On our Words, Depression and Suicide
I don’t want to make it a habit of posting more than once a week, partly because I’m lazy and don’t want to set a precedent for myself and also because I don’t suffer under the delusion that every single thought that comes to my mind needs to be put out there for the world to see. But this is an exception so bear with me or skip on over me. In just the span of 48 hours, the discussion surrounding mental illness, depression and suicide has exploded.
I spent much of the day discussing/venting with a close, and patient, friend the ignorant things that I have heard people say, the impassioned responses I wanted to make, while also claiming that I did not want to contribute to a conversation that was discussing the issue and losing sight of the fact that a person, a real, live person with a family and friends and wounds and hurts, was now lost forever from the world. I think when we start “theorizing” the topic, especially so quickly after someone’s death, it can lead to some unkind or unhelpful or uninformed words, which I saw was in no short supply. So with this in mind, not offering an alternative to the things I have seen circulating around didn’t seem like a viable option either.
However, my point is not to give a critique of some of the more popular thoughts, especially from Christians, that came out over the past few days (I will however, provide links at the bottom to some very good responses) that I thought were abusive and damaging, my goal in this is straightforward and simple, to bring to your attention things to consider when discussing mental illness and suicide. This is not a very creative bit of writing so my apologies, if that’s what you’re in the mood for then skip to the end as I have compiled a few posts on the topic that are gorgeously, and vulnerably written- if you skip out on anything skip out on my post and go to theirs.
1) Consider your words carefully. Mental illness, despite the incredible strides in the past few decades, still has a stigma, especially in some Christian circles. When we talk about this it is very important to not only consider what we say, but how we say it. I think some Christians have gotten so sensitive to anything they consider “PC” or pandering to people’s sensitivities that they dismiss any attempt to discuss the way something is presented as opposed to just what is being said. I say, “Suck it up” when people’s lives are at risk, when silence could mean the difference between life and death for someone struggling, tailor your words carefully so that there is room to break the silence. Don’t use shaming language, don’t call people who have committed suicide “cowardly” or “weak”, I promise you that does not help people secretly struggling with depression or suicidal thought. Consider if a friend heard your words, would they consider you’re a safe person to talk to about their depression?
2) Don’t romanticize. Sure, I shared with one friend the “Genie, you’re free” picture circulating merely because it nostalgically hearkened back to a beloved childhood character. And I knew this friend would know this. I did not share it on Twitter or FB or with anyone else simply because I don’t like that it presented suicide as the actual solution. Similarly, I have a distaste for a lot of young adult fiction, movies and songs that romanticize this notion of “dying young” for teens and adolescents, as if dying achieves some sort of notoriety or it is the way to leave an impression on the world. But, for those suffering from depression, the choice of suicide is NOT usually based on this romanticized view of suicide. Anyone who’s spoken with someone with depression or with suicidal thoughts will tell you that, for many people suffering it does feel like the best option if the choices are die or live with unbearable pain. And this isn’t always rational. But that is one of the effects of mental illness; it can skew your entire perception on reality. So weight your words with grace, but that is not the same as romanticizing what suicide achieves.
3) Don’t normalize your experience. It is very easy for people who have lived through depression to normalize what has helped them heal or what is helping them heal. This is extremely dangerous, especially if you are giving advice to someone who is suicidal or suffering from depression. You can empathize and even share your story, this can provide solidarity and communicate to the person that they are not alone and that they have nothing to be ashamed of. But, if not done carefully, this can pose the risk of thrusting your solutions onto someone else or make the person you are speaking with feel weak because maybe what worked for you did not work for them. Some people experience a relief from depression by merely adding breakfast and exercise to their day, but not all depressions are the same, some people need counseling, some people need medication, some may even need hospitalization. THAT’S OKAY.
One of the absolute worst things you can do is presume that your experience with depression is the same as someone else and I saw a lot of that going around these last few days. I have heard a lot of people say, “Well I know how he felt, I was depressed, I’ve been there but I didn’t kill myself.” This is incredibly derailing, insensitive and presumptuous. As I said, sharing a story, even a story of success when entered into discerningly, can be very helpful, shaming the person for handling depression and suicidal thoughts different from you is hurtful and damaging.
4) Don’t try to be a mental health professional (Psychiatrists, psychologist, counselor etc…) if you aren’t one. I don’t mean this in a snobby elitist way, I just don’t think anyone should pretend to have the knowledge, training and expertise to do something when they don’t have them in reality. No one should trust me to do open-heart surgery or fix a car either.
But relationships are extremely important in the lives of those depressed and suicidal, as isolation and hiding serves to perpetuate the problem. If you are a trusted friend to someone dealing with this then you can be of incredible good to them. If you are one of those people that someone has trusted their feelings to you can:
• Listen and take seriously what the person is saying without trying to derail or butt in. Don’t dismiss what they are saying. If you don’t understand you can ask questions but don’t get frustrated if they don’t know either. Depression is not always rational, and the depressed person may even be aware of that, so if you’re frustrated trying to understand, imagine how they feel.
• Say words that recognize the pain and the feelings of hurt and despair without attempting to negate them or convince the person what they are feeling is wrong. Believe me, most of the people suffering from depression have been trying to convince themselves “it gets better” for a while.
• Maintain healthy boundaries. The problem with attempting to be a friend and a counselor is that they are too very different relationships. Friends are more available, friendship is mutual, friendship is give and take, and if you try and make a friendship into a counseling relationship chances are you will get burned out and it often kills the friendship. The friend attempting to be a counselor will easily get exhausted with the friend who treats them like a counselor. Those in helping professions have been trained in effective ways to help someone process their problems without them becoming a burden for the them. They have been trained in appropriate self-care and, very importantly, to recognize if they are in over their heads and know when to refer someone to someone else more qualified.
