Whenever somebody succumbs to depression, people ask why that person never bothered to check themselves into a hospital or why they didn’t simply reach out for help.
I want to talk about that, because reaching out for help isn’t always so simple.
When people kill themselves as a result of their depression, they often leave behind bewildered friends and family. And yes, I know it’s very hard to see how someone could ever kill themselves when they are a parent. I’m a mom myself.
But as a person who has also seriously battled chronic suicidal ideation, I want to explain some of the reasons we don’t get the help we need. Because we do have real reasons.
Many of you are looking for rational answers within an utterly irrational disease. Depression and other forms of mental illness are truly thieves. They take our logic, our reason, our hope and replace it all with lies and a false reality.
By its very nature, mental illness is a disease of skewed perception. So if you’re questioning why a suicidal person doesn’t “just get help,” you’re forgetting that suicidal thoughts do not come from any form of healthy logic.
If you don’t battle mental illness, you’ve got to quit asking it to play by your rules.
I think most people simply don’t understand what a powerful force shame really is. I see this when I talk about body positivity and supposedly well-meaning folks begin to rant about the evils of obesity and how shame should motivate fat people to lose weight.
Well, shame has never motivated me in any of my struggles. Shame always makes me feel worse.
People also overlook how much social media has helped generate an incredibly judgmental society where people use shame every day to ridicule someone they don’t understand.
Furthermore, most people don’t comprehend how much shame a person with mental illness often endures. Or how easily your own words shame us whether you realize it or not. In fact, I still recall the shame I felt years ago when I confided in a mentor how I’d been suicidal when my fiancee left me pregnant. She wrote an email that began, “Shannon! How could you ever want to kill yourself OVER A MAN?!”
How could I even try to reply to that?
To have someone I greatly admired say something like that to me was humiliating. She equated my struggles with some pitiful weakness — that I just couldn’t get over a man. She could have called me stupid and I would have felt the same way. It didn’t matter that I had legitimate fears about my future because I looked so pathetic and weak to her.
I wanted to say, “Thanks a lot. I’m so glad I told you because now it’s going to be even harder to reach out for help when I need it again.”
The way some people talk about being suicidal adds such an embarrassing stigma to the whole damn thing. Sure, someone might mean well when they say that suicide is wrong and we need to wake up and not be selfish and on and on and on…
But comments like that never DO any good.
Because do you know what we actually hear? That we shouldn’t talk about our battle with suicidal thoughts because other people will hear them and think we are stupid, selfish, ungrateful, or worse.
So yes, reaching out for help can be embarrassing.
In fact, the entire process of being admitted to a hospital for being suicidal is a notoriously humiliating endeavor. I’m not saying that to discourage anyone from getting help. I simply know from experience how much it can suck.
I’ve been taken to the ER once before for being suicidal. I’ve also checked myself into a mental health crisis center. Not going to sugarcoat it — both experiences were awful and I ended up being so embarrassed and miserable that I lied and said I no longer wanted to die and was simply embarrassed I’d gotten so overwhelmed.
As someone who’s suffered through years of suicidal ideation, I think the most common reason we don’t get help is fear.
Will anyone even believe us? Would anyone even care?
Given that society routinely refers to suicide with judgment and labels it as such a selfish act, this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Here’s the bitter truth: talking about suicide and attempting suicide are two different things. And for many people, when they hear someone talk about their suicidal thoughts, they won’t take them seriously. They think, they must be okay because they haven’t actually harmed themselves.
During my pregnancy I was honestly petrified that I was going to hit that point of no return. I don’t know if you can imagine being that frightened of your own self, but that’s where I was. I’ve been there a lot.
A friend of mine told my ex, the father, that she didn’t think I would ever actually kill myself. My ex used that opinion against me every chance he got.
While it’s nice that she believed in me and thought I’d pull through it, her opinion was damaging. It led others to think I was just being melodramatic. One more reason for me to doubt anyone would take me seriously.
Please think about it. I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do and reaching out for help. And it still felt like everyone just watched. And criticized. I was frantically waving my arms, trying to stay afloat in dark waters and most of the people in my life at the time were like, “Oh her? She’ll be fine.”
I didn’t understand. Their attitudes added to my struggle, because then I believed that I couldn’t be taken seriously unless I actually tried to take my life. That’s pretty messed up.
There’s truly no hatred like self-hatred.
How can we be so selfish and opt for suicide rather than getting help? Well, when you’re stuck in a pit of self-loathing, there are endless reasons, like:
- We don’t believe we deserve help.
- Or we think we’re beyond saving.
- We’ve lost too much hope to see things ever getting better.
- Or we believe we are a burden to everyone around us.
- We feel like a sham and once people see who we really are, they will hate us.
- If we hate ourselves, do we really need to say more?
Back when I was in a pit of self-loathing during pregnancy and so frightened about my future as a single mom, my daughter’s dad told me that everyone he knew wanted me to take the baby and go back to my home state of Minnesota. He said it so nonchalantly, like it was an obvious solution. Like anyone would feel that way. People already blamed me for breaking up his marriage and now I was pregnant. Of course, they wanted me gone.
