Words We Can't Use When Talking About Suicide

On Tuesday while I was at a doctor’s appointment a health professional asked me what I do for a living. I told her I am a mental health counselor. I was pretty surprised that the very first thing she said then was, “Wow. (pause) Man, I knew Robin Williams struggled with drug problems, but I didn’t know he was also crazy...” Crazy?! Are we really still using that word? Even medical professionals? WHEW. I could not restrain my large, eye-popping reaction at first, but quickly composed my face so I could follow up a little more delicately. “It sounds like you’ve never been close to someone who’s openly struggled with depression or committed suicide.” That was the best middle-of-the-road answer I could come up with under such appalling circumstances.

Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam"

I know it’s only the first week, but it breaks my heart that the first thing that pops up in a search engine when I start typing Mr Williams’s name is “Are you searching for... ‘Robin Williams suicide’?” The sad reality is that, for a time yet, the circumstances of his death is what people will first think of when they hear his name. Not his incredible, kinetic comedy brilliance. Not his passion and depth of heart. Not his moving performances. Not even that he struggled with gripping depression. My hope is, however, that we will force ourselves to remember these other things as who he really was.

People who commit suicide are in an amount of pain that can only be described as living hell, I think. Or maybe that description isn’t strong enough. Some other words that come to mind: Trapped. Already dead. Darkness. Alone. Judged. I was so refreshed to read one article in the Huffington Post (amidst the many damaging posts out there this week) that I felt did suicide some justice. Thank you, Katie Hurley, for writing this. Her article is called “There’s Nothing Selfish About Suicide,” and it's immediately obvious in her article that she is a suicide survivor – meaning, someone close to her committed suicide.  She shares some of her own experience of and wisdom about suicide and does so with both truth and practicality. Here's an excerpt:

People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors. It's selfish to leave children, spouses and other family members behind, so they say. They're not thinking about the survivors, or so they would have us believe. What they don't know is that those very loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases. But the soul-crushing depression that envelops them leaves them feeling like there is no alternative. Like the only way to get out is to opt out. And that is a devastating thought to endure. [...] Until you've stared down that level of depression, until you've lost your soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness... you don't get to make those judgments. You might not understand it, and you are certainly entitled to your own feelings, but making those judgments and spreading that kind of negativity won't help the next person. In fact, it will only hurt others.

Hurley’s article made me ponder why we sometimes allow ourselves to judge extremely heavy things such as suicide (especially when we have little to no experience with them) instead of letting them sober us as they should. I want to keep considering what these reasons might be, but I think one might be this: It makes us feel safer to judge things like suicide and depression than to think even for one second we could ever suffer under that level of dark heaviness. Judgement gives us false power and the illusion that we’re above things that we, in fact, never could be. We’ve fallen too far from the understanding the statement, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Judgment is not a healing balm, nor will it allow us to move forward as co-humans, blood brothers, a kind of community. And as a community of co-humans it might make much more sense to at least try to have fewer judgments for each other and, instead, more common enemies (i.e., depression, addiction, any form of prejudice, hatred, oppression, etc). Because, let's be honest: underneath it all, we’re the same. I don't have any more "right" to be outside the clutches of life-threatening depression any more than I have the "right" to not get cancer. I can do everything in my power to try to stay healthy, but some things aren't in my power and that doesn't make me better than a person who is struggling with depression.

Hurley’s Huffington Post article ends with some inspiring and simple advice. “You can help,” she writes. (I’m going to paste excerpts here in case you never read the article!) Here are a few ways ANYONE can help (emphasis below, mine):

Know the warning signs for suicide. 50-75% of people who attempt suicide will tell someone about their intention. Listen when people talk. Make eye contact. Convey empathy. And for the love of people everywhere, put down that ridiculous not-so-SmartPhone and be human.

Check in on friends struggling with depression. Even if they don't answer the phone or come to the door, make an effort to let them know that you are there. Friendship isn't about saving lost souls; friendship is about listening and being present.

Reach out to survivors of suicide. Practice using the words "suicide" and "depression" so that they roll off the tongue as easily as "unicorns" and "bubble gum." Listen as they tell their stories. Hold their hands. Be kind with their hearts. And hug them every single time.

Encourage help. Learn about the resources in your area so that you can help friends and loved ones in need. Don't be afraid to check in over and over again. Don't be afraid to convey your concern. One human connection can make a big difference in the life of someone struggling with mental illness and/or survivor's guilt.

30,000 people commit suicide in the United States each year. 750,000 people attempt suicide. It's time to raise awareness, increase empathy and kindness, and bring those numbers down.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.