Welcome to the Suicide Prevention Month blog series. During this awareness month, we’ll be sharing stories from suicide survivors, suicide attempt survivors and mental health advocates.
In my view, the best gift in life is life, especially a satisfying one. The second best gift is security. During Suicide Prevention Month, all of us can help extend both of those gifts to others.
We all have at least a working sense of what life is, but what do I mean by security? It’s a concept so pervasive that its essential components can be hard to recognize or appreciate until they are taken away from us.
When it comes to suicide prevention, security is as simple, but as powerful, as the comfort of others, and the conviction that they will be there for you when you need it.
I use conviction here as something distinct from just knowledge. Knowledge is committing something to memory. Conviction is wholeheartedly embracing that fact in your everyday life, and confidently planning your future on it.
When someone tells you they’ll be there when you need them, you eventually come to know that. But it’s even better to build a steadfast conviction based on that knowledge, too. You become encouraged to take greater, more rewarding risks, with the confidence that falling just means you’ll land in a welcoming, comforting safety net of those whom you care about and who care about you.
But imagine if you only believed that up to a point.
Imagine that every time your friend told you they’d be there for you for anything, you always sensed that didn’t include listening to you divulge how you contemplate suicide and how that frightens you.
Imagine fearing that that conversation would be the beginning of the end of that connection.
Imagine feeling that way about everyone.
It’s an isolating experience: to cage your innermost thoughts, to only be able to enjoy friends and family from a distance, to be denied their potential comfort when you’re hurting the most.
There are reasons why this happens. They’re not good reasons at all, and they’re not reasons that we should stand for, but it shapes the way these things play out. As any stigma fighter knows, suicide and mental illness are issues that, broadly, still have much fear, many misconceptions, a lot of shame, and overpowering silence attached to them.
It’s hard to tell whether the person you might want to open up to has a progressive or an ill-informed view on those issues, so broaching the topic in a way that feels safe always takes a leap of faith. But sadly, this fuels a cycle where assuming you’ll be judged or rejected becomes a reflex, driving away well-meaning people, or causing you to lose contact with them altogether — and the people that drop out of your life only validate that reflex, in a way.
It’s a twisted, tragic cycle. And we have a responsibility to break it.
This month is all about learning about and encouraging ways to break the cycle in which many of us find ourselves. It’s about learning to be ready when someone reaches out, and learning when to reach out to others, as someone who needs help or as someone who notices someone else who may need help.
It’s a very important task, but you don’t need to say everything absolutely perfectly to help. In fact, some of the most useful things I’ve ever heard carried a grain of uncertainty and a pound of patience, stemming from genuine concern for me and for doing the right thing.
Part of a Skype conversation I had with a friend of mine in Germany exemplifies what I mean. I called her after a particularly troubling therapy session several weeks ago, and we reflected on some lingering thoughts and decisions connected to my visit.
“How can I best help you?” she asked me, “Would you like to talk about solutions, how you’re feeling, something else?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “I need to think about it.”
“Okay, take your time.”
And then we waited as my face telegraphed the feelings and ideas and thoughts I sorted through. I exhaled, exploring mental and emotional spaces I now had permission to enter, all in front of someone else, and with no risk of judgment. I could say anything, be anyone — in short, I could say exactly what I was feeling and be exactly who I was — and our other conversations about physics and brains and books wouldn’t turn sour afterward.
While I wasn’t feeling suicidal at that moment, I gained an almost unshakable conviction that someone would be there if I really needed to reach out to someone.
There’s something naked, vulnerable, honest, and very human about communicating like that. Something tender ties us together when we stumble over our words, share a moment of concentrated silence together, or hesitate when speaking as we grasp for the right things to say. It communicates care and compassion, and even if you’re the best orator in the world, nobody could fault your cautious pauses and speech if you shared a moment like that with someone.
In fact, I think that’s almost unavoidable, maybe even essential. Something may change for the better when you’re done, even if you feel you and whomever you’re talking to had to trip and stumble your way to that safe place.
We’re all human: we feel pain, we feel sad, we make mistakes, and we need help. But for all of life’s pains, we redeem it all with our capacity for being genuine when it’s needed. It turns one’s knowledge of being cared for, loved, and supported into a much firmer conviction. It gives people the freedom to fly with a safety net always underneath them.
These things need our conviction. Love and compassion need our conviction. The people in our lives need our conviction. It is in this way that we can give the gifts of not just any kind of life, but a life lived securely: with less fear, more openness, and the audacity to be true to oneself.
As you reflect on ways to touch the lives of people whom you care about, I hope you can channel that conviction in whatever you do. I hope you can find that ability to do so, no matter how steady or shaky your voice may be, because it’s better to speak up for what’s right when you’re not yet 100% confident than to be silent.
As long as you’re speaking, someone can hear you. And whether your words speak out against stigma or defuse a friend’s anxieties about opening up, you could be saying something people need to hear.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).