Confession, I’ve called a suicide hotline. It was an experiment really. After all, I’ve posted countless blogs and articles that end with the reassuring directive: if you are having suicidal thoughts, blah blah blah. I wanted to see what actually happened when the call connected.
I was put on hold. And in the moments I waited to talk to a live human trained to listen as I bore my soul, I lost my nerve and hung up. But it got me to thinking.
Before my husband, Bill, completed suicide in 2012, did he consider calling a suicide hotline? Did the thought of talking to a perfect – albeit professional – stranger about the demons in his head even cross his mind? My guess is no.
The last few months of his life are a blur for me, but I do remember the darkness that clung to Bill like a thick fog. It was as if he was running but couldn’t escape. Now I understand why; he was running from himself. Although he’d changed greatly by the time he died, the Bill I knew would never have dialed that 800-number. He was proud. He was stubborn. Calling a hotline would have been an admission of weakness; he would have finally accepted that there was something wrong he couldn’t fix. In short, he would have felt like a loser.
The last line of defense
Don’t get me wrong, as a nation, we have a need for suicide hotlines. Today, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The high-profile suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade earlier this year caused a surge in hotline calls, and there’s no doubt callers have received help and hope from the caring professionals on the other end of the line.
But suicide hotlines should be the last resort – the last line of defense in a united effort to remove the stigma from mental illness and prevent suicide. Bill wouldn’t have called the hotline for the same reason I hung up so quickly. There’s something so mechanical and impersonal about it, like calling the operator or the receptionist at a utility company. The professional on the other end might be credentialed and trained, and there’s no doubt he or she can offer sound advice. The problem is, when people are suffering in the kind of darkness Bill was, only love can penetrate it – if it’s not too late already.
Prevention starts here
When I reflect on what I could have done differently to save my husband – something I do far more often than is healthy – I realize prevention is never a last-minute endeavor. It starts long before there’s a bottle of pills on the table or a gun in your loved one’s hand. Today, my life’s mission is to make sure no one I love is ever desperate enough to call a hotline number.
This is an ambitious goal, but it’s one the nation desperately needs to work toward. Suicide prevention starts with education and acceptance. I’ve found the most effective way to talk to someone suffering from mental illness is to make sure they know depression is a disease – just like diabetes or cancer. It’s not a weakness, and it’s not something to hide from your friends and loved ones due to shame or embarrassment.
There is hope in this simple statement because, as with other diseases, there are treatments available that can provide relief for depression and other mental illnesses.
While education is essential in preventing suicide, love is absolutely critical. Sometimes, what you say doesn’t matter nearly as much as the love and concern you convey. If you’re concerned about a friend or a loved one, talk to them. Look them in the eyes, give them hugs, invite them for coffee, stop by to check in – just let them know you’re there. Don’t ask how you can help. Just help. When they need a professional, take them to that first appointment. Wait for them there. Then do it all over again. And again and again.
Prevention doesn’t start with a stranger on the line of an 800-number. It starts with you. It starts with me. And it starts today. For more information on suicide prevention, visit www.thegriefgirl.com.
SEPTEMBER 10th - WORLD SUICIDE PREVENTION DAY
There are three words we don’t say often enough – and I’m not talking about ‘I love you.’ In the six years I’ve spent wondering how – or if – I could have stopped my husband’s suicide, I’ve realized there was one question I didn’t ask often enough: Are you okay?
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not attempting to oversimplify a despairingly complex topic, nor am I blaming myself for my husband’s decision to throw himself in front of an oncoming train. In the aftermath of this tragedy, I realized suicide prevention isn’t about hotlines and healthcare reform (although those topics should certainly be addressed). Suicide prevention is about knowing how to start a conversation with someone at risk.
Removing the stigma
I get it. It’s hard to talk about suicide. But avoiding hard conversations will never save lives. In fact, advocates for mental health agree that the first step in abolishing the stigma surrounding mental illness is to talk about it. Discussing these issues is the only way for us to realize that we’re all more alike than we are different. According to National Institute of Mental Health, one in four Americans experiences a mental health disorder every year. Additionally, nearly 7 percent of Americans reported experiencing a major depressive episode in 2016 alone. Even with number like this, those suffering may still feel incredibly alone – and hopelessly lost. That’s why starting an open, candid conversation is the best way to help a loved one suffering from mental illness or considering suicide.
What to say
How do you start what could potentially be the most important conversation of your loved one’s life? Well, you stop thinking about it like that. It’s easy to become overwhelmed at the idea of finding exactly the right words or offering the perfect advice. But in most cases, what you say doesn’t really matter all that much. What does matter is that your friend understands you’re there to listen – with love and without judgment. If you still don’t know what to say, try starting with this simple question:
R U OK?
