5 Reasons People Who Are Suicidal Don't Reach Out for Help
Though there are hundreds of thousands of people who die by suicide every year, it feels like there has been a wave of celebrity suicides lately, proving something that those of us who struggle have been trying to explain to society for decades: that money, “status,” a career, having a family or “everything we could ever want” doesn’t prevent mental illness from winning the internally monologued war, and that it is an illness that is not always something within our, or the professional’s, control.
The unfortunate and often painful by-product of high-profile suicides is a social media frenzy of sudden mental health advocates begging those of us who experience suicidal thoughts to “reach out and talk” and remind us that there is “always someone to listen,” not realizing all the possible reasons why we don’t reach out or how difficult it is to do so.
Until you understand our reasons for staying silent and can appreciate why so many of us stay silent or downplay our pain, suicides will continue to come as an excruciatingly painful shock to society and those of you who love us.
1. We feel ashamed and embarrassed.
As adults, society tells us we “should” be able to function and complete basic tasks such as feeding and washing ourselves, doing our own laundry, phoning the doctor, and so on. But when you’re mentally ill, many of those basic tasks are often the first to go and as adults, that feels extremely embarrassing to admit to others. We feel ashamed that even at our ages, despite demanding jobs and families to care for, we can’t look after ourselves on the most basic of levels so we hide it because, as humans, if we can avoid “embarrassing” ourselves in front others, we will — especially if it means avoiding feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
2. We don’t want to be a burden.
We may ask for help because we don’t want to be a burden. We know everyone has demanding lives and our illnesses tell us you’ll be too busy to help us or feel like we’re putting pressure on you to do something. When we ask you for help, in many ways we are asking you to make us a priority. We don’t want to ask in case you say “no,” which proves our mental illness right when it tells us people don’t care enough about us. We also don’t want to overwhelm you; if our mental illness feels “scary” or upsetting to those of us struggling with it, we know it will feel incredibly daunting to share that with others, especially if you don’t know how to react or what to say.
3. We fear rejection and lack of understanding
Following on from the above point, we also may not reach out and ask for help or ask you just to listen to us because we fear you’ll leave us or dismiss our pain — that you’ll think we’re “weird,” “complaining about nothing” or just “too much to handle.” What you’re asking of us when you tell us to “speak up” is to share our vulnerability with you. That’s an incredibly difficult and often painful thing to do when we fear you won’t react well to it. If we open up to you and you don’t react well or leave us, it damages our relationship, not just with you but with others because we feel afraid to open up again. So, we often withdraw.
4. We worry you’ll try and fix us.
There is a huge difference between listening to understand and listening just to reply and though many of us require the former, we fear for the latter because it can feel incredibly dismissive. If, for example, a woman loses a child and you say “well, at least you’re not tied to the father for life,” you are not listening; you are trying to fix that woman’s mindset instead of hearing her sadness because it’s easier for you to deal with.
5. We can’t get professional help quick enough.
It’s all well and good, telling everyone on social media to reach out and “get help,” but given that most people have no idea of the state of NHS mental health care here in the United Kingdom, that comment can often be incredibly dismissive and damaging. When I recently met my new GP for the first time to discuss getting help for likely post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe insomnia after a sexual assault, I was in and out of her room in six minutes. Without discussion, she gave me a prescription for medication I didn’t want and a leaflet for the depression and anxiety service which isn’t for specialist mental illness and only offers cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which hasn’t worked for me in the past. It took a call from my private therapist (funded through a work scheme) for the GP to appreciate just how desperate my situation was and is, and now I’m on an eight-week waiting list until I can even get assessed for specialist treatment. Even the crisis team couldn’t see me for 36 hours because they were all booked up. That’s what it means to “go to the doctor” for your mental health in 2018.
So, what can you do to help those of us who struggle?
We should always reach out to our friends, colleagues and family members — that’s what being human is about — and remember not just to check on your loved ones when they’re crying but particularly those of us you think are strong or call “strong.” I can assure you that many of us are hanging by a thread with our mental health, despite the smiles and constant reassurances of how “fine” we are.
And I can hear you now — “if you’re always smiling and keep telling us everything is ‘fine,’ how are we supposed to know anything is wrong?” Here’s the painful answer: you’re not. Sometimes, for all the love in the world, some of us will still take our own lives and you can’t always see any signs or prevent it. However, you can remind those of us in your life that you appreciate and love us (despite our mental health struggles) and at the end of the day, that’s all any of us really want in life: to feel acknowledged, valued and loved.
If you are fortunate enough to know a friend, colleague or loved one is struggling, remember it’s the simple things which are entirely underestimated in their power to help:
1. If someone is struggling to eat well, make a portion or two extra when you’re cooking your own dinner filled with vegetables. This will help us not only feed ourselves but feed ourselves well, with nutrients that chocolate biscuits and pasta just can’t nourish our bodies with.
2. If you know a friend is finding family life overwhelming, why not offer to take their children for a couple of hours to allow them some time alone or time with their partner without that pressure?
3. Don’t stop inviting us out. We may feel ashamed and embarrassed every time you invite us to socialize and we decline because we can’t face it, but the moment you stop is the moment our mental illness confirms to us that we’re unloved and uncared for.
4. Tag us in silly memes; send us GIFs and fun YouTube videos, because even when we’re ill, we can still smile and laugh and it helps us not feel forgotten, especially if we’re too ill to leave the house.
5. Speaking of leaving the house, if we can’t, tell us you’re coming round to ours! Tell us you don’t care about the “mess,” the state of what we look like or if we are able to talk. One of the greatest things I did for a friend when she was severely struggling with her anxiety was to go around to her house and make her sit down and color whilst I binge-watched something on Netflix. We barely talked to each other for hours but by the time I left, she was visibly calmer.
6. If we tell you what’s wrong, do your research and educate yourself on our illnesses. Read how it behaves, ask us how it affects us and what you can do to help when we’re struggling. You don’t have to completely understand what an illness is to love someone through it but knowing some basics goes a long way when we’re too ill to explain it ourselves.
7. If you suspect someone you care about is struggling but don’t know how to start the conversation, try and casually bring up mental health/illness in conversation as a general topic to “test the waters,” or if you can’t bring yourself to physically talk about it, write it down in a text or email.
8. Sometimes, offering help is as simple as a message saying “thinking of you” just to remind us there are people in this world who care about and love us despite our illnesses. Never underestimate the power of a small gesture in today’s busy world; it could just save a life.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Photo by Molly Belle on Unsplash