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Dear Swipe This!
On World Suicide Prevention Day, many friends in my creative community wrote Facebook posts encouraging people who need help to reach out. A few days later, a friend in this circle wrote something that made it sound as though she is very seriously considering ending her life. She said she doesn’t know if suicide can actually be prevented. She also expressed feelings of numbness and disillusionment. And what scared me the most was that she alluded to having a will and already getting her affairs in order in case she does go through with it.
As soon as I read her post, I felt intensely triggered. As someone who’s struggled with my own mental health challenges, it freaked me out. I knew when I read it that someone needed to do something. But I also immediately felt like it would be really uncomfortable for me to get involved.
I wish I could assume that someone else will do something. But I am concerned that most people who know her don’t realize how serious her post was. I also feel like all the people who were posting that it’s OK to ask for help don’t actually know what the hell they’re talking about. You can write a Facebook post with lots of heart emojis telling people you’re always there if they need someone, but unless you take action, it’s just virtue signaling! It’s hard for me to believe any of these people will actually step up and intervene when they see someone in danger.
This person is not a close, IRL friend of mine. She’s part of my larger creative community. This person doesn’t have many close friends, so I’m not sure who to alert. But my mind keeps coming back to thoughts that if this person did do something to hurt herself, I would feel awful for staying silent when I could see that she needed help.
So, what do I do? I really do not want to become this person’s lifeline, but I also feel horrible about how I feel. I know that it’s wrong to stand by and do nothing when I know there’s a real threat that this person could harm herself. What do you do when reaching out feels unsafe, but staying silent could be deadly?
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Dear Scared Bystander,
As I read your letter, I found myself asking, “How do we talk about mental health?” It seems there are so many ways to get it wrong, and no one is quite sure how to get it right.
But one thing is for sure—we need to talk about it.
So thank you for reaching out. I’m sure it took courage for you to ask this question, even in the anonymous setting of this column. I am so glad that you confessed your uncertainty and I’m sure many people can relate. Although, you won’t see many Facebook posts or tweets about this kind of paralysis, because—let’s be real—a post that says, “I don’t want anyone to kill themselves, but I’m not sure I want to get involved,” isn’t going to get very many likes.
As you point out in your letter, when it comes to the tragic reality of suicide, everyone wants to virtue signal. People are always eager to tweet (or retweet) the “right” answers. And they will happily point out all the ways other people are getting it “wrong” when it comes to how we can or should help. It’s much rarer that we confess the shame we feel when confronted with the suffering of others.
What stood out to me most in your letter was your anger and distrust of other people. You are so unsure that they are capable. You are so disappointed in their lack of awareness. And while I relate to your fear and frustration, I can’t help but wonder what it would cost you to be willing to be wrong. Is it possible that by casting a wide net with her Facebook post, your friend has already gotten some of the support she so badly needs? Is it possible that some of the people you saw virtue-signaling actually heard her cries and put their words into action? Why are you so confident that no one is trying to help? And why are you so afraid that if you don’t help, you’ll be to blame?
It seems to me you have given yourself two distinct options: You can be the hero who swoops in and saves this person from her suffering, or you can be the villain who watches her drown from your boat while holding onto the life preserver you’d rather not toss her in case you fall in too.
But you’re just a person. And you can reach out, or not reach out, and your actions will only be one of many factors that lead to many choices your friend will need to make in the process of her recovery from this bout with what sounds like a very real mental health crisis.
I think your instinct to protect yourself isn’t a bad one. You can’t help others if you can’t help yourself, and it sounds like you know your own boundaries. Maybe you are a deeply sensitive soul who doesn’t know how to get involved without getting entangled. Maybe you aren’t in a place where it would be healthy for you to hear someone else’s darker thoughts because it might trigger your own. Whatever the underlying cause, I trust that when you tune in to your gut, you know what level of interaction is best for you. And if that means you cannot or will not reach out to this friend directly, I want you to know that you are in no way bad or wrong for your choice.
That said, I believe you reached out to me because you do want to take action. So I think you should look at ways you can respond to this post that won’t leave you feeling so vulnerable. Can you reach out to a mutual friend? You say you are part of a larger creative community. Are there any leaders or people who hold formal positions with whom you can share your fears with? Can you turn to someone you trust and ask them for support with this matter? What can you do to remind yourself that, even in this moment when you feel like no one else gets it, you aren’t alone?
The person you describe in your letter has actually taken an important first step. She is reaching out. She is publicly confessing her pain. She is signaling that she needs help. So, while her post may have alarmed you, I actually believe it’s a sign that she is capable of finding the help she needs to get well. You are not the only person who read her post and I’m sure you can already see comments from people who want her to know she isn’t alone.
And maybe that isn’t enough. But it’s a start.
Last June, in the wake of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I recall scrolling through Twitter and seeing so many tweets about the “right” way to prevent suicide. The tweets with the most RTs and faves were the ones that were impassioned statements about how it’s on us to reach out when we see someone suffering.
One post in particular, from comedy writer Caissie St. Onge, caught my eye.
I think St. Onge is right. If you can reach out, if you feel safe in doing so, if you have the capacity and the energy to hold space for others, then wow, that’s wonderful. And St.Onge does and she did. I read so many conversations in this thread where she does the real, on the ground work of responding to people in pain.
But not everyone has that capacity or that skill level. And that’s OK too.
The fact is, most of us are largely unsure of how to handle our own suffering, let alone the suffering of others. So when we are forced to face the dark reality that our lack of skill could lead not only to more suffering but to the actual loss of human life, well, it’s normal that we want to shut it down. We want to flee. Who honestly wants to talk about the fact that suicide is a reality, let alone the fact that suicide in the United States has spiked at alarming rates? Even in the course of writing this column, I’ve had to take so many breaks and walk away and examine and re-examine what I want to say, because, I too, am terrified that I’ll get it all wrong.
But I had to tell myself it’s OK to try and to fail. Because in a culture where we can see our external validation measured in likes and reposts, the pressure to get it “right” can be paralyzing. It can feel incredibly unsafe to be vulnerable and say, “I’m not sure how to do this.” And I worry that our fear of getting it wrong is getting in the way of some of the more uncomfortable conversations we may need to have around suicide and mental health. And I want to have this conversation. So here I am.
I don’t know if I’ve answered your question, but I want to leave you with this: Your friend is not alone and neither are you. You don’t have to have the perfect plan or perfect solution. Remind yourself of that before you put one foot in front of the other and take your next step. It doesn’t have to be the “right” step, just the one that feels right, right now, for you.