By Jennifer Sikora (Part 1 of 2):
When I think about my sister Chrissy who died from suicide in 2001, I still to this day quietly scold her: “Why didn’t you talk to me? To anyone?” If only she spoke up, and if only I thought to ask.
For those personally struggling: It can be difficult to ask for help, or to admit that you need help for psychological pain. It is still more the norm to talk about physical ailments versus mental ones. If you accidentally chop off your hand (okay, I know it’s an extreme example), you’d rush to the ER for fear of death from blood loss. Likewise, if you are in so much psychological pain that you can’t imagine taking another breath or continuing for another day, you should rush to the ER for fear of death from suicide.
As we have seen in survey statistics, there’s near-universal consensus that if someone speaks up with thoughts of suicide, the person hearing or reading that will try to do their best to take action to help. At this time, words and the ability to verbalize are more important than ever.
If you are having such thoughts, or feel like your mental state is taking you on that path, immediately talk to someone you trust and to a healthcare professional. Don’t gloss things over or downplay your personal truth. And don’t just speak up once. Definitely don’t settle if their reaction is less than helpful. Use words to fight for yourself and for your life, and keep using them until you are getting the care you need.
Also, talk about how you are feeling every step of the way and whether a treatment is working, not feeling quite right or making things worse. I too have taken up my own battle with depression combined with acute and severe anxiety, and I know personally that the journey to getting better can sometimes be a slow and frustrating experience. But having come out of that time of illness in my life, I can say the fight was well worth it. Communication throughout your crisis and throughout the healing process is of utmost importance.
For those on the other side of this conversation, who might be faced with someone verbalizing about suicidal thoughts, you may wonder, “What do I do? What can I do?” The most important thing initially is to not judge them or stigmatize or shame them, but to be sympathetic, validating of their feelings and to urge them to get professional help immediately. Stay with them if possible until they can get that help, or make sure someone else can if you are not able to. Be supportive to them and communicate to them your hope, positive thoughts and admiration for them as they start their journey to wellness.
Never say things that may come across as dismissive like, “You just need to shake it off,” or “You just need to stop stressing,” or “Toughen up” or “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” After all, you wouldn’t say such things to someone who just had their hand chopped off in an accident, or to someone diagnosed with cancer. Medical care is needed, and unless you are trained in the field, you are not the person to administer it. But you should make sure they get that care as soon as possible.
Finally, know that it’s OK to ask someone about how they are feeling. A common misconception is that asking someone if they are having thoughts about suicide, ending their own life, or giving up hope means you will give them that idea if they weren’t already having it. Wrong. Talking to someone about your worries, in a loving and caring way, may just get them to open up – especially if they are like my sister who was a closed book about her feelings.
Jennifer Sikora is the Chairperson for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Pittsburgh Chapter