With the recent tragic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, social media has been full of posts and articles about suicide and depression. It’s natural that these topics receive more coverage in the wake of tragedy, and I’m glad they’re being discussed. I’m also reminded that we need to keep talking about it, in order to keep fighting against these illnesses that threaten the people we love. We need to know how to deal with it in real ways, rather than just sharing a Facebook status once a year and thinking we’ve done our part.
It’s admittedly difficult to support loved ones through mental illness, especially when you haven’t experienced and can’t understand depression or suicidal thoughts. As humans we try to relate others’ experiences to our own; this means people sometimes try to relate depression to a time when they were sad about difficult circumstances.
But depression is different. It’s not as simple as feeling sad about something bad that happened. You can’t just “cheer up” or “get over it.”
I want to address some ideas and attitudes I’ve noticed, but first I want to be clear that my intention is not to come across as though I’m an authority on the matter.
Mental health issues are complicated, and there’s so much I don’t know. The experience of these issues varies incredibly from person to person, and what I say about it might differ from what someone else would say. I’ve agonized about writing this, because I worry so much about saying the wrong thing, but I think it’s important to start a dialogue. If there’s anything I’ve said here that bothers you or that you think I’ve gotten wrong, please reach out to me and let me know. I’m still learning too.
A little context from my own story
Just a heads up: in this post I’m going to be really frank with you, because I feel this obligation to be almost painfully honest about my life experiences. This isn’t because I’m looking for sympathy or help. (I mean, I am getting help, but from my husband and people who should be helping me with this; not from you, my lovely reader.) But I hope telling you about my experience can either help you understand someone in your life, or help you realize you’re not alone in your own struggles.
I don’t have an official diagnosis, but I’ve been dealing with symptoms of depression and anxiety since my teens. I’m not nor have I ever been suicidal, but I have struggled with passive suicidal ideation, which is essentially having the desire to die but no plan to act out on that. I’m not in danger, but it’s uncomfortable to live with the feeling that your existence on earth doesn’t matter. I’ve taken medication in the past but did not personally find it helpful, and am looking into options for affordable counseling.
In dealing with these things, and dealing with other people while dealing with these things, I’ve noticed some common attitudes that I would like to challenge.
Depression doesn’t always look the way people expect
We have these ideas about what depression looks like, or warning signs for suicide that we’re told to look out for. And it’s not that those ideas are wrong, but it can be much more complicated than that. There are more and more articles about the various forms of depression – such as high-functioning depression – showing that there are many people living successful lives while dealing with the crippling effects of depressive or suicidal thoughts.
There was one summer where I was struggling with anxiety and depression, but I was still working 40-50 hours a week, keeping up a long distance relationship, and doing an online physics course (sort of). I kept doing the things I had to do, but I would come home and spend the entire evening lying in bed doing nothing. People would invite me to things, I’d say that I’d go, but I often couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. I didn’t realize what was happening, and other people didn’t either, because I was still living my life. But I couldn’t force myself to be social.
It negatively affected some friendships, and I wish I’d been able to just tell people that I was depressed.
I’ve often convinced myself that I’m not really depressed, because if I were depressed then surely I wouldn’t be able to go to work or school. But even if I don’t have it “as bad as someone else,” the problems are still there and I can’t get better until I admit that.
In the same way, if someone you know seems to have particularly low moods or lack of interest in things, but still manages to show up to work every day, that doesn’t mean they’re not struggling with depression or suicidal ideation. They still need your support.
Depression can affect people who seem to have it all
I often see people shocked when a successful person is suicidal. While depression can certainly affect people when everything is going wrong, bad circumstances are not a prerequisite. Depression is an illness that steals your happiness and lies to you. It convinces you that things are hopeless, that you’ll never be good enough, that people don’t care about you. It can hit you even when you have everything you’ve ever wanted.
The first several months after I moved to England should have been a really happy time for me. Newly married, finally living with Joe, I was in London, a city I had always been obsessed with. I finally had the chance to get a job in the music industry and do something I was passionate about. There were music festivals and gigs with all my favorite bands; cool parties and fashion shows.
But I was extremely depressed.
The moments that I wasn’t going to cool things and talking about it on social media, I was lying in bed all day, crying, unable to get up and do anything. I didn’t apply for jobs, I ate ridiculous amounts of unhealthy food, and I regularly found myself thinking that I wasn’t interested in being alive anymore.
