Over 42,000 people in the US took their own lives in 2014, according to the CDC, and far more make attempts. It’s the leading cause of preventable deaths in those age 10-34. Media portrayals of suicide range from glamorizing it as noble and romantic to selfish and weak-willed. Rarely do I see media portrayals that accurately reflect the experiences of the people with whom I’ve worked. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve worked with who experienced suicidal ideation didn’t actually want to die. They wanted their suffering to stop because they believed, “I can’t handle this,” and, “There’s no hope for improvement.” They would do anything to avoid this pain, which – in a way – makes sense. The human response to pain and suffering is to generally avoid it entirely, if possible.
That said, there’s a world of difference in the inner experiences of someone who thinks, “Ugh… I don’t want to deal with this today. Let’s see if I can get around it,” versus, “I’m too weak to handle this at all. It’s too much!” The first person is likely avoiding a temporary stressor, though they’ll deal with it if they have to because they know they can. The second person might be engaging in a long-term pattern of avoidance because they believe they can’t handle things. The problem with the second situation is that it can reinforce the (usually incorrect) notion that they are weak and can’t cope, which can lead to more avoidance and the potential of a negative, repetitive, downward spiral. Let’s talk about ways of coping and reminding yourself that you are stronger than you might think!
Before we do that, if you live in the US and you’re having suicidal thoughts, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or dial 9-1-1. If you’re outside the US, you can find local crisis lines at Suicide.org. If you’re even debating whether you should call them, you should call them. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline handles all psychological crises, not just suicide. The information in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for psychological advice or treatment.
Today Sucks, Tomorrow Might Not
This is a cleaned-up version of an internet meme I recently saw. It reflects the idea that pain is temporary, and there is always hope that things might improve, even if we can’t see it now. The trick is that we must be there to see things improve. Research supports the idea that suicidal crises are temporary: nearly 90% of last less than 8 hours, approximately 70% last less than an hour, and roughly 25% last less than 5 minutes! It might not seem like it now, but you can make it!
One common technique used in suicide treatment is called the Hope Box or Hope Chest. You take a physical box, and put inside all sorts of things that bring you comfort, joy, and hope. This might be photos of people or pets who you love, things that make you laugh, reminders of special moments in your life, letters or emails that inspire you, or any number of other things that give you hope or distract you through the temporary crisis (i.e. sudoku, coloring books, or crossword puzzles). Some people even write letters to themselves while they are in a healthy state of mind with words of encouragement, plans for helpful steps, and phone numbers to call for help.
While I’m always a fan of doing something physical and tactile (I have an actual “Feel Good File” filled with reminders of why I do what I do, for times when I doubt myself), for ease of access there is a free app for iOS and Android called Virtual Hope Box that does a lot of the stuff I mentioned. It was developed to help US veterans in crisis, and has now been translated into six languages.
I often reference this quote from Wil Wheaton. While not all suicidal crises are related to depression, 90% are related to mental health diagnoses, and treatment of underlying mental health conditions can lead to greatly reduced occurrences of suicidal crises. Wil Wheaton’s quote reflects the idea that people in a depressive episode experience irrational thoughts that feel real and logical, even though they aren’t. It’s the same with other diagnoses (e.g. PTSD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, among others). Clinical diagnoses are not our fault, and many of these diagnoses are linked to imbalances in neurochemistry.
If we think about it this way, it is your brain playing tricks on you. Seeking help for an underlying mental health diagnosis can help you train yourself to be aware of this irrationality, which can give us hope. Someone I know with routine bouts of depression tells me, “I’m not okay, but I will be. My brain is just lying to me. I’ve handled this before, and I will again.”
You ARE Handling it!
If you’ve never seen Boggle the Owl, I suggest you check them out, especially Boggle’s take on depression and suicide. The short version is that things might be hard right now, and you’re still fighting. That makes you a badass! It’s easy to mistakenly believe that because you’re suffering, you’re somehow a failure or incapable.
Sometimes things are hard, and that’s not always a reflection of you and anything you did (or didn’t do). Remind yourself of this.
Continuing to exist in the midst of suffering is a sign of strength! Asking for help is a sign of strength! Telling another person, “Hey! I’m in trouble, and I don’t know what to do,” is a sign of strength! Being vulnerable enough to lean on another person is a sign of strength! Bottom line: you’re stronger than you think, even if you’re in pain. You can get through this!
There’s Strength in Numbers
A common perception I encounter is the perception that a person is “weak” because they need to reach out to another person for help. Quite frankly, this is utter BS. There is no one on this planet who completely goes it alone. Everyone needs help from others from time to time. Even the most successful people needed someone sometimes.
Yes, it takes trust and vulnerability to reach out to someone, but the benefits of knowing someone has your back are innumerable. The support of others is a powerful tool in your utility belt, not a mark against you. They can help hold you up at times when you can’t hold yourself. At the very least, there’s something powerful knowing that you matter to someone else, and WHETHER YOU KNOW IT OR NOT, YOU DO MATTER TO SOMEONE ELSE. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t.
These aren’t the only things you can do, but they are a few ways to remind yourself that: there is always hope, crises are temporary, and you are stronger than you think. There’s always hope, even if you can’t see it right now. Feel free to share how you remind yourself of this. It might inspire others.