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To the Mental Health Nurse Who Called Me a ‘Burden’

Dear Jane,*

As you might remember, a little over three months ago now, I went through a suicide attempt — my second in the course of a few days, in fact. My partner and full-time carer did all he could to ensure my safety, including calling the crisis team, who we were told to call in an emergency. The lady who answered the phone was short and abrupt, demanding that she needs to talk with the patient, despite my partner being my legal appointee. So I come in, a “hysterical” woman on the cusp of another major depressive episode, during the height of a borderline personality disorder (BPD) crisis, pleading and begging for help of some kind.

The woman on the other end of the phone preceded to ask me the usual questions: name, age, location and, of course, what the “problem” is. I’ve been in touch with the crisis team enough times now to know the score. I wasn’t prepared, however, for her response to my “problem”:

“Watch a nice movie or listen to some music,” she said. “It’ll help distract your mind.”

See, Jane, this kind of advice just didn’t work for me. Despite my burning desire to die in times of crisis, there is still a small part of me that craves help. That part of me is weak and vulnerable, however, and can be shattered in an instant.

You might be wondering how all of this affects you, Jane — how and why you’re on the receiving end of my disappointment in the crisis team. Well, allow me to explain it to you.

Let’s skip forward, past the trip to accident and emergency, past the panic and inadequacy my partner felt, or how he and my friends had to pick up the pieces of a broken woman, failed by a broken mental health system. There you sat, just inches away from me, with my loving dog by your side, my partner across from you, and you said what I feel is one of the most dangerous and hurtful things you could possibly say to anyone suffering from a mental illness.

“You need to change your life, Sam. Can’t you see how much pressure you’re putting on your partner, here. You’re a burden to him.”

I didn’t reply. I couldn’t. It was as if you had reached down into my gut and pulled those dirty words right out of my mouth, speaking my truths with your lips. How dare you. Those were my words, not yours. Those are the words that run through my head when I cut my arms, my legs, my hips — when I’ve reached rock bottom and in the moments I attempt suicide.

I’m a “burden” to everyone. They’d be so much better off without me.

I’m used to hearing those words, Jane, but they were so much more painful coming from your mouth — for you had confirmed and convinced me that I am, indeed, the “burden” I perceive myself to be. And now, months later, I am still hearing that voice inside my head telling me the world would be a brighter place without me in it. I’m still convinced while my loved ones would hurt initially, ultimately they would live a far more fulfilling life if they didn’t have to look out for me 24/7. If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t be that “burden” to them anymore. Now, however, it’s not just my own voice I hear. You are always there with me, side by side, as you were on the day you said those words to me. Your voice never leaves my head. I doubt it ever will.

Let’s compare this to a different interaction:

A day after my suicide attempt, I was called by a rather kind member of the crisis team, who assured me I would be assessed immediately. From there, I saw a highly professional psychologist and a very reassuring psychiatrist, both of whom treated me with kindness and respect. For weeks on end, mental health nurses came into my home to check in with me and to assure my safety. They weren’t all great at their jobs, with one nurse continuously referring to my living arrangements as “abnormal” because I am housebound due to my mental illnesses.

“Don’t you want to live like a ‘normal’ person, Sam?” she hounded and barked several times over the course of our 30-minute session.

Why, no. Of course I don’t. I’m rather fond of the way I currently live my life, trapped inside my house and my head.

I have since received a personal apology from that nurse, and we went on to have a good therapeutic relationship. See, people can make mistakes, and words are sometimes misconstrued, but the comments you made will stay with me forever, Jane, as will your lack of apology.

See, there’s a lesson to be learned here, Jane: The work you do, the people you meet, the scars you witness up close, the words you use — they matter. We matter. And if you cannot look inside of yourself to find the compassion and respect we deserve, then I strongly believe you are in the wrong career.

P.S. We are humans, not “burdens,” and we deserve more.

*Name has been changed.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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