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How the ‘Reach Out Loop’ Makes Finding Suicide Support Difficult

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Since September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, the two most common words I keep seeing all over social media are really simple: “reach out.” They’re well-intentioned but slightly misguided. Let me explain why.

First of all, reaching out for help when you’re struggling with suicidal ideation is hard. Like, really hard. I’ve struggled with chronic suicidal ideation for more than half my life, so I am very well-versed in the experience. It’s exhausting; you barely have the energy to live (hence, the ideation), let alone try to reach out and explain what’s happening. It’s also really scary to reach out because you don’t know how people will react to you opening up and a lot of people get weird when talking about suicide because it’s still so taboo.

In an ideal world, if we notice someone struggling, withdrawing or we see significant changes in mood, behavior, energy, etc., it should be on us to reach out to them. We (being the ones not struggling in that moment) have the energy to reach out and check in. The statement shouldn’t be, “if you need anything, reach out,” but it should be us reaching out and checking in. We shouldn’t be afraid to call out when we notice someone we love hurting because it can really help.

The other issue with the expectation of me having to reach out when I’m struggling is that I often don’t have the words to explain what I’m going through, or if I have the words, I’m worried my experiences might be too intense for my friends to understand. I’m worried that by reaching out to build a closer connection, I’ll actually push them further away because of how bad of a mental state I’m in.

Now that we’ve got an understanding of the main difficulties of reaching out, we can get into what I call “the Reach Out Loop.” The Reach Out Loop is an endless loop of a person struggling having to go back and forth of reaching out to get any support. It’s like the hot potato of dealing with mental health issues. One of the most exhausting and frustrating things that happens when I actually do reach out to a friend, after they’ve made blanket statements like “I’m always here for you” or “reach out if you need,” is that they ask if I’m talking to my therapist or doctor. I understand this is an important question to ask in some situations because professional support is absolutely beneficial. But when it comes to my mental health, I am extremely responsible with trying to get professional support; booking an extra therapy session or an emergency one is the first thing I do when I’m really struggling if I don’t already have one booked. I go to therapy once a week (sometimes twice when things are bad), I see my doctor regularly, I do my therapy homework, I read psychology books. I do all the right things, tick off all the boxes. My friends know this. I can do all these things and still struggle. Yet, as soon as I say “hey, I’m struggling right now,” it’s the first thing I get asked. Not only does it feel like they don’t trust me to be responsible, but it sort of negates the purpose of me reaching out to them. It says that my reaching out doesn’t matter because I need to reach out to someone else.

Now for the loop part. One of the main things I work on in therapy is how to reach out to the loved ones in my life and how to utilize the social support system I’m trying to build. Doctors and therapists are an essential part of your support system, but you also need friends and family to reach out to. A professional can’t always be available, and your struggles don’t only come up during your one-hour weekly sessions. It’s important to have other people you can go to. So I’ve got my therapist telling me to reach out to my friends, my friends telling me to reach out to my therapist, and reaching out, in general, is one of the biggest energy sucks. This loop doesn’t work very well — it leaves me feeling like I’ve reached out and got nothing. What’s important to understand is that just because I’m reaching out to a friend doesn’t mean I’m not reaching out for my professional supports. Sometimes, I just want to talk about things with my friends. Sometimes I struggle to talk about it with my friends and I just want them to take a real, deep interest and ask me questions. Sometimes I want them to show they really care by prodding when I just say I’m OK when it’s very clear that I’m not.

The most insidious part of being told to reach out is that it comes across as a hand being extended, but it can really be a door slammed in your face sometimes.

Finally, I want to add that while professional support is incredibly important for me to get through a rough patch (and my first line of defense if my own self-soothing isn’t working), it’s really important to recognize that not everyone has the privilege and access to professional support. There are huge barriers to entry, like long wait times and high costs that aren’t covered by insurance, so when we tell someone to get professional support we have to be cognizant of whether that help is really going to be accessible or not. We know our mental health systems need a complete overhaul but that won’t happen overnight. So in the meantime, if you’ve been telling people to reach out to you when they need, try reaching out to them. And if and when they do open up to you, don’t send them back into the Reach Out Loop because no one likes feeling like a hot potato. Listen to them. Hold their hand. Make space for their pain. Ask questions. Take a genuine interest. Never underestimate the impact just showing you truly care can have — it can save a life. 

Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

Originally published: September 29, 2020
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