**I want to very specifically note that what works for me will not work for everyone and that different people need different things when they are feeling suicidal, but this may help give you some information you didn’t have before.**
This week, the world lost Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain to suicide. Of course these losses were very sad and they are worth talking about. However, since the news broke of each death, I’ve seen a plethora of Facebook posts and tweets urging people to call the suicide hotline if they are having suicidal thoughts and encouraging people to check on their friends who have mental health issues and those who seem the “strongest” but may be struggling without you realizing. I have even shared a post or two myself.
I do my best to post about mental health on a regular basis, but there are some people who only seem to care about mental health and/or suicide when there is a school shooting or a prominent celebrity death. This is disheartening for a variety of reasons, but what I really want to focus on today is the fact that there are ways that you can help someone who is actively feeling suicidal that are not posting the suicide prevention hotline number on your social media. Posting the suicide hotline number on your Facebook wall is unlikely to help everyone who is truly feeling suicidal. Not once have I been suicidal, seen the hotline posted on Facebook, and thought “well, that was helpful. I’m all better now!”
It’s hard to talk about feeling suicidal because there is so much stigma surrounding mental health and, specifically, suicide. Many people think that a person who dies by suicide has chosen a selfish way out, when in reality people who die by suicide do so because they believe that life will never get better and that they have exhausted all other options. I know this because I have had suicidal thoughts in the past and because there have been times when I was so depressed that I considered it as a possible solution.
As my best friend so astutely posted on social media this week, when a person dies by cancer, people often say they “lost their battle” with cancer. This also happens with other diseases. What many people don’t realize is that depression and, subsequently, suicidal ideation are physical diseases. They are diseases of the brain, which is an organ much like any other in your body. When a person dies by suicide, it is appropriate to say they lost their battle with mental illness. It is not appropriate (or in any way accurate) to accuse them of being selfish or cowardly. Many people who die by suicide have been suicidal at other points in their life and successfully fought off their mental illness until they were in a place where they were safe again.
It’s important for people with suicidal ideation to know that even though it feels like things will never get better and you will always be stuck in a deep dark hole, there are people who really care and things ultimately will get better, though it may take time for that to happen. I have been suicidal a number of times in my life but have only chosen to call the suicide hotline once, my freshmen year of college. That isn’t to say that they aren’t a great resource for some people, but in my situation they weren’t what kept me alive – my family and friends were.
What has been helpful for me personally when I’ve been feeling suicidal is talking to people who don’t stigmatize suicidal thoughts. Specifically, when I’ve let people know that I am suicidal it is helpful for them to check in with me every day or a couple of times a day to see how I’m doing and if I am a danger to myself. Not everyone who has suicidal thoughts will attempt suicide and not everyone who has suicidal thoughts needs the police called on them or to be taken to the hospital immediately, though some people do. If you are unsure, it’s best to call someone. While this will likely piss off the person you are calling on behalf of, it’s better to have them pissed off and alive than not pissed off and dead.
What I have needed in the past is for people to check on me until I can contact my mental health providers and go to appointments with them. One of my best friends and I came up with a rating system of 0-10 with 0 being so depressed and suicidal that I need to go to the hospital, 5 being fairly stable, and 10 being so manic that I need to go to the hospital. While I was feeling suicidal, she would text me a couple times a day and ask “what’s your number?” We talked about it ahead of time and decided that if I was at a 2 or lower, she had my permission to call my parents if she felt it was necessary. If I was at a 0, she had my permission to call 911. I don’t use that system with everyone and it isn’t always necessary for me to give someone a number on a scale describing how safe or unsafe I am, but I’m thinking of one bout of suicidal thoughts in particular when it was very very helpful.
I tend not to post about suicidal thoughts on social media when I’m actively suicidal as I don’t want to create panic for those who care about me and don’t want people to think that I’m just seeking attention, but maybe I should change that. Maybe it would help other people to know that they aren’t alone and that they can survive even the darkest times. Maybe it would help derail some of the stigmatizing thoughts that people have about mental illness and suicide.
Of people with my illness (Bipolar Disorder), 1 in 3 will attempt suicide and 1 in 5 will successfully complete suicide according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. 22 veterans die by suicide every single day. These statistics are disheartening, but you can help change them. If it seems like someone you know is struggling, reach out to them and let them know that you are a safe person to talk to. Even if it seems like the people you know aren’t struggling, check up on them and ask how they are doing every once in a while. Let them know that you really want to know how they are and don’t just expect them to say “fine thanks, how are you?” Who knows, you may even save a life.