5) If you feel as though it has gone past depression and thoughts of suicide to an immediate danger you should take immediate action. This could include telling an adult in the case of a minor, calling their mental health professional if they have one, or calling 911 or an emergency room. You may be wrong, they may not do it, but don’t worry about that, the most important thing is doing what you can to keep that person alive.
6) If you are a pastor or work at a church then attempt to partner or communicate with local counselors or counseling agencies in your area. If you have the means and the resources, perhaps look at having a counselor on your church staff. This could do enormous good for your church by 1) communicating to the congregation that you take mental health seriously and want to help those people in your congregation suffering from it, 2)it allows you to fight the stigma and shame that many Christians associate with mental health issues and 3) it allows the pastors to be pastors and not have to take on a role that they are not prepared or trained for.
7) Christians, don’t tie depression to the state of someone’s faith. Yes, I am more sad when my walk with God is not where it should be, I even have physical manifestations like weariness and fatigues and exhausting. I believe a great of my emotional health is maintained by keeping my walk with Jesus vibrant and active. I also am not going to say, “don’t spiritualize” this because I do think it’s spiritual, but I think everything is spiritual. I don’t believe that we are two opposing halves with the things that affect the body being physical and the things that affect the mind as spiritual, because they are intimately connected, deeply impacted by each other. And I think both have been deeply, deeply altered by a world that has fallen. Sin has come into the world so our bodies and minds are subject to death, decay and disruption. Our minds, our perception of reality, how our brain process and relays information, all of that is impacted by the fall as much as our physical, visible bodies.
However, this does not meet that if someone is depressed that they do not have faith, or that they need more faith. There are good, Jesus loving believers who have prayed, studied, wept, brought their concerns to fellow Christians for prayer and have remained faithful to their church and have felt no relief from the effects of depression (Read Megan’s beautiful words here). These same Christians may then go to a mental health professional and be put on the right dose of antidepressants and find relief. This is not unchristian and this does not undermine God. In the same way aspirin interacts with your brain to change how it is perceiving a source of pain, antidepressants and other mental health medications interact with your brain and helps a person manage the pain of their mental illness.
It’s easy to say “joy” is the solution to depression, but for those whose depression has met such intense agonizing levels that joy is impossible, such thoughtless, simple solutions thrown around carelessly mean absolutely nothing. It’s easy to say “just keep an eternal perspective” but you know, I lose my eternal perspective…multiple times in a day. And I am so grateful that I am no one of the people who suffer so much that in that brief moment of “losing the eternal perspective”, feel as if there is no other choice. And if your definition of joy leaves no room for depression, reconsider what you are communicating to Christians suffering from depression.
Furthermore, when suicide happens, when someone does make that awful, gut-wrenching, soul-crushing choice, don’t paint them as a petulant child who “refused” to see beauty and hope. While it’s possible that this occurs, most people who commit suicide aren’t holding their hands over their ears and closing their eyes and stomping their feet in refusal to see the good, often they have spent their life desperate for relief, desperate to see beauty and feel happiness and joy but because of their mind, because of their illness, whether caused by genetics, environment or a particularly circumstance, or a combination of all three, they just can’t see it. This is not removing responsibility, this is not saying its “okay,” this is not “romanticizing” it, it’s wrestling and attempting to understand the deep complexity of emotions at play in a situation like this. It’s attempting to understand the mind of someone who is crushed under the weight of mental illness and understand that, for them it’s not simply a choice between living or dying, if it were that simple no one would choose suicide. For those suffering, it’s often a choice between dying or living with unrelenting pain.”
David Foster Wallace said of suicide:
““The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” (Ann Voskamp describes her depression in a similar way, and it’s absolutely heart-rending)
I’m don’t think we should overlook the terrible effects of suicide, not only is a person gone but there are those left behind and the effects are devastating for them. For those left behind, the grief is twofold, between the feelings that come with loss and the feeling of knowing that it wasn’t an accident. Suicide is horrible, it’s a disruption of God’s hope and plan for the world, and as such damages everything it touches. I don’t want to understate that. And I am by no means saying it is the right choice, I will constantly be working to help people keep those feelings at bay that tell them they are in a flaming building. I want to be a person who runs into those flames and says, “No, it’s not the flames or the the jump. Look here’s another way.” But calling the decision cowardly, calling the person selfish not only doesn’t help those who are grieving, it doesn’t help with prevention. If the best reason you can give for someone to choose to live is how they will be perceived after death, then you’re doing it wrong and don’t really have a place in this conversation.
It’s complicated, I get that. I just ask that everyone, especially my fellow Christians, treat it as the complicated issue it is instead of making broad, sweeping generalizing statements founded in nothing except your own personal experience. I am asking that you sit down and listen to someone suffering from depression before you attempt to speak to the “solution” for depression.
To those suffering with depression, know that you are loved and your story is important and your voice is important. Don’t let because you don’t want to be seen as a “selfish, weak coward” be the reason you go on existing, because you’re worth more than that. You aren’t alone, and this, this thing that’s eating away at you and taking a toll one every part of your life, it is not because you are evil. Don’t be ashamed to get help. If you’ve tried to be happy and tried to will yourself out of sadness all to no avail, it does not mean you’re weak. Seek help, and know that you are dearly loved.
National Suicide Hotline- 1-800-273-8255
Also, my experiences with depression have been circumstantial and lasting about 3 months, which is why this post was less story and more informative. I am getting trained as a counselor now, but even with that training I still believe there is so much hope to be had in knowing you are not alone. Below I have linked some beautiful words spoken by people who have been there and just want to express solidarity with those in the world battling mental illness.