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Why I Rarely Answer This Depression Screening Question Truthfully

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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.

Not to brag, but I’m kind of a pro at the depression questionnaire. I was taking depression self-screenings online before I even knew what depression was. I was 13 the first time I took one. I didn’t have a clue about mental illness but had been experiencing all the telltale signs of depression for months. I didn’t know its name, so I called it “the overwhelming feeling.” As things got worse and I Googled my symptoms, online tests for depression popped up. To my surprise, they matched what I was feeling and how I was behaving in an eerily fashion. In the months that followed, before I was hospitalized and diagnosed, I would often come home from school, log onto our family computer, take a depression screening and then quickly clear my search history. The questionnaire made me feel validated, like I wasn’t “crazy” for feeling the way I did. It was “proof” I wasn’t making all of this up.

Fast-forward nine years, and I’m asked to fill out the questionnaire every time I go to the doctor. Over the years, I’ve become comfortable sharing my story and inviting people into my ongoing battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Yet, as comfortable as I’ve become, there’s still one question on that screening I can rarely bring myself to answer truthfully. It’s the question I was terrified to answer honestly at 13, and the one I still lie about to doctors at 22.

By now, I have most of the questions memorized, and there’s always one, normally at the end, that asks something along the lines of: “Over the past two weeks, have you had thoughts that you would be better off dead or thoughts of hurting yourself or others in some way?”

When I was 13, sitting at my computer, I could tell the truth — which was always “yes.” A little prompt would pop up and tell me if I was thinking of suicide, I should call 911, immediately go the nearest hospital or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Of course, I never did any of those things because those options scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be taken away, I didn’t want my parents to find out and I worried there was something inherently “wrong” with me that needed fixing. Later that year, when I finally told someone about my suicidal thoughts, I ended up being taken to the hospital. The way that experience was handled by my family forever scarred me, and ultimately is the reason I have such trouble answering that question.

I know now that any seasoned clinician will not jump straight to hospitalization when a person mentions they’re having thoughts of suicide. But because of my past, and the stigma that still surrounds suicide, that possibility continues to terrify me to the point where I can’t answer truthfully. I wasn’t even truthful with therapists — people trained in this field — for so long. It took seven years in and out of therapy before I was finally honest with a therapist about my suicidal thoughts. In that time, I attempted suicide twice, and still hid it because I was so fearful of their reaction.

I am incredibly thankful I now have a therapist who understands my chronic suicidal thoughts and isn’t turned off or panicked when I bring them up. Being able to speak openly and honestly about how bad things are, without being scared she’s immediately going to call the police, has been life-changing for me. Because suicidal thoughts are such a part of my everyday life, it’s so important I’m able to process that with someone trained in the field, and I’m just so thankful I finally found someone I trusted to do that with.

Yet, every time I see my primary care physician, and I’m handed that piece of paper with the questions I’m all too familiar with, I still can’t bring myself to answer that last one honestly.

Clinicians need to be trained in these areas and need to be able to create a space safe enough where people feel they can be honest. I know far too many people who hide their suicidal thoughts, especially from professionals, due to fear of how they will respond. Secrecy and isolation can intensify those feelings to the point where someone who may have been experiencing passive suicidal thoughts now has active suicidal thoughts and a plan because they weren’t able to get the help they needed when it started (which is what happened to me). We can’t leave people who are in so much pain to fight this by themselves simply because so many people are still incredibly uneducated about suicide. We have to do better. We have to step it up. We have to have these hard conversations.

And then, maybe, people — myself included — can start answering that question truthfully and receive the help and response they deserve.

Photo by Mat Napo on Unsplash

Originally published: October 12, 2020
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