Over the weekend, two additional beach goers were brutally attacked by a shark while swimming off the southern coast of North Carolina outside of Oak Island. The first attack, from several days ago, resulted in the injury of a boogie boarder. The most recent attacks resulted in two separate teenagers losing part of their arm. The youngest victim, a thirteen-year-old girl, may lose part of her leg as well. Both of this weekend’s attacks occurred within 3 miles and within 90 minutes of each other. Unfortunately, the attacks happened so quickly that officials had no time to clear the water or close the beach. Fortunately, all three victims are expected to recover.
As shocking as it is to see attacks that clearly parallel the blockbuster film “Jaws”, it is important to remember that shark attacks account for a very tiny portion of yearly deaths or injuries. The portion of the population at risk of being bitten by a shark is miniscule. In 2010, statistics record a total of 79 shark attacks that occurred worldwide. Of those, only 39 attacks happened on U.S. beaches and only 3 resulted in death. Overall, your chances of being attacked and bitten by a shark are roughly 1 in 11.5 million. Your chances of being killed by a shark are even smaller, 1 in 300 million and yet a large portion of the population has an extraordinary fear of swimming in the ocean fed by sensationalistic media reporting of shark attacks and deaths.
By contrast, in the same year, 13.6 million people were living with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder and 42 million people were living with mood disorders such as anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, generally anxiety, and phobias. That same year, 880,000 people died as a result of self-harm directly related to mental illness, yet only a handful of those deaths received passing mention through media outlets. While media outlets widely reported on suicides of celebrities (such as actors, singers, and sports stars), the only reports of average citizens committing suicide occurred if additional criteria were met. To make the evening news, the death of an average citizen resulting from self-harm must have occurred in a spectacular way, must have resulted from a trending issue (bullying), or must have caused great harm or death to others. Very few mental health-related deaths meet these criteria. They often occur in solitude.
And yet, as I said, shark attacks are trending this week. Sharks are big news. They are more exciting in the press than mental illness. While mental illness directly touches many more lives, it is much more dramatic to show crowds of panicked beach goers and images of toothy shark grins. Viewers are drawn to those graphic images where mental illness is often invisible. It goes unnoticed and untreated until tragedy strikes.
For the shark attacks, signs will be posted warning swimmers to avoid the water. News reports will tell you which beaches to avoid and even what time sharks are more likely to be active. Beach patrols will be cruising the sand looking for signs of an impending attack and lifeguards will be stationed nearby to render assistance. Someone will be there to shout out “SHARK!” Everyone will run for the shore together. Even from landlocked states such as Kentucky, you can get copies of how to prevent a shark attack. There are websites and newspaper tips on how to fight off a shark to reach the shore.
For mental health attacks, you will be on your own to report symptoms and feelings outside your norm. There is no lifeguard standing by to warn you of an impending attack. The only real protection you have comes from being proactive in maintaining your mental health. You can seek out resources, such as self-help diagnostic quizzes, consultations with your physician, and personal input from observant friends and family members. Rescue workers will not be patrolling public venues; they will wait for you to seek help and, often once you do, they will question your feelings repeatedly until you feel that you are not being heard. You will have to be persistent in order to get help.
While the risks for a mental health issue dwarf the risk of being involved in a shark attack, you will rarely hear about them on the news. There are resources available to help you, though so please don’t feel that you need to suffer alone. If you are feeling overwhelmed in your day-to-day life, reach out to a friend, family member, or someone you can trust. If you ask for help, you don’t have to fight alone.