10 Simple Ways We Can Start Helping Those Who Feel Suicidal
The past few days have been a struggle: first Kate Spade and now Anthony Bourdain. They both fell into despair so deep they saw no way out, and they died by suicide. The struggle for me is such a deeply personal one and their actions bring back my past actions and what could have been. Both of these accomplished individuals had family and friends who loved them deeply, and they each had a preteen daughter who now has to live without one of their parents.
I have been struggling because I feel like I should be able to raise awareness as I always try to do, but here is the thing: I don’t know what to say. I don’t have any answers. Both these people reportedly dealt with depression and other mental health conditions for quite some time. We will likely never know why they didn’t reach out for help at the last moment. But I can tell you I know what the feelings are leading right up to the edge of actually taking my life. I have attempted suicide multiple times. I have contemplated jumping in the river and went so far as to drive down there and leave a note in the car. I felt so completely lost. For me that was well beyond feeling sad and depressed. I felt this huge gaping hole right in the center of me and it felt like it would always be there. I couldn’t manage the feelings of emptiness and complete loss.
Did I think about my family? Of course I did, particularly at the start and middle points of my depression. As an adult I worried about leaving my husband to care for our two spirited boys. In those moments, I understood (not agree with, just understood) the parents who would try to take one or more of their children with them. It was a scary time. In the critical stage of my depression, I was beyond even thinking about anyone else. You have to understand that I felt less than worthless. It’s one of the many lies depression tells you. So if I was worthless, I didn’t deserve to even be here. Beyond that was the fact I didn’t want to be here. I wanted the pain to stop. I was in therapy, I was taking medication and yet I could still feel so lost and empty. That just pushed me further into despair, what else could I possibly do?
I wanted to talk to my husband and to friends but there were several reasons I didn’t. First, if I actually talked about it, spoke the words out loud, I was afraid it would make me feel worse. Second, I didn’t want to see that look of pity and concern on other people’s faces. That’s hard to handle. Third, if trained professionals couldn’t make me feel better then what could friends and family do? Fourth, what if I shared my darkest feelings and I was put back in the hospital?
So maybe there was some small piece of hope deep down in me? Maybe the hope in all of this is why I didn’t actually die by suicide? I don’t know. Truth is that I attempted suicide twice and subsequently went to sleep fully expecting not to wake up. But I did. I’m glad I did but at the age of 17, that could have been the end. None of the life I have built since then would even exist. That is hard to face. As an adult, I think there was a bigger piece of me that recognized I was a danger to myself, so I reached out for help, however clumsily. The difficulty was getting the overextended mental health system to keep me safe until I could keep myself safe. If the system had the resources it should, they would admit you and keep you safe. But the way it is, in my experience, they will likely send you home. But that doesn’t mean you don’t go.
Now that I wrote that paragraph, I find myself worrying: what if someone reads it and then doesn’t get the help they need? So, this is where friends and family come in — you keep taking the person back in and you keep calling all the resources in town. You take shifts staying with the person until someone listens and starts to help. You don’t believe the person if they say they have suddenly changed their mind and urge you to go home. You stay. You stay and you make noise and refuse to back down until a trained mental health professional does an adequate assessment for risk of self-harm. I had to do that for a close family member; he spent days in the emergency room waiting to be seen but we refused to leave until they took us seriously.
I believe we are making headway in the campaign to bring mental health awareness to the forefront of society. More and more people are speaking up and sharing their stories. There is no one straightforward answer to stopping so many suicides. I say it’s not straightforward but they are pretty simple:
1. Make speaking about mental illness and even just basic emotions so routine that there is no shame in sharing your story.
I hesitate about what is safe to share at times. What if people judge me? Luckily for me, I actually don’t care (the pre-medicated me would be very anxious about it all) and I believe my calling is to share, share and share in the hopes of helping even one person.
2. Start raising our children to be aware of their emotions, self-regulation and self-care.
If we do this, by the time they are adults, they will be used to answering “How are you?” with a truthful answer to their close family and friends.
3. Easier access to mental health services.
Provide mental health services to children, teens and their families as they need them without long waiting lists.
4. Train more psychiatrists.
I have a family member who has waited three years or more to try to get a psychiatrist. When I asked my psychiatrist to take on my son, he told me his waiting list is at least one and a half years.
5. Government health plans.
Government health plans should cover the cost of a mental health professional such as a social worker or psychologist.
6. Expand mobile mental health units.
Fund them to be community focused and able to go to wherever the person in need requires them to be.
7. Improve mental health wards in hospitals.
Make them feel more comfortable and give everyone their own room. Have programming to keep people busy and to give them a purpose. Let people’s support systems visit them during the day whenever they want; it’s not jail.
8. Affordability of medication.
Make medication more affordable for people who do not have health benefits but make too much to qualify for assistance. These are the people who are getting much-needed prescriptions and then having to choose between rent or food for their family or filling that script.
9. Keep an eye on friends.
When a friend or family member starts distancing themselves from everyone and everything, don’t let them. Keep calling, visiting or texting. Say things like: “You seemed down, I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you. No pressure to text back.” The last thing a person who is depressed wants to feel is guilty because they are not living up to their end of the friendship. Assure them you are there for them and there is not pressure to perform. Just don’t let them retreat into an abyss.
10. Building on the “no pressure.”
One of the main reasons I didn’t talk to people was my experience that people would try to dismiss or minimize my feelings out of love and an attempt to help. But it just made me feel inferior. Like, I should be able to “just think of my family,” or “don’t let things get you down.” What would have helped? Just be with the person, watch movies and eat junk food. Convince them to go for walks. More than feeling like you have to say something, just be there for them. That is what they need.
It is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a start. I feel better knowing I have put into words some of these emotions brought up by the past few days. I get why Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain did it, but I so badly wish it hadn’t come to that.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.
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Photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash