The day before I attempted suicide, I walked in the West Hollywood Pride parade.
Looking back on that day two summers ago, I had an overwhelming amount of adrenaline coursing through my veins as I walked down Santa Monica Boulevard. I had a rainbow painted across my cheek, waved flags in the air, and supported my best friend as he walked with his boyfriend.
From the outside, I seemed okay. Maybe even thriving. But when I got home, I felt emotionally and physically drained. I reverted to the deep depression I’d been hiding.
I struggled with depression as early as middle school. I remember feeling alone after all my friends decided to collectively stop talking to me. I wasn’t sad like I’d been when my cat died. Instead, I felt an emptiness inside me that wouldn’t go away. Sometimes, the cause of my sadness seemed obvious, like losing my friends. Other times, I felt like the unluckiest person in the world; detached from life when everyone else seemed happy to be alive — not knowing exactly why I felt this way.
With the depression came occasional suicidal ideation. Those thoughts of alleviating my emptiness through permanent means had no rhyme or reason. They came unexpectedly and hit hard. Hiding my suicidal ideations felt like an ugly secret no one would understand, even though 1 in 5 adults in the United States suffer from mental illness, so, statistically, I couldn’t have been the only one.
Two summers ago, when I tried to take my life, I felt past the point of return to find a willingness to live, at least on my own. For weeks, I felt hopeless and like each day was fighting an uphill, losing battle. I even began seeing a therapist, but things were only getting worse. As part of building a support system, at my therapist’s advisement, I worked up the courage to reach out to one friend about what I was going through. She told me to call her whenever I needed to talk. As someone going through training to become a therapist, I thought she would understand and be the least burdened by my struggle.
But on the night I tried to take my life, that friend went radio silent. I ended up not hearing from her for months after that incident.
The next day, I walked into my therapist’s office. “I’m so sad,” were the only three words I could manage to speak through the tears streaming down my face. He helped me form a plan to get the help I needed, navigating the limitations of my health insurance and describing the process of voluntarily admitting myself to a hospital.
Later that day, my best friend drove me to the hospital to admit myself to their care. A doctor asked me questions about self-harm and how often I had suicidal thoughts. I spent the next 72 hours in the care of professionals who helped me work through my feelings and provided me with resources to get further help. If it weren’t for this experience and my therapist’s dedication to help me through this low point, I worry the outcome wouldn’t have been positive.
I appreciate my best friend, who drove me to the hospital and stuck with me through that experience. As for my other friend who stopped talking to me after the incident, her abandonment still stings. But I also don’t think it’s entirely her fault.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and I often see posts on Instagram with the hashtag #SuicidePrevention or the advice to “check on your friends,” plastered across a graphic. The sentiment is simple: talk about suicide and make sure the people you love are okay. That’s how we’ll fix the fact that the 10th leading cause of death in America is suicide and is only rising due to the coronavirus.
We tell people to care. We tell people to reach out. So why haven’t things gotten better?
There are, of course, many things at a high-level that could be done to alleviate the despair people experience every day: increasing the minimum wage, acknowledging the discrepancy of depression in marginalized groups and creating health care that’s free and easy to access.
But an immediate action that anyone can take today is reflection: considering how our actions, or lack thereof, contribute to a society where people don’t feel okay talking about their struggles.
The biggest obstacle for people who are struggling is shame. Like me, many people feel the weight of the stigma that mental illness holds. It creates a cloud of embarrassment and guilt around the struggle with mental health, which, in reality, is something almost half of Americans will experience at one point in their life. But if we encouraged talking about our emotions more, perhaps we’d help people before their thoughts turned to suicide.
Suicide is merely a symptom of a larger issue, a world where being unhappy isn’t okay to talk about. The rhetoric of checking on your friends needs to extend beyond those you think are struggling and to our everyday conversations.
The best way to do that? Talking about our own feelings.
Rather than jumping feet first into conversations that people aren’t emotionally equipped to handle, we can encourage people to talk about their emotions by talking about our own first. Doing so normalizes talking about difficult emotions; it creates honesty about being human.
Going beyond that, sharing resources can be lifesaving when someone is suicidal. When a post encourages people to talk to their friends, it should also provide that person with resources to help navigate the waters of someone who’s suicidal. Not everyone can be expected to handle such an extreme situation, and they shouldn’t feel responsible to do it alone.
Reflecting on two years ago, I’m grateful I had a capable therapist and a friend who stuck by my side. The sad reality is, not everyone has the same support. Creating space for people to be okay with not being okay and providing resources for professional help can make a life-changing difference.
Through little changes, even down to what we post on social media, we can make a more significant impact on suicide prevention.