(Because it’s Mental Illness Awareness Week)
Recently, I attended an educational workshop which was geared to raising awareness of depression and suicide. The speaker, a clinical psychologist, clicked through PowerPoint slides at a steady clip. She listed the signs of depression. Click. New slide.
She stressed that depression is a disease that can be treated. Click. New Slide.
She said, “If you know someone who experiences chronic depression, you need to ask them if they are thinking about suicide.” Click.
I was sitting in the back row and I am not inclined to ever interrupt a speaker, but I have lived with a depressed family member. Over the years, I have learned, by trial and a lot of errors, how to love someone who faces debilitating depression.
One of the things I learned is that asking someone you love if they are considering suicide takes courage. A lot of it.
I felt I needed to say so. The doctor clicked through the slides and rattled off information–so matter-of-fact. But when you love a family member who is struggling and you’re making decisions without all the facts, (For a long time, I didn’t know that depression was a disease that could get better with medical treatment.) your actions are swayed and checked by so many powerful feelings.
I waved my hand in the air, and when the presenter looked my way, I said, “It’s really unnerving to ask someone you love if they are considering suicide.”
The workshop leader paused and said, “Tell us about that.”
So I began. Asking is difficult, because, first of all, the topic seems so private. You know how only certain people will tell you if you have a poppy-seed or piece of dark, green lettuce stuck between your two front teeth? Or that your breath smells? Or that your favorite outfit doesn’t belong in the Goodwill bag. It should go straight to the trash. To me, the question, “Are you considering suicide…” seems more intimate than all those others wrapped together. It’s similar to asking to read someone’s diary. And the one time I read someone else’s diary? Well, my attempt created hard feelings.
Second, I prefer to broach challenging topics when the time and situation are right. When is the right instance to ask about suicide? I noticed you missed work three times this week and are about to lose another job, and I haven’t seen you smile in, well, in months, could you just smile and, well, you can’t? Have you considered…
And, third, what if the one you love hasn’t thought of suicide, but your mention gives them the idea?
“He won’t think, oh that’s a good idea, I think I’ll try that.” The clinical psychologist assured. “No. That doesn’t happen.”
When my young adult son was depressed, there were days he didn’t get out of bed. He’d lost interest in activities and people he’d once cherished. I didn’t glimpse his trademark grin for months.
Some days, I wondered how desperate he felt. Was suicide a topic I should find the courage to mention? I only had experience with not talking about suicide. I was pretty good at that.
I used to exercise frequently with a friend (who has since passed away). Frequently, while we walked, she spoke lovingly of individuals I had yet to meet: her mom, her sister, her husband’s first wife. No kidding.
One day, I said, “From your stories, I feel I know and like your mom, sister, and (no kidding) your husband’s former wife, but what about your dad? I’ve never heard you speak of him.”
“When I was 13, my dad shot himself in an upstairs bedroom. I was on the first floor–in the living room–and heard the shot.”
We were on a walk when she told me. I remember the exact spot on the road where my eyes widened and I worried I’d intruded on a private memory. Today, two decades later, I could go to that spot and set up a roadside memorial. That spot was on our regular walking route, and afterwards, many times, on our walks as we passed it, I thought, “Here is the place where you told me your Dad shot himself. When you were 13. While you were in the house. You heard the shot.”
But I never said so. Because I did not know how to talk about a problem of this magnitude affecting someone I loved so dearly. I worried that I’d I say something that sounded glib.
So, my fourth point, or question, is: what is the wording?
With my son, I eventually determined to work up the courage to ask. I tried to be matter-of-fact. Like, “Have you thought of… or you haven’t considered suicide? Have you?”
“Oh no,” he said so quickly that I knew he might not be fully sharing his heart with me.
He might, even in his own deep sadness, be trying to spare me.
Maybe there wasn’t room in our conversations for him to say, “Yes, I’m thinking of killing myself.” If he had? I might have flapped my hand breezily and, hoping to distract him, said something ineptly casual like, “Happens to me all the time. Why don’t you help me make some grilled cheese sandwiches and it’s your turn to take out the garbage.”
Or I might have scolded him. “Stop talking like that. We don’t k-word people. Not even ourselves.” As silly as that sounds, I admit that I thought for years that acts like suicide didn’t happen in my sphere. I probably would have scolded.
Later, when he was hospitalized because he was indeed suicidal, I felt so bereft. I felt he was spurning a gift that I was instrumental in arranging for him.
But here’s another thing I eventually learned that the medical professionals, like the presenting doctor, know. Suicide is a symptom of a disease called depression. Often, the right medication, the right course of treatment, sets the patient on the path to health.
The starting place to health might be you asking the question. The conversation won’t be easy. A friend of mine once mentioned to a co-worker, “You seem really depressed. Have you…” My friend was gruffly rebuffed, but 24 hours later, the individual contacted him and said, “You know what you said yesterday? I do have thoughts of suicide. What should I do?”
In the educational workshop, the leader acknowledged the fear and stressed, “In spite of the fear…you must ask. If a person says yes, tell them, “I will keep you safe and we will get help.”
I wanted to wave my hand again and say, “The road to help is not always easy. Sometimes, finding help is difficult. It is difficult to keep someone safe whose thoughts are so cloudy that they are considering suicide. You might have to call the police.”
But I felt I’d said enough for one day.
If you’d like to read more of what I have to say about loving someone who faces the challenges of mental illness, email me at faithtmcdonald.com or respond to this blog post. I’ve written a book titled: On the Loving End of Crazy. You can get on the list to be notified when it’s available.