The recent high profile suicides have left many of us with our heads spinning. Why? How? I don’t get it? In today’s world of Instagram posts and Facebook likes we have become accustomed to seeing a very curated image of other’s lives. We share and post the good images, the fun outings, and the exciting moments. Wealth, beauty, success become ever present standards by which we believe we “should” be living. And this can easily lead to the false belief that those things will bring us peace, happiness, and joy. What goes on behind the scenes, well, stays there. I’m reminded of when I posted a Christmas photo of my kids. Everyone liked and commented on how cute they all looked. I was thrilled. No one asked or talked about the 51 takes, bribing, crying, whining, and begging that it took to get that one shot. All they saw were the “perfect kids” having a “perfect Christmas,” when in fact it was far from perfect. So when we hear about someone who on the surface appears to have the things that many of us desire, it shocks us into remembrance that there is so much more going on under the surface of the public image we all carefully curate.
So what do I do?
You are not going to recognize the signs of depression and suicidal thoughts in your loved ones through a text message, tweet, emoji, or social media post. All the reading and googling in the world about the signs of suicide is no substitute for actual in person interaction with those we love. So what do I do? 1) Connect in person, 2) Listen, just listen, and 3) Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide.
1) Connect in Person
The only way to genuinely peak underneath the surface of the public image we all share is to connect in person with our friends and loved ones. A text, comment, like, or repost, is no substitute for a phone call, or better yet, a visit. If you ever have a fleeting thought or impression to reach out and just say hi to someone, act on it! Don’t wait. Do not let thoughts that “oh they’re too busy,” “I don’t want to bother them,” or “Now is not a good time,” stop you from an opportunity to connect with someone. Also, challenge yourself to put the phone away when you are spending time together with loved ones. Do it together as a family or group, plan a ‘no electronics’ weekly dinner or coffee break. Find ways to incorporate moments of genuine, in person connection in the things you already do.
2) Listen, just listen
You will never learn what is going on underneath the surface with your loved ones if you’re doing all the talking. Especially if you don’t often get opportunities to hang out face to face with your friends it can be tempting to fill the time with an update of everything thing that has been going on since you last talked. In addition, resist the temptation to immediately jump in with advice if your friend starts to share some struggles. Slowing down and taking the time to just listen will help you connect more closely. Think about the last time you shared one of your struggles with someone. Chances are you already had a good idea of what you “should” do and what needed to be done to help you move forward. Hearing advice, or listening to a story about how your friend went through a worse situation, is probably not the type of support you were yearning for. You just needed someone to listen to you, to give you a chance to organize your thoughts, think things through, and just be there supporting you. The best part about just listening to our loved ones is that you do not have to know ‘what to say’ or worry about ‘saying the wrong thing.’ Your presence, a nod of affirmation, is all it takes!
3) Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide.
Talking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. In fact, talking about the thoughts of suicide, the depression, the anger, the anxiety, is exactly the type of support someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts needs. Unfortunately, we all have a natural tendency to want to shift a conversation to a more positive tone when someone shares thoughts of suicide or feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. For example, a friend might share a general sentiment of hopelessness by saying: “Things would be easier if I just wasn’t here.” And we may naturally want to say “Oh don’t worry, things will work out!” We are trying to be upbeat and optimistic, but what this does is shut down the conversation. Our friend’s feeling of hopelessness was ignored and the conversation shifted to “just buck up pal.” Instead, we need to learn to sit with the uncomfortableness and learn to explore what is going on underneath the surface. Instead, we can say to our friend: “That sounds really tough, what’s going on?” or simply reflect back what they said: “You wish you weren’t here? Why?” You don’t have to know what to say, just listening, reflecting back what your friend is saying, and physically being there for them is enough! The key here is to not be afraid to sit with negative emotions or immediately shift to looking for the silver lining. Sitting with your friend lets them know they are not alone and that it is ok to talk about it and ask for help.
It is always helpful to have on hand the national suicide prevention hotline (800) 273-TALK If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide I encourage you to reach out. In addition, if you are concerned about your loved one, don’t shoulder all the responsibility by yourself, make sure you are taking care of your own mental wellbeing and help them reach out and get professional support if needed.