Why Telling Me to 'Reach Out' When I'm Suicidal Doesn't Help
In light of recent high profile suicides, it’s impossible to scroll through our newsfeed, go online or turn on the TV without seeing hashtags, videos, guidelines and stories being shared to spread awareness of suicide and mental illness. Raising awareness is a positive and necessary step because resources are shared and stigma is reduced. But for those who are already dealing with mental illness, the reality is that many of these things being shared aren’t helpful despite everyone’s good intentions.
After seeing endless posts over the past several days, I’m left with this verdict: Yes, we are talking about suicide more (or it’s getting more press), but most people still don’t get what it really takes to help. Using a new hashtag, changing your profile pic in support of mental health, wearing safety pins or copying and pasting declarations about how people should speak up and reach out may help raise awareness, but the truth is it often does little to truly help those who are battling the illness.
People who have never struggled with a mental illness usually can’t comprehend what it feels like to be so utterly depressed that thoughts of suicide are being entertained, especially when on the outside many people “seem fine.” To be completely honest, when I’m healthy and reflect on things I’ve written while battling the darkness, I can’t quite grasp it even though I’ve been there way too often. How many times do we hear that people close to someone who took their own life had no idea? We often learn how to hide our feelings and we don’t reach out, not because we’ve never been told we should, but because quite often it is literally impossible to do so and this is the part people don’t get.
Depression’s evil trick is that it often convinces you beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are a burden. You may be surrounded by people who love you and have told you repeatedly that they are “here for you and want to help you.” Depression might tell you they don’t really mean it. It sometimes whispers in your ear that no one wants to be around you.
It can instill this debilitating fear that if you do reach out and someone truly is there for you, once they realize how hard it is or what supporting you entails you will succeed in, it will scare them away for good. Let’s face it, the longer it lasts, the deeper it usually is; the more often it occurs, the more difficult it can be to stick around.
When I’m depressed and you tell me that it’s safe to talk about it, or that I “just need to reach out to you” or “just call,” that’s a good start because it shows that you care. However, what that essentially does is put the ball back in my court, and when I’m depressed that’s a responsibility I can’t handle. It’s added pressure. It means that if I want help it’s up to me to ask for it and make the next move.
I think people need to understand that depression often makes it unbearable to make any kind of move. Some days getting out of bed seems impossible. The thought of having to exist for another minute is suffocating. You are often left alone without control of thoughts that consume your mind, ultimately defeating you more. Picking up the phone does not present itself as an option. I don’t know what to say. Do you really think I’m going to call you in the middle of your busy day to say what’s going on in my head? I might consider a text or email because I don’t have to speak, but there are huge risk factors that usually prevent me from going through with a text such as: What if I upset you? Freak you out? Ruin your happy day with my negativity? Stress you out even more? What if you don’t know how to respond therefore you don’t and I’m left with extreme paranoia that I’ve made a terrible decision and scared you away for good?
I’m aware that talking about it will help save me from the isolation that is so dangerous, but to really make an impact you have to do more than remind me to talk. You have to start the conversation.
And then there is the reality of what inevitably happens.
The first time I was in the hospital I told people it was due to terrible migraines. I took time off work. I received cards, flowers, get well phone calls, you name it. Years later I had to take time off work again after I had opened up and was truthful about my illness. Not a single card or flower. No phone calls. I know most people didn’t want to intentionally turn their back on me — they probably just didn’t know what to say or do so to be safe from saying the wrong thing, so they chose to say nothing. I can understand that, but in order to truly help people you cannot be silent. Saying nothing reaffirms the belief that I’m not worth the risk.
When you truly want to help someone who is struggling with depression, you can tell them it’s OK to reach out so they know you are a safe place, but realize they probably won’t. It’s up to you to reach out.
We might feel like we are a burden.
We are often convinced the world would be better off without us.
We might feel like we are a waste of space.
We are often certain that if we reach out we will scare you away and lose your friendship in the long run.
We usually know how difficult we are to be around.
We might believe this with every fiber of our being.
When people grow silent it just confirms all the terrible lies we believe about ourselves. If you really want to help then the reality of mental illness is that others have to step out of their comfort zone and make a move. If you want me to know that your house is a safe zone and I can stop by when I need help, invite me over if you suspect anything is wrong. And after I say no (remember I don’t want to burden you), wait a short time and ask again. If you are someone who is willing to listen, call or text and ask questions. When I don’t answer the phone, please leave a message. Send a card out of the blue. Those little things fight the negative thoughts that consume me. Every gesture of kindness or concern conveys the message that I mattered to someone that day. Depression tells me repeatedly that I don’t matter. I need you to remind me that I do.
When someone is suicidal, to the world around them it might seem very selfish, but to the person it is probably just the opposite. Please tell them they are not a burden. Tell them they matter and tell them specifically why. Why are they important to you? Why do you need them in your life? Why is your life better because of them? Saying “you matter” isn’t always enough. I’ve heard that many times and the voice of depression immediately responds with “No you don’t. They’re just saying that.” But if you give me a reason — if you show me that I personally matter to you — it is more effective in getting past the negative voice. And yes, you are probably going to have to repeat it because the voice has taken up permanent residence inside my head. But the ringing of the phone or the buzz from a message might be just the thing that interrupts the destructive chain of thoughts.
If we really want to make an impact on people who struggle with mental illness then it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s not going to be easy and it will probably be frustrating. People don’t ask questions when they fear the answer. It puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on them. But when you ask direct questions you might have a better idea of what you are dealing with. Asking someone if they are considering suicide is not going to put ideas in their head. Bringing it up demonstrates you are willing to listen and you recognize that something is very wrong and you are willing to bear the burden.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been consumed by the lies of depression during my life and was completely convinced the world would be better off without me. Reflecting on those times, I am so grateful to the people who took a risk by calling me, showing up unexpectedly when they suspected something was wrong and reassured me that I was needed and valuable.
I realize this is not easy. It involves risk, time and persistence. It can be frustrating because person struggling with depression may not seem to respond right away and you may feel like it is beyond what you can do to help. But I am telling you from experience that your actions make a difference. Depression often causes people to go into either self-preservation or self-destruction mode. Mental illness can lock us inside a shell and make it highly unlikely we will reach out; we need an army of people who are going to reach in and pull us out. That’s how we will win the battle.
Unsplash image via Brad Llyod