I should have been honest instead of pretending my life was great. But I felt like I was being ungrateful. With people telling me how cool my life was, I figured no one wanted to hear me complain about how hard of a time I was having. When I tried to half-heartedly say how I was feeling, I had some well-meaning people say things like “at least you’re in England now!” It hurt to be told that, and I withdrew even more. Fortunately with Joe’s support I was able to get through that difficult time.
If someone in your life is struggling, it may be hard to be sympathetic when they have good things happening to them. (And there certainly is a difference between depression and an ungrateful attitude.) When someone is depressed however, keep in mind that they probably know all the reasons they should be happy, and it’s only made them feel guilty about the fact that they’re not. Telling them why they should be grateful will probably make them less likely to open up to you. Try to understand that depression has negatively affected their perspective on life and made them unable to see the positive.
Depressed people may have a hard time reaching out
It’s not bad to post suicide hotline numbers, or post a status saying you’re there for people. But know that for people who are depressed or suicidal, reaching out to someone is often more than they can handle. The mind is powerful, and when it’s gripped by an illness like depression it convinces you that no one cares.
Not only is it hard to reach out, but sometimes it’s hard to realize you need help in the first place. People with depression may convince themselves that it’s not actually that bad, or think that everyone feels what they’re feeling. We don’t want to make a big deal of what we’re experiencing, because “someone else is probably going through much worse.”
Sometimes we also think we’ve been more open and transparent than we really have been. I’ve had many conversations with friends and family about anxiety and depression. But I’ve realized that I usually don’t talk about it when I’m actually experiencing it. I’ve had times where I was mentally in a dark place, and realized later that even Joe had no idea. I’m working on being honest with him about the worst thoughts that I have, even when I’m afraid he won’t understand.
Encourage people to reach out, but don’t feel like the work is done there. If someone is acting in a way that alarms you, reach out to them. Let them know how much you care. Tell them that you value them. Ask specific questions about how they’re feeling, and don’t judge what they say. The conversation may be awkward, they might be offended that you’ve asked, but it’s a risk worth taking. It’s not easy – I’m still working on being there for my friends – but we can keep doing better.
We need to stop putting blame on people
Many times I’ve seen people say things along the lines of “suicide is the most selfish choice you can make.”
I suppose it comes from wanting people to know that suicide affects everyone around them. But I don’t think it’s a helpful argument. When people are in such a dark place that they think the world would be better if they weren’t here, calling them selfish will likely make them feel even more guilty and unworthy of being alive.
It’s also not fair to place the blame on loved ones who are left behind, as if they should have just been more aware or tried harder. We all have a responsibility to be there for the people we love, but when someone takes their life, it is a decision that they made in their illness – it’s not the fault of everyone around them.
Education is everything
Mental health problems are not easily fixed, and no one solution works for everyone. Some people just need you to be there and listen. Some people need you to help them with tasks they’re unable to complete. I read a really touching Twitter thread recently about someone whose friends stepped up during her time of need (click to read the whole thing):
The year after my dad died was so bad I don’t remember 90% of it. I moved to a new apt and was unable to unpack. For MONTHS. I was ashamed I couldn’t unpack. How can you be UNABLE to unpack? Just open the g.d. boxes. That was the year cried for 19 days. Straight. /1
— Sheila O’Malley (@sheilakathleen) June 8, 2018
The first step is educating yourself. Learn what depression is and what it isn’t. Learn what behaviors to look for. Find out the right questions to ask, and find out what you might say that could further upset someone. Know the resources you can point someone to when they need more help that you can offer. Read articles written by people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
This is an ongoing process with Joe and me, as I try to help him understand how I feel. A few years ago, he didn’t know that much about depression or how to help me. We’ve both had patience with each other and our relationship has grown stronger. All of us have to be willing to go through this process with the people we care about, so we can love and support them better.
I found a number of helpful articles while researching for this post. These are just a starting point; we need to keep learning and keep having open and honest conversations.
If something I have said resonates with you, I genuinely want to talk to you about it. Even if you disagree with me. Send me a message, or ask me to call you. I’m open to any questions you may have. I don’t have all the answers, but we can try to figure it out together.
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255