Reaching Out is for More than Just People who are Struggling; Sometimes Being There is the Best Medi
It happens every time there’s a high-profile suicide or publicized event regarding mental illness: articles upon articles are written on every news site, blog, and Instagram account expressing grief and horror over yet another *shocking* tragedy, providing the same disillusioning statistics that show how pervasive the mental health crisis is in an effort to explain how these tragedies could happen seemingly out of the blue. The one thing that they always do is end with the message that you shouldn’t be afraid to reach out, followed by links to crisis hotlines and maybe a few online resources.
I’m not going to say that telling people to reach out and providing them with crisis hotline numbers is pointless; sharing these messages, repeatedly reminding people that they’re not alone and making sure that they know that there are resources that they can access on their own, is definitely important and helpful to many. But as someone who has experienced depression since childhood, including suicidal ideation on many occasions, I have to say, every time I read something, no matter how passionate or heartfelt it is, that ends with “if you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call … or go to your local emergency department,” it sounds a little more anonymous and impersonal. I don’t speak for everybody, the proof of that is in the fact that there are plenty of stories of hotlines helping and saving people, but I am a very introverted, self-reliant type. On a normal day I might be able to pick up a phone and do something mundane like order a pizza, but still feel quite a bit of anxiety, awkwardness, and dread in the process. Throw suicidal thoughts and the cognitive and emotional deficits that come with severe depression into the mix, and there’s no way I would ever pick up a phone and bare my soul to a stranger, even if it was the only source of the human companionship that I desperately needed in that moment. Even when someone does have the incredible amount of courage to call a hotline when they need it (which, if you do, is a huge victory in itself), ultimately, what does that achieve? Again, I’m not saying that hotlines and similar resources do nothing; they absolutely are helpful, and life-saving in many cases, and if you need help and feel like you have no one to talk to, then you should definitely consider using them.
The problem is that our media talks about them like they’re complete solutions for people who are struggling or in crisis. In reality this isn’t accurate because they don’t work for everybody and they’re only designed to be temporary solutions, meant to keep people safe or make them feel less alone until another less temporary solution, like a person who can provide help or an event that changes the circumstances, arrives and can support the person more sustainably. The reality is that anonymous, self-help resources can only take you so far. We’re social beings; we need each other, more than ever in times of mental and emotional distress. What keeps a person safe in the long-term is having people who can look out for them and physically be present to make sure that they’re okay, and one of the greatest indicators of how successful treatment for a mental health problem will be is how strong a person’s support system is. Telling someone that they’re not alone doesn’t really help them, but staying by their side, sacrificing your time and energy for them, and refusing to leave them alone forces them to believe that they’re not alone, which gives them security and safety and ultimately does help them.
Why is it so Difficult to Support Other People?
Our society tells us that we should treat mental health crises as medical emergencies, to the same extent that we do with heart attacks and traumatic injuries. Here’s a novel controversy that’s waiting to happen: maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe the reason we treat them like situations that can only be handled by professionals is that we’re used to living in a world where only professionals understand mental health and mental illness well enough to know what to do in a crisis.
That isn’t the case anymore; more and people understand mental illness, and even the goals of mental health advocacy are changing. Having experience both with mental illness and as an advocate, I’ve spent a lot of time observing the online mental health community. Two years ago the focus was on awareness, purely on informing people and sharing resources. Now, the focus has shifted from merely spreading awareness to talking about what people can actually do, politically and personally, to help others who are struggling. Following the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, online there have been the predictable messages about where and how to reach out and access resources, but there have also been a lot of people saying that simply providing hotlines is not enough, and that instead of telling people to reach out for help if they need it, we should all reach out to people that we think are struggling so that less of the responsibility and pressure is on them.
It’s easy to send someone to a doctor or to the ER. It’s a hell of a lot more time and energy-consuming to commit to personally being someone that they can rely on, but sometimes that’s the best thing that you can do for a friend who needs help. If a person is legitimately at risk of seriously hurting or killing themself, then by allmeans, a doctor is the safest bet. But believe me, sometimes when you’re in crisis you don’t need a hotline or a doctor, all you need is someone to hold you and tell you that they’ll stay by your side no matter what.
