we have to get rid of mental health stigma -- here's how.
We are gutted this week. Us as a society, me as a human being – we are a bit wrecked over the two suicides we have seen flash across television screens in recent days. There are a lot of emotions as I scroll through social media -- shock, fear and overwhelm. We are upset that this keeps happening. We don’t quite know what to do.
Two hours after hearing about Kate Spade, I got off my cycle bike after teaching a class only to check my phone and learn that the woman who trained me in the program a year ago lost her teenage daughter to suicide that same day. A month ago, I waved goodbye to my friend Sam as he backed out of my driveway after visiting on the way home from his father’s funeral. Yesterday, I mailed a letter to my friend who is spending some time in a facility because her suicidal thoughts were getting so bad, and she knew she needed help. The woman who wrote the letter lost her eleven-year-old son less than a year ago.
It’s in the news – it’s our high profile people -- but it’s also our right here people.
People are bailing on life all around us – and it is scary and heavy and hard no matter if you can relate or not. If you have never felt suicidal before, I imagine that it is overwhelming to think about what could drive a person that far. If you have, though, it can almost be even more of a gut check. It can be a trigger. It can feel too close to home. It can feel too heavy either way, and can make us want to hold our breath, or freeze – we almost just want to shut our eyes, and wait for it to pass.
But it won’t just pass. It won’t pass unless we open our eyes and do some things that are gonna get our people to safety.
I have felt suicidal in more than one season.
Right now, I’m solidly not, thank God – I have built a life where it is very accepted for me to take a knee in the name of my mental health, and I know full and well that if I ever wave the flag of “hey, the will to live is gone again” – I know who I would talk to, which place I would call, and that my people would champion my desire would go heal and take care of that and come back and tell all of you what I learned from it.
But that is not a universal impulse. That is not everyone’s reality.
But we need to make it be -- and the first step is to get rid of stigma.
We need to get rid of this idea that even being suicidal-adjacent is a scarlet letter, or a character flaw. That it’s a thing that isn’t okay to share.
I will let the other side in on something: as people with mental illnesses, nobody checks in with us and gives us a medal for going a certain amount of time without hitting a snag, or a dark place again. We are not assigned an Allstate agent when we get our diagnosis, and we do not get milestone-based prizes for keeping our shit together.
But if we are not careful (@society), it can look like we do get prizes for keeping it together. Instagram is a highlight reel and we want to keep up with the Joneses and our good imaging so badly that we will hold our breath underwater for way, way too long. There are consequences to speaking up -- they can be light and social, or they can be things like our jobs and livelihoods.
On my first day as a school counselor, my principal sat down in my office and instructed me that I needed to take my blog and website down, as some parents had found it and were distraught that he had "hired a counselor with a problem like that." My contract was on the line, so I listened, and I took it down, and I kept things quiet, and learned over time that society expected me to isolate -- that my illness was not okay, or normal. And I suffered from that.
Two years later, I quit that job, and have disclosed my illness in every interview and project proposal since then. I have turned down opportunities that made me feel like a flight risk -- because I can't take care of my mental health properly in environments where I feel like a flight risk. When I first spoke out about my depression, my bipolar disorder, my history of suicidal thoughts, it was very tempting to talk about it like it was all in the past. Like I had overcome it. The truth, though, is that I will continue to have to monitor the symptoms of my mental illness for the rest of my life.
But I don’t see that as a bad thing, or a thing I need to apologize for.. I see it as the best way to take care of myself. That’s all. It really isn’t especially terrible, so long as I have what I need to keep it from getting especially terrible. This can be a fight, and it shouldn't be.
Chances are very good – about 80% -- that if you’ve faced depression once, you’ll run into it again sometime in your life. I know I have, several times. I do a lot of things to try and keep it at bay. I’ve revamped my self-care; I’ve cut out alcohol. I can feel my medication not doing its best work, and so I’m headed to the psychiatrist next week to figure that out. I work very hard to not get depressed, and sometimes it still happens anyway.
Because, the thing is, I flat-out cannot promise anyone that I will never feel suicidal again.
It would actually be irresponsible for me to do that.
There is no one risk factor that can predict if I will ever experience that again.
I hope not -- but I need to know that if I do, people will know how to help.
That is what will encourage me to reach out.
That is what will save my life, if we are ever there again.
