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If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, help is out there. Reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

When it comes to difficult situations, how do you know what to say without hurting anyone? Most people learn by repeating phrases they’ve seen others use. What we see in the news, widely spread to millions, might seem OK to use every day.

But for issues like assault or suicide, it can send a message to our friends that we’re not their ally.

“Why was I not the sort of person, or why was I not seen as the sort of person, that these women could feel comfortable confiding in? I see this as a personal failing.”

When Anthony Bourdain said this, it was about #MeToo and the women in his life: Why didn’t they feel safe confiding in him? His takeaway was radical. He didn’t point fingers at women or the system.

Instead, he realized their decision to stay silent was more a commentary on his character. Or, more specifically, a sign that the way he’d been conducting himself signaled to women that he wasn’t safe or trustworthy.

I’ve thought a lot about his assessment since he said it and since he’s passed. It made me give more thought about how words are mirrors, how they reflect the values of the speaker, and whom I could confide in.

Many, including my parents and friends whom I’ve known for 10-plus years, don’t make the list.

“What have I [done], how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence, or why was I not the sort of person people would see as a natural ally here? So I started looking at that.” — Anthony Bourdain

When things go dark for me, I won’t remember the laughter they brought. Only echoes of their opinion on suicide: “That’s so selfish” or “If you’re stupid enough to start taking [that Big Pharma] medication, I’ll stop being your friend.” The memory replays every time they check in with a “What’s up, how are you?”

Sometimes I lie, sometimes I tell half-truths, but never the full truth. Most of the time, I just don’t respond until the depressive spell is over.

Words have meaning beyond their definition. They contain a history, and through repeated use in our daily lives, they become social contracts, mirroring our values and the internal rules we expect to live by.

It’s not so different from “the waiter rule”: the belief that personality is revealed by the way one treats staff or service workers. This rule is not so different when it comes to talking about suicide and depression.

Not every word can be taken back easily — or in time

Some words are rooted so deeply in negative stigmas that the only way to avoid their meaning is to not use them. One of the easiest switches we can make is to avoid using adjectives. Other than giving your condolences, there’s no reason to have an opinion on someone’s suicide. And there’s no reason to contextualize or describe it, especially as a news outlet.

As suicidologist Samuel Wallace wrote, “All suicide is neither abhorrent nor not; insane or not; selfish or not; rational or not; justifiable or not.”

Never describe suicide as

  • selfish
  • stupid
  • cowardly or weak
  • a choice
  • a sin (or that the person is going to hell)

This stems from the academic argument that suicide is a result, not a choice. Thus, most suicidologists agree that suicide isn’t a decision or act of free will.

DOES MENTAL ILLNESS TAKE AWAY FREE WILL?In the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, mental illness has a component of “loss of freedom.” In the most recent edition, “loss of freedom” has been changed to a disability, or “impairment in one or more important areas of functioning.” This is said to include the criteria of “one or more losses of freedom.” In his essay “Free Will and Mental Disorder,” Gerben Meynen argues that a component of having a mental disorder is that a person’s ability to choose alternatives is taken away.

In her sensitive essay for the New York Post, Bridget Phetasy wrote about growing up in an environment where talk of suicide was common. She writes, “[W]hat living with someone who threatened suicide really did more than anything was made it seem like an option.”

For those in a suicidal mindset, we must understand that suicide comes across as the last and only option. It’s a baldfaced lie. But when you’re in that much emotional and physical pain, when it comes in cycles and each cycle feels like the worst, relief from it — no matter how — looks like an escape.

“How I longed to be free; free of my body, my pain, my anguish. That stupid meme was whispering sweet nothings to the part of my brain that was telling me that the only solution to my problems — was death. Not just the only solution — the best solution. It was a lie, but at the time, I believed it.” — Bridget Phetasy, for the New York Post

You can’t promise anyone it gets better

Suicide doesn’t discriminate. Depression doesn’t hit a person once and leaves when circumstances or environments change. The allure of having an escape through death doesn’t leave just because someone becomes rich or achieves lifelong goals.

If you want to tell someone that it gets better, consider if you’re making a promise you can’t keep. Are you living in their mind? Can you see the future and take away their pain before it comes?

The pain that comes is unpredictable. So is where they’ll be in life two weeks, a month, or three years down the road. Telling someone it gets better can cause them to compare one episode to the next. When nothing improves overtime, it could lead to thoughts like, “It’ll never get better.”

But even though some may believe that death in itself isn’t better, the messages they share, especially about celebrities, say otherwise. As Phetasy mentioned, after Robin Williams passed, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posted an “Aladdin” meme saying, “Genie, you’re free.

This sends mixed messages.

Death as freedom can be ableistDepending on the context and reference, “freedom” can be seen as ableist and a spur on those living with disabilities. In the case of famed physicist Stephen Hawking, many tweeted he was free of his physical body. This encourages the idea that having a disability is a “trapped” body.

In the context of suicide, it reinforces the message that there’s no escape but death. If you buy into this language and use it, it continues the cycle that death is the best solution.

Even if you don’t understand all the nuances around language, there are questions you can ask to keep yourself in check.

Instead of repeating what someone else has said, first ask yourself

  • What idea of “normal” am I reinforcing?
  • Will it affect whether or not my friends come to me for help?
  • How does it make me feel if they don’t trust me to help them?

Let the desire to be a safe haven for your loved ones guide your words

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 34. It’s grown more than 30 percent since 1999.

And children are increasingly facing mental health issues:

Mental health statistics

  • 17.1 million children under 18 have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder
  • 60 percent of youth have depression
  • 9,000 (estimated) shortage of practicing school psychologists

And this will continue to grow, exponentially at this rate, because there’s no promise it can get better. There’s no telling where healthcare is going. Therapy is highly inaccessible and unaffordable for as many as 5.3 million Americans. It may continue to be so if we keep the conversation static.

In the meantime, what we can do is lighten the burden of those we love when we can. We can change how we talk about mental health and those affected by it. Even if we don’t know someone affected by suicide, we can mind the words we use.

You don’t have to live with depression to show kindness, nor do you need to personally experience loss.

You might not even have to say anything at all. The willingness to listen to each other’s stories and problems is essential to human connection.

 

“Laugher is not our medicine. Stories are our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine.” — Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette”

 

The compassion we carry for the people we barely know will send a bigger message to the people you love, a person who you may not know is struggling.

Reminder: Mental illness isn’t a superpower

Being able to wake up every day while the world inside your head falls apart doesn’t always feel like a strength. It’s a struggle that gets harder with time as the body ages and we have less control over our health.

Sometimes we get too tired of carrying ourselves, and we need to know it’s OK. We don’t have to be “on” 100 percent of the time.

But when a celebrity, or someone revered, dies by suicide, it can be hard for someone going through depression to remember that. They might not have the capacity to battle inner self-doubts and demons.

It’s not a thing the people you love should carry on their own. Seeing if they need help isn’t in any way overdoing care.

As Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby so eloquently put in her recent Netflix special “Nanette,” “Do you know why we have the ‘Sunflowers’? It’s not because Vincent van Gogh suffered [from a mental illness]. It’s because Vincent van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world.”

Be someone’s connection to the world.

One day someone won’t text back. It’s OK to show up at their door and check in.

Otherwise, we’ll lose more in silence and to silence.


Welcome to “How to Be Human,” a series on empathy and how to put people first. Differences shouldn’t be crutches, no matter what box society has drawn for us. Come learn about the power of words and celebrate people’s experiences, no matter their age, ethnicity, gender, or state of being. Let’s elevate our fellow humans through respect.