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4 Well-Meaning Quotes in Response to Suicidal Thoughts That Are Anything But Helpful

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I’m a student nurse and, this semester, we undertook mental health as a subject, which I knew was going to be difficult for me as it was the same subject last year that initially triggered my having to change from doing a full-time workload to part-time. So, I kept myself on guard during lessons and, thankfully, my tutor this year has been amazing. As a result, my mental health hasn’t deteriorated.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had time to reflect on the way people have treated me (and most likely, others) when I’ve told them about my mental health, specifically my bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (BPD) and tendency to idealize or attempt suicide on a relatively frequent basis as a result of my two major disorders. I noticed some surprisingly common quotes that have been said to me whenever I’ve admitted this:

“But you look so healthy! You can’t actually have this!”

“Are you sure you’re not just seeking for attention?”

“If you were truly suicidal, you would have died a long time ago.”

These three main ones eat away at me all the time, especially because the last one came from a very close friend and a very close family member the first time I opened up about suicide to them: the idea that, if you are suicidal, you’d be dead and not here telling us about it.

To me, it’s almost like a challenge and an insult to what I feel and how I keep myself alive. Staying alive while you are suicidal is an amazing strength but, like with all things, you eventually wear out. You can’t be expected to hold a weight for eternity, so why are we shamed for having strength and then shamed when it becomes too much to handle?

Suicide can be broken down to ideation and attempts. Ideation is usually where you fantasize about dying, have plans and if you decide to go through with it, you’ll have everything set up in your mind. Often your thoughts are negative, telling you that you deserve to die and that you are a “burden,” but it can be dismissed or handled. The struggle is still there. The struggle is still valid.

Then there are attempts, where you actively seeking out ways to die. Not every attempt is completed, and if you are sent to hospital and you are saved, then you are interrupted halfway through your attempt, or (in my case) you do not die and you take it as a sign you are meant to breathe for another day.

Experiencing suicidal thoughts is almost like having another person living in your head questioning everything, and if you challenge it, it swings back with double the force. It makes you question everything: those who love you, if you are worth the space you take and the air you breathe. So, when we challenge it, how do you think it reacts when you say, “you’d be dead by now?”

Shame. It makes you feel shame for talking about something that has destroyed the lives of others. And it tells you they are right; if you were truly suicidal, you’d be dead, and because you lied and “pretended to be sicker than you are,” you should kill yourself; you’d be doing good by doing so.

Not very logical, is it? Unfortunately, mental health isn’t known for being the most logical of conditions.

Suicidality is a complex thing that isn’t exactly classified by whether or not you die. Like all things, it’s a spectrum from the mild to the severe. If someone trusts you enough to say “I attempted suicide,” the worst thing you could say is “clearly not because you are still alive.” If anything, it’s telling us we aren’t trying hard enough. And that’s a dangerous thing to say to someone who has already attempted suicide.

I get it; someone you love and care about saying they want or are attempting to take their own life is shocking, and usually the first thing that leaves your mouth isn’t exactly what you mean, but there needs to be more awareness about this. We know words are cutting and destroying, but they are also a tipping point for some people. It also can lead to a lack of trust. I refuse to talk about suicide to those two people who told me I’d be dead by now, whereas if it was treated differently I would probably tell them every single time I was tempted. I refuse to tell any of my other friends when it happens (as it does on a frequent basis) due to fear that they will say something along the same lines.

Suicide is deadly, but it isn’t a death sentence. Just because we say we have attempted suicide does not mean we will die; it means we need more support and more help. It’s not your duty to help us, but it is important not to aggravate it with carelessness hidden as reassurance.

After typing this out and finished proof-reading, I was going to end it with the suicide quote being possibly one of the worst things you could say to someone with mental illness when I got a message from a friend.

“Have you taken your meds today? You are so moody!”

This is probably the worst thing a supportive person can say to you: saying moody in place of any other emotion you may be having. It removes your right to be human, to get angry and irritated over annoying things and situations, to cry because you are sad, to get worked up when your day has been particularly bad, to be overjoyed and energetic when good things happen to you. You instantly are expected to become muted and emotionless, and any reaction that makes them uncomfortable instantly means you need to increase your dose, go on meds, control your emotions.

Out of all four of these comments, I think this one is the one that hurts the most. I can excuse and educate people about the fact that the threat of suicide is just as important as the attempt, and that uncompleted attempts should be taken as seriously as completed attempts. That suicide is complex and just because we attempt and don’t die doesn’t mean we aren’t suicidal. That because I’m fantastic at masking and appearing “normal” doesn’t mean I’m not drowning on the inside, that my brain is, in fact, broken and needs to repair itself, either with or without the assistance of medication. And that if others may choose not to do anything, it doesn’t make their illness invalid. That mental illness isn’t something you can dismiss as “seeking attention;” in fact, is a serious subject that shouldn’t be pushed to the side because it’s invisible.

I can teach all of this to anyone; I’ve done it before and, though it can take a while, I can do it again. What I can’t teach you is what my medication does — not when every time I attempt, you dismiss it as “the mental health talking,” and when I get angry about you dismissing my emotional state and it’s dismissed as my mental health, I definitely can’t help you understand. You only listen to the parts you want to hear. I can’t educate those who accept certain parts of my mental health but dismiss the parts they don’t like. I can’t educate the uneducable.

In a perfect world, this wouldn’t happen. But, this isn’t a perfect world. So, instead, I would like to offer an alternative.

Don’t like what we have to say? That’s fine. Don’t comment on it.

Don’t know what to say to be supportive? That’s fine. Ask what you can do or what they want.

Feel uncomfortable asking that? That’s fine. Don’t say anything.

It’s really as simple as 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 “START” to 741741.

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Photo by Eddy Lackmann on Unsplash

Originally published: May 31, 2018
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