The hotlines are important, but they are not always a viable option.
Kindness is a crucial ingredient here, but it is not the entire solution.
We have to retrain the way we respond here.
What we have to do is get rid of the stigma.
We have to create safe spaces.
A safe space is where kindness, and resources, and respect, and hope, all come together and rescue a person who is trapped in a burning building, and that building is their headspace. They may not know how to get out on their own, but they need to know that they can communicate that to the rest of us, and that help will come swiftly.
Safe spaces are where people can hear that appearances do not matter so much as their vitality -- where they hear that white-knuckling it is not the way they have to do it.
Safe spaces are where people can see that if one way of getting help doesn’t work, there are others, and there is no timeline on healing. You can go back, and back, and back. Safe spaces are where the facades stop, where the points that don’t matter stop even being counted. Safe spaces are life-saving.
I believe the biggest reason why people don’t come forward about feeling suicidal is twofold – they feel an incredible amount of shame and need to keep up appearances, or they’ve been conditioned to believe that getting help won’t work anyway – and safe spaces are where all of those thoughts get thrown in the garbage, because though they may be present, they are not always true.
We won’t save the whole world in a day. We can’t.
We will not get to everyone tomorrow.
But what we can do is get to one person, one place, every day until we cover the whole thing eventually. Safe spaces will cover the whole world, and stigma will be a foreign concept one day. I believe it.
Here is what I need from the world, as someone who was suicidal once,
and may be again, one day:
I need to not feel embarrassed about that as even a possibility.
I need to know that if those thoughts ever come back, that the people around me will know how to catch them with grace and point me towards help.
I need to know that if I voice that, people will have what they need to move, rather than hold their breath and feel overwhelmed.
I need to know that even if people don’t understand what I’m going through, that they’ll respect my honesty, my journey to have needs met.
I need to know that I am loved, regardless of my sometimes messy headspace.
I need to be reminded that I am worth the work of continual healing.
So, how do safe spaces happen?
If you have a story with the darkness -- tell it as you are able to. The biggest thing I have found when I started telling my story is messages in various inboxes saying, “Thank you -- I’m in this camp also” or “this sounds like my friend. What can I do for them?”
It can be easy to feel pressure here -- but instead, just normalize that the thing to do when you need help is to go get help. It's complex. It involved a lot of stretching. It involves a big amount of love, of heartspace expansion, to recognize where you may need to learn all the different things help can look like just in case one of your people, or even you, ever need permission or directions to get to it.
If you don't understand this kind of darkness, don't be afraid to just say that. Ask questions to those of us who are able to be vocal about it. It's easy to want to detach, but we can do better than that.
Getting help for depression, feeling suicidal, is not some sort of mark of extra damage, or character flaw, or weakness in and of itself -- but the hardest thing about it can be dealing with all the stuff that tries to stand in the way of getting help. The pressure to have it all together can be the tallest wall in front of the help we need to find actual life. And that, my friends, is quite frankly, a) so, so, stupid of us when we consider what is at stake, and b) something we can 100% eliminate.
So -- may we grant each other the permission to be real. May we check in with our actual people, and not just their Instagram feeds. When we don't understand something, may we just say that, and ask questions instead of issuing decrees from our blind spots.
If our heads start to go to a tough place, may we feel safe to speak that to someone. If someone speaks it to us, may we hold space for them and give them permission to feel, but also the room to go get help wherever they need to pull that from. That may come from a walk in the woods, or from starting each day opening a pill bottle, or spending some time inside the walls of a hospital.
May that all be seen as equal safe space, and may our biggest urge at this time be to go out in the world and make safe spaces even more abundant.
Resources to Help Our Hearts Grow + Expand:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's goal is to reduce the annual suicide rate by 20% by 2025. One great way they make progress is letting me go bug Congress through their Field Advocate program, and another is hosting overnight Out of the Darkness walks to bring more awareness and fundraising to individual communities.
Read about risk factors and hear stories of hope from them, too.
A list of crisis hotlines from my friends at The Mighty
The Mighty does a great job collecting thoughtful essays from writers who can bring clarity + understanding to hard-to-talk-about things.
Find a list of topics here.
Sometimes help is therapy. Therapy is a great place to find some help. Here is some info on that.
Searching for the Right Therapist is Sort of Like Dating (NY Times)
How to Find the Right Therapist (The Cut)