Changing the conversation about suicide

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or addiction crisis or emotional distress, contact the 24/7 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at to connect you with a trained crisis counsellor. You can also get crisis text support through the crisis text line by texting NAMI on 741741.

Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death overall in the United States – and 90% of people who die by suicide may have had symptoms of a mental health problem, according to interviews with family, friends and friends. health professionals.

These statistics are staggering and, along with my personal experience of suicide loss, have inspired me to reflect on how our cultural understanding and mental health advocacy needs to change.

The problem with savior culture

Maybe you have heard the story of a boy or a girl who emptied their school locker because they were determined to kill themselves that day. But, according to the story, a friend helped them carry their things and this friend saved them from getting hurt or ending their lives.

This story is quite inaccurate because it assumes that an easy fix can solve a mental health problem, it distorts the seriousness of mental illness, and it minimizes the resources available that can help someone who is suffering from suicidal thoughts. Most notably, the story never addresses or resolves the reason for the student’s suicidal ideation – which was triggered by bullying at school. It is one of many possible journeys and only one of many outcomes. Mental health and people are much more complex.

While this story highlights the power of support, it does not reflect the reality of many people struggling with serious mental illness and suicidal ideation. The “savior culture” is a reductionist approach. It doesn’t serve anyone who needs mental health support, nor does it allow us to imagine the range of possibilities that actually exist to get the help someone needs – depending on what what she wants to access or what she has access to. . Assuming that the smallest of actions will “fix the problem” ignores the struggle of a person who suffers day in and day out, and it limits the options a loved one can take to offer help to someone suffering from a serious mental illness.

Major depression, for example, doesn’t necessarily sound like that schoolboy story; it’s more than a bad day, and it takes more than a kind gesture to deal with it. And, even further, there is a range of lived experiences that fall under what major depression can look like for someone – so the level of severity is not fixed, just like there is no fixed solutions – this makes mental health professionals and various resources essential in the process.

My experience with loss by suicide

When I lost two dear people to suicide in a short time, my friend Mike and my cousin Lou, I started thinking about mental health more than ever before. I remembered the story of the student. I wondered what I could have done to prevent their deaths. I related what I was doing during their final stages. The record played countless times in my head as I thought about how they could have been here “if only” I had done something different.

What I have learned since then is that this self-blame has simply ignored all the effort they have made (and the efforts also made by others) to try to manage their sanity and reality at the daily. We need to stop this record from playing – it downplays the seriousness of the issue at hand and doesn’t fully appreciate the struggle and pain that someone with mental illness faces and deals with every day.

It also got me thinking about what I could do to move forward to raise awareness, research what resources are available and how we can better access them and share them with others. I thought about how we might better understand the journey of people with mental illness, and ours, as friends and family, who want to help them through the process.

Look beyond the one size fits all

According to the CDC, suicide rates increased by 30% between 2000 and 2018, with non-Hispanic Native American or Alaska Native men and non-Hispanic white men having some of the highest suicide rates in the United States. Middle-aged adults (ages 35 to 64) are also among the most vulnerable groups. And while we know these trends, no one whose life has ended in suicide is just a statistic.

So how can we humanize who we talk to and ensure people have adequate access to mental health care? How can we use what we know to change the way we talk about mental health? How can changing the narrative impact reality?

Open dialogue is only useful if we can share the truth. We can start talking about the reality of depression as it is, a legitimate medical condition that causes sadness, loss of interest, and potentially a feeling that life isn’t worth living. It’s a condition, not a weakness, that usually requires long-term mental health treatment.

When it comes to “our role” in changing the reality of suicide and mental health, you can sign up and advocate for structural changes and greater support for access to mental health.

With regard to our own personal interactions with someone who needs or seeks mental health assistance, here are some suggestions:

  • Talk to people respectfully and in a comfortable space
  • Ease in conversation
  • Keep a calm and relaxed tone
  • Be direct and stay on topic
  • Be respectful, compassionate and empathetic
  • Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements
  • Give them the opportunity to talk
  • Offer them support and connect them to resources if you think they need it.
  • Keep in mind that people are different in their reception of information and their needs.

If you or someone you know needs help, there are many professional resources that could help you, including NAMI, SMI Advisor, and others. The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health is also a wonderful resource to help you see that you are not alone.

I write this article in loving memory of my friend Michael J. “Mike” Malinowski and my cousin Lutfi “Lou” Mukhar. Each were beloved sons, brothers, friends, uncles, nephews, cousins ​​and more. I could still hear Mike’s laughter ringing in my ear even years after he left this earth. And I’ll never forget the way Lou endearingly called me “cousin.”

Dr. Claudia Youakim is a sociologist and DEI expert who focuses on building inclusive systems through evidence-based research and policy reform. She is originally from Chicago and currently resides in Washington, D.C. You can follow her on Twitter @cyou824

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