Trigger warning: this post discusses suicide. If you are feeling suicidal, please contact a suicide hotline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ It really can help!
When I was in college, an acquaintance of mine shot himself. No one saw it coming. His family was floored. I didn’t know him all that well, but from what I did know of him, I never would have expected him to commit suicide. Before he went, he withdrew socially for months and made various plans and arrangements for after his death. He mailed notes to his relatives. Having been borderline suicidal myself as a teenager and sought help, I wondered how and why he had kept it so well hidden.
I’m not suicidal right now or anywhere close, so please don’t worry about me. But I finally understand how it happens that people get to that point without others knowing. Depression and social isolation tend to be a cycle – the more depressed you are, the harder it is to reach out to other people, and the more isolated you are, the more you get stuck in your depression. The single most helpful thing for breaking this cycle is for a non-depressed (or at least less-depressed) person to reach out by asking “How are you doing?” and then actually listen to the answer.
The problem is, almost nobody does that.
There are different ways to ask “How are you?” People who struggle with depression become sensitized to the difference. We can tell when someone’s “How are you?” really just means, “Hi” or “I’m being polite right now”. (Or my favorite, “Is everything OK?” Since it pretty much never happens that everything is OK, what this usually means is “If I don’t talk to you right now, will you immediately go and kill yourself, or can I go back to what I was doing?”) A person who’s feeling vulnerable isn’t going to spill their vulnerability all over the place where it’s not welcome. On the other hand, when someone asks “How are you?” and actually wants to hear the answer, that’s a gift.
When someone blames themselves for not knowing that a relative or friend was suicidal, the socially acceptable answer is to say, “Oh, don’t blame yourself, you couldn’t have known, there’s nothing you could have done.” I’m sure there are cases where that’s absolutely true; I’m just as sure that there are cases where it’s absolutely not. I am sure of this, because there have been times when I was severely depressed and thinking about death for a fairly extended period of time and no one checked in on me. No one asked how I was doing. No one called just because. And they could have! I’m talking about people who knew that I was socially isolated and that I had a history of severe depression with self-harm.
I try to periodically check in on friends and family who I know are going through a tough time or have a psychiatric history. Unfortunately – and I don’t say this to be snotty or make myself look good, it’s just the truth – people don’t reciprocate. I’m always the one reaching out, and when I can’t, when I need someone else to take the initiative and reach out to me, usually no one does. The main reason I still go to therapy twice a month is so that someone will be monitoring my mental state. I have to pay someone to check in on me.
Right now a new medication is keeping my mood fairly stable, but I’ve still been struggling with stress and grief related to Monkey’s ongoing medical issues, to a recent death of someone I knew, and to simple loneliness. And, except for my therapist and my psychiatrist, and my husband because he lives with me, nobody knows that I’m struggling right now. Because no one else has asked, or made it easy for me to talk about it, or even called or even texted to say “How are you? What’s going on in your life?” And when I tried to say something anyway, I was shut down.
“But that’s because you’re married,” you say. Nope. It was the same when I was single and lived alone.
This is going to sound harsh, but I’ll say it anyway. If a person commits suicide, and if relatives and close friends knew that person had a psychiatric history, all of those people who never called to ask how that person was doing are a little bit responsible for their death. Not wholly responsible, but a little bit.
Now, there’s no point in blaming yourself for something that’s over and done, but there’s something to be said for a kind of proactive blame: that is, taking responsibility for preventing something that hasn’t happened yet.
Is there someone in your life you know is at risk for suicide? Take responsibility now. Make it a habit to check in on that person, monthly or weekly depending on how close you are to them. Again, I’m talking about a good friend, a close relative. Don’t make it intrusive or weird; you’re not a doctor keeping tabs on them, you’re just calling because you care and you genuinely want to know how they’re doing, good or bad. Chances are you’ll find them in a good mood much of the time, but if you catch them when they’re struggling, they will appreciate that you thought of them, that you gave them the opportunity to talk, and that you listened. Just sending a text message (if they text) asking how they are can mean a lot.
I think often people are afraid to have conversations with people who are suffering – whether it’s from a mental illness or difficult life events or both – because they think that if they ask, then they need to solve the problem and they don’t know how to solve it. Good news: you are not supposed to solve it. The most helpful thing you can do is be there and listen. Just ask, and then just listen.
Yeah, the person might eventually commit suicide anyway. But at least when someone says to you “Don’t blame yourself, you did what you could,” it will be true.
To everyone out there who is depressed or grieving and who feels alone with their struggle, I want to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that no one has called you. I’m sorry that no one is listening. You are not alone. There are lots of us right this minute who are struggling, too. There are lots of us who wish that someone would listen.
Let’s all try to be the person we wish others would be for us.
NOTE: If you are currently feeling suicidal or thinking about suicide, please contact a suicide hotline! I have used a hotline and it helped. If you’re phone phobic like me, you can use an online chat hotline. Go here: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/