd make funny faces and switch between an array of accents and impressions to spark a chuckle, friends said.
"When she was younger she said she wanted to do cartoon voices when she grew up," Orsland's father, Chuck Orsland said.
Coco Orsland also loved karaoke. She enjoyed singing with her friend Grove Garrett, a co-worker of Orsland's at DirecTV, where she most recently worked as a retention specialist.
“She had a wonderful voice,” said Garrett, who makes his own music. "She was a very passionate singer."
Garrett and other friends said Orsland was honest about her mental health struggles. Just as in the video, Garrett said she'd discuss her emotions openly.
“She didn't really repress it,” he said.
Garrett recalled a conversation he had with Orsland before her death when she "out of the blue" had a strong sense of sureness she would die by suicide.
"She was just staring out the window and saying how she doesn't like life anymore, that's how it is," he said. "Like she had accepted her fate."
'TIRED OF TRYING'
Chuck Orsland said he could always tell when his daughter was having a bad day.
"She would basically just go inward. She didn't want to do anything," he said. Most of the time she would just lie on the bed or couch.
And, Garrett noticed, "When she had her bad days, she was always really over-apologetic."
On especially bad days, Orsland's mom said she’d drink. She was charged in March with a misdemeanor DUI, to which she pleaded not guilty and was posthumously exonerated.
"I wouldn't say she had a drinking problem, because she could go without drinking, but she would try drinking and she would just feel more depressed," Jeannie Orsland said. "We told her, but she just liked drinking. It was her way to escape."
Orsland knew she needed help, and she actively sought treatment, but still, her mom said there were times she wouldn’t follow through.
"It sounds simplistic, but when you don't know what to do..." Jeannie Orsland said, her voice drifting off. "It was a bad cycle. She would try and then not really get help. So who wants to keep going to a counselor when things are not changing?"
"She would be really well for a while," Chuck Orsland said. "Her life would seem to be going forward. And all of a sudden, things would fall back. I don't know what it is."
Plus, Jeannie Orsland said Coco's mental illness only fueled that bad cycle.
"It doesn't help you to make good choices," she said. "And then when there's bad choices, there's consequences. And then when there's consequences, you feel bad about yourself."
Coco Orsland attempted suicide multiple times and was in and out of medical facilities for the past four years, according to her parents. They said she'd come out and do all right for a little while, before another suicide attempt.
“She did really want help. She really did try,” Jeannie Orsland said. "She was just tired. ... That's what she said, she was tired of trying."
Part of that tiredness stemmed from the lack of a clear diagnosis, Jeannie Orsland said.
"It was hard for her," Chuck Orsland said. "She never felt like she got what she needed from it."
At one time, Coco Orsland was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to her parents, but that was later changed to depression. During a time of shifting diagnoses, her parents said she saw multiple counselors and was on a variety of prescription medications.
"That's the thing about mental illness. You start shooting at the target and you don't even hit it," Chuck Orsland said.
He added that his daughter's tendency to quit taking the medicine didn't help.
The Orslands said another barrier to treatment was cost.
"There needs to be solutions for people," Jeannie Orsland said. "A place to go. Help available that is accessible."
OPENING THE CONVERSATION
To Garrett there's a prevalent view that mental illness is self-inflicted.
“People try to rationalize something,” he said. “They always try to say, ‘Well, you have a job and you’re beautiful and your heart isn’t broken.’ They go through all the checklists to justify your sadness, but it just isn’t justifiable.”
However, it's obvious to him that Orsland's pain was no choice of her own.
“The amount of pain I’ve seen her go through — there is no way she would do this on purpose," he said. "There is no way someone would do this."
That mindset — the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality — closes the door to having the tough conversations about mental health that provide a path toward treatment, according to Shannon Decker, who heads an Idaho nonprofit that advocates for mental health awareness and suicide prevention.
“In the western United States, we have a bootstraps mentality where we’re self-made and we can handle anything by ourselves. … That is not true," Decker said. "If you do, you might fall on your face. If we lift each other up, then we have someone to catch us when we fall.”
The nonprofit Decker heads, The Speedy Foundation, was founded in 2011 after her cousin, Olympic silver medalist Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, killed himself.
Progress will come when society begins treating mental illness like it does physical illnesses, Decker said.
Decker and other experts encourage people to ask at-risk loved ones the question directly: "Are you considering suicide?" Engaging in open discourse and fostering strong support systems, she said, will improve the public's understanding of mental health and suicide prevention.
“There’s a stigma associated with it (mental health) that keeps people at bay. That is something we have the power to change as a society,” Decker said. “Having those difficult conversations is a start. A good start is asking people if they’re uncomfortable or OK.”
She said we need to learn to discuss mental illness openly. When we have these discussions, Decker said, we need to support and reassure at-risk individuals that their problems are valid and recognized. And, she noted, mental health experts, including specialists at the Suicide Prevention Hotline, are always available to help guide those difficult conversations.
The hotline is a resource for anyone who has concerns, Decker said, not just for someone in crisis.
Decker also said Coco Orsland's frustration with mental health treatment is a tale she's heard too often.
"That's common," Decker said. "That was another contributing factor for Speedy. He never found a treatment that was very beneficial for him. He never had a consistent diagnosis."
For people suffering with mental illness, she said an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan, on average, only come roughly 10 years after symptoms begin to show. Because of this, Decker reiterated the push for strong social safety nets.
"Finding an accurate diagnosis for mental illness is hard, but knowing other people are going through it too is helpful," she said. "If it's going to take 10 years, then it's going to take 10 years of support."
Kyle Pfannenstiel is the night digital reporter for the Idaho Press. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy.
Suicide in Idaho
On average, there was a suicide almost every day in Idaho in 2016 — 351 suicides, according to the most recent year of reports available from the Department of Health and Welfare.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Idahoans ages 15-34 and for males up to age 44. Idaho ranks eighth for highest suicide rates in 2016 at 20.8 per 100,000 population — 50 percent higher than the national average, according to the department's report.
The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, 208-398-4357, is a resource for anyone at risk for suicide and their loved ones.
Warning signs may help determine if someone is at risk:
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated: behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Extreme mood swings
Ways you can help:
- Contact the Suicide Prevention Hotline to learn about crisis resources in your area.
- Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-fact about suicide.
- Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.
- Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life.
- Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
- Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you.
- Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
- Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
- Take action. Remove means, like weapons or pills.
- Get help from people or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.