There’s a reason this is the title of my book about teenage depression and suicide. As I’ve spoken to those suffering from depression or other mental illnesses, I’ve realized that sometimes, the best treatment is a genuine friend asking a genuine question of concern. As you talk, keep your questions open-ended, nonjudgmental and filled with love. Try asking:
Is there anything you want to tell me about what you’re thinking or feeling?
Is there anything I can do to help?
Would you like some company for a while?
Have you told your doctor how you’re feeling?
Can I give you a hug?
Do you understand I’ll always be here for you because I care so much about you?
Do you know how much I love you?
Do you understand that depression is an illness, just like heart disease, and can be treated?
Will you let me help you get the help you deserve?
Your commitment of unconditional help and support should be just that – a commitment. For someone suffering from depression, trust can be difficult. That’s why it’s critical to follow through on the support you’ve promised. If you ever feel ill-equipped to help, or are worried about your loved one’s immediate safety, don’t waste time wondering what to do: get them to an emergency room immediately.
Knowing the warning signs and risk factors for suicide can help you determine when to seek professional help.
For more information on mental illness and suicide, visit www.thegriefgirl.com.
As a parent, you know the importance of having “the big talk” with your kids. But today, sex isn’t the only tough conversation your teens need you to lead. Whether you realize it or not, teens are confronted with complex issues like mental illness and suicide every day, and it’s taking its toll on our youth.
You know suicide rates are on the rise – particularly among teens. The suicide rate for teen girls alone has doubled since 2007, according to the CDC. This isn’t helped by the fact that mental illness and suicide are so difficult to understand – let alone to discuss with a teenager.
It’s something I never expected to talk to teens about, either. But after my husband, Bill, completed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train in 2012, I’ve made it my life’s mission to help those at risk for or considering suicide to find help. As parents, you’re on the front lines in helping your child get the information and resources he or she needs. These three conversations allow you to do just that.
“The talk” about depression
After years of trying understand the “why” behind my husband’s suicide, I’ve come to two very important conclusions. First, I may never understand exactly why someone would take their own life, because I’ll never understand exactly what reality looks like or feels like for that person. Secondly, suicide never happens in a vacuum. That’s why any discussion on suicide should address the “big picture” – all those elements that play into the decision to complete suicide. Depression isn’t just a risk factor for suicide, it’s a cause. The fact of the matter is that depression isn’t generally on the teenage radar; your child could be suffering without even knowing it. That could lead to slow self-esteem, thoughts of self-injury, suicide ideation and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. Your child needs to know that depression is as real as diabetes or cancer – and that it can be treated.
“The talk” about mental illness
To this day, my husband’s parents can’t accept that their son completed suicide. Instead, they hold onto the idea that his death was an accident. As a society, we have carefully protected the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide. Bill’s life may have turned out quite differently had the idea of getting help for his mental illness (including addiction and depression) not been so shameful. That’s the terrible power of a stigma; it keeps those who need help from getting it. When we talk to our teens about mental illness, we give them permission to be human; to recognize when something “isn’t right” and to ask for help. Make sure your child knows that no matter how they feel, it’s okay (and even encouraged) to talk about it. Understanding that mental illness is just that – an illness—can also instill in your child a healthy sense of empathy, something that can save a life in itself.
“The talk” about suicide
As I’ve witnessed news report after news report detailing the suicide of a celebrity or a young person, I’m always alarmed by the level of detail paid to everything except what really matters – where someone can go if they feel at risk. This is where parents need to step in and offer their children the information and resources that aren’t being splashed across the news with every sad story. Talking about suicide shouldn’t be depressing. It should be filled with hope! It should be focused on help and support, not on statistics and shocking headlines. Your child should know that there is help available, and that you’re the first place to go when they need it.
Hopelessness is debilitating. So often, people live in sadness or contemplate suicide because they don’t know where to turn – or who to talk to. Sometimes, asking a simple question, like “Are you okay?” can open the door to a lifesaving conversation. Talking to your kids about suicide is important – it’s critical. But that doesn’t mean you should be doing all the talking. Your goal isn’t just to share information; it’s also to open the doors of uncensored communication. If your child can leave the conversation with just one takeaway, it’s that they can talk to you about anything, anytime.
My book, “R U OK: Teen Depression and Suicide” helps show parents and teens how to structure those important, lifesaving conversations. To request a copy, visit www.thegriefgirl.com.
by Kristi Hugstad
Each of us has attached ourselves to something or somebody, and when you lose that special thing or person, you grieve. Always. You can try to run from it all you want, but it will always find you and tackle you when you’re not looking. My blogs, along with my books, will give you the tools to help you learn to live with your new self as you journey through your grief.