Upon hearing that, and knowing I had no one to really turn to at the time, I decided I was going to kill myself that night.
It was only a couple days before those remarks that I’d been to a prenatal appointment and my OBGYN gave me a new anti-anxiety medication to replace the one I was previously taking.
Among the warnings was the potential for increased suicidal thoughts.
I doubt I’ll ever know how much of my awful suicidal weekend was a reaction to the new meds and how much was my actual mental illness. But it’s worth mentioning that yes, certain medications intended to help depression and anxiety can actually make them even worse. One more reason we may not get help when we need it.
It’s too much
Look, I know it seems so stupidly simple: call a toll free number, check yourself into a hospital, tell someone what you’re feeling.
But it’s really not so simple after all.
Depression and suicidal ideation sucks the life out of you. That’s the truth. It’s really easy to decide that all these people who’ve been killed by suicide were just plain selfish, but that’s an incorrect, unhelpful, and lazy assumption.
Mental illness like depression and suicidal ideation makes it hard enough to like yourself. To take a shower. To catch up with an old friend you love. And you have no idea how long someone has been white-knuckling their life already.
Now you want them to pick up the phone, talk to a stranger about some highly stigmatized shit… and somehow believe it’s going to help?
Again, I am not out to discourage anyone from getting help but I’ve been there and often, the help that’s available is no great shakes. You spend a lot of time repeating yourself, feeling humiliated, answering stupid questions and wondering how old the volunteer on the other end of the line even is.
This is another one of those situations where you want depression and suicide to play fair when they never will.
So no, of course, there are people who don’t get help. They’re already not thinking clearly if they’re contemplating suicide. The thought to call a phone number or go to a center might not have even crossed their minds, or it could have been totally repugnant. Anything goes. Suicide throws out the rules.
We’ve tried before
This may be a bit controversial, but it’s also the most dangerous reason we don’t reach out for help. Our cries for help aren’t always recognized. Not by our loved ones, and not by society. We might feel that our struggle is so obvious and the danger is clearly imminent, yet our immediate world will keep on turning and ignore us.
That’s not to say anyone was at fault.
But I do believe that the way society talks about and deals with suicide must change significantly. Because regardless of what you think a suicidal person ought to do, the reality is that we’re not getting the help we need.
And we’re tired.
Every single day that we fight the battle to save ourselves from ourselves is a win that you can’t see.
And you don’t know how many times we’ve already reached out for help.
Four-and-a-half years ago, I checked myself into a Chattanooga crisis center. I was that scared I was going to kill myself when my infant daughter needed me. I wish I could say it changed my life and gave me hope and it was this beautiful experience to finally get help.
But it was actually one of the worst experiences of my life.
The intake counselor was amazing — she was understanding and kind. She told me I wasn’t crazy and that I clearly didn’t have the support any new mom needs. She sussed out my daughter’s dad within five minutes and asked him to leave because he clearly had “more important” things that evening, like an interrupted date and a baseball game to enjoy.
But as awesome as she was, the staff inside the center was another story. It was a total bait-and-switch. I get it — they had their hands too full. There were so many of us who needed help. Several people got violent while I was there. My roommate glared at me and moaned that she had a headache all night and day. Everyone watched Paulie Shore movies in a community room while waiting to talk to a counselor. He told me, “It’s the weekend so we can’t prescribe any medication since you’re breastfeeding.” He said I had to wait three days to see a doctor there at the center. No other help was offered.
I really wish I was joking about how useless the experience was. But it was pretty much a hell hole. I’ve slept on dirt floors in Trinidad that were more comfortable than those rooms. We weren’t allowed personal affects or toiletries beyond what they provided. And they offered us that white, brittle, super cheap motel bar soap that makes your skin itch. And these ones had that smell that bar soap gets when it’s been hanging around in a drawer for a few too many years. Old and stale.
I wish I could say there was one helpful thing anyone did while I was there.
But that experience ultimately led me to feel there is no help out there, so if I want to be there for my daughter, I have to get through my shit alone. I was angry with myself for checking in for help at all because if anything, I only felt more miserable and less human while I was there.
Then I told myself that no matter how hard things got for me again, that I would never spend another night away from my daughter just because I wanted to kill myself.
So far I haven’t.
For better or for worse, I’ve focused on doing everything I can to give her a strong and secure attachment to me. And I think I do a pretty good job of showing the world that you can be a great parent even when you suffer from mental illness.
But I would be lying to say I’ve always gotten the help I need. Or to pretend that my own well-being and even my mental health doesn’t take a backseat to my role as a mom. And I know I’m lucky, because I’ve been able to keep enough perspective to see that my daughter needs me alive more than she needs me to be perfectly healthy.
Even so, I bristle when people talk about suicide as the selfish act of a parent or otherwise grown adult. It’s not that simple.
It’s never been that simple.