An Individualistic Society only Works if the People Believe that Acting Individualistically is Best.
In our culture we’re constantly encouraged to keep to ourselves, to “mind your own business” and to not say the tough things when “it’s not your place”. This makes us appear respectful and polite, but really all it does is separate people and support the individualistic culture that our capitalist society runs on. It definitely doesn’t support a world where we make up for each others’ weaknesses by sharing our strengths, and where we become stronger because we work together. Let’s ditch the old-school culture that says that every man (and woman) is in it for themself. Let’s stop putting the pressure and responsibility to reach out on people who are at their lowest and loneliest. No one tells us to willingly make sacrifices for other people, but like I said, we evolved to be social beings; as a human being, it is your responsibility to make sure that the people around you are safe and supported. So consider this you being told to ask the awkward questions that seem too personal and make you want to cringe. Start the conversations with people that you barely know if it seems like they may need someone.
One of the most rawly honest mental health advocates on Instagram, @positively.kate, said this a few days after Kate Spade’s death, that “our society loves to tell us that we’re overstepping”. Well, fuck being afraid of overstepping. It’s better to overstep than to understep and regret it. It’s better to reach into other people's personal spaces than to leave so much space around them that when they reach out there’s nothing close enough to grab on to. We can make the world a place where everyone has someone to rely on, but the responsibility to change things can’t solely be on the people who are most isolated. We all have a part to play in breaking down the barriers around ourselves that the world’s been teaching us to build since day one. Everyone should have someone that they can call at 4 AM in tears. Everyone should have someone who will unconditionally hug them and tell them that everything will be okay regardless of the circumstances.
Be that person for someone else, and don't be afraid to let someone be that person for you.
If You are in Crisis or Need Help:
I know that I spent half this article writing about how articles like this shouldn’t just end with anonymous lists of hotlines, but if you are struggling severely and/or are having suicidal thoughts, and you feel like you have no one to turn to or that you’re not ready to tell anyone about what you’re going through, then please consider using one. Explaining what’s on your mind out loud or in words to someone else can completely change your perspective, and it always feels surprisingly freeing when you’re not the only one who knows how you feel. Anonymous resources have the added bonus of being fairly risk-free; if you do want to leave the conversation or you say something that you wish you hadn’t, it’s easy to end the call or chat and know that you’ll never have to talk to the person on the other side again.
Our site has an extensive list of crisis links, and if looking through a list feels too overwhelming, you can also always just google resources specific to your area and needs. If speaking isn’t your thing, there are also plenty of text and live-chat options. You don’t have to be in crisis to use most of these resources; many are meant for anyone who’s in any level of distress, and there are also many that are specific to certain situations (eg. depression, anxiety, addiction, sexual assault, youth). If all of those options feel like they’re too much for you, there’s also the option of reading and maybe writing on an online forum where people share their stories. Even if you’re not comfortable sharing yours, just reading other people’s experiences can make you feel less alone and realize that you’re not the only one who feels this way. Reading other people’s responses to posts where people ask for help can help you as well.
- A good, fairly trigger-free one that includes sub-forums for a wide array of mental health problems is https://www.mentalhealthforum.net/.
- Quora has questions and answers from people in pretty much every situation regarding mental health and mental illness and is good if you want longer, more thorough posts to read.
- Reddit also has sub-forums for everything from mental illness in general, mental health in general, each individual mental illness, to even discussing suicidal thoughts. You’re much more likely to find posts that are darker and potentially triggering on Reddit compared to a mental health-specific forum, which may be a good thing or bad thing depending on your personality and state of mind, so be aware of what you need and in what ways you are vulnerable. Always err on the side of caution and when in doubt just avoid forums and sub-forums that include topics that may be triggering to you.
There are so many ways that you can share what you’re going through. I know that it’s scary, and it might seem like there’s no way that talking to another person could improve your situation, but mental illness shrouds you in isolation and makes you forget how it feels to not be alone. You never know how powerful getting everything off your chest and hearing someone else’s view can be. If you feel like you have nothing to lose, then it can’t hurt to try.