Do you realize that your son could kill himself? Do you realize that he has been slowly killing himself for the past few years?
She was looking straight into my eyes to ensure that I had comprehended. I stared right back at her. I nodded in acknowledgment.
There’s nothing I can really do for you. I can only listen and accompany you here.
My new psychologist observed my facial expression and body language. She’s not a mind-reader, but she has ample experience and knows what to look for.
Three months later….
Last night I received a message with my complimentary ticket to the TEDx conference in the city where we live. All participants have been asked to reflect on a question and respond to the organization so that they can offer us a “better” experience. The question is as follows:
How would you convince someone not to commit suicide?
As Alanis Morissette would sing, “Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? A little too ironic?” I was astonished by the question. Suicide is a taboo issue where I live and mental illness is highly stigmatized. I should have been grateful for the question, but my first thoughts were, “Seriously? I can’t even get away from this on a Saturday morning? Maybe I won’t even go. My husband is one of the speakers and I have to look dignified. If some ignorant person says something stupid I’ll get irate or start to cry. Can’t we just give it a rest?” I went to bed at 2 am and I slept on it, or as they say in Spain, I consulted the pillow.
Dear TEDx organizers,
You are brave to ask this question. Many people take this matter too lightly or are afraid to even mention suicide. The question shouldn’t be “how would you convince someone not to commit suicide?” It should be, “How can we prevent people from getting to that place of pain and desperation?” After all, suicide is not about death, it is about pain.
Firstly, a serious conversation about suicide is necessary, but rarely heard in our society. Studies have proven over and over again that the best way to prevent someone from committing suicide is to talk to them directly about it. So why don’t we talk about it?
The main reasons are that suicide terrifies us and we want to avoid the copycat effect. Both reasons are justified. No one wants to imagine that someone they love could take their own life. And we certainly don’t want it to become a trend.
We know that teenagers and young adults are especially at risk. Films and TV series like 13 Reasons have somehow glorified suicide and are a true threat for the younger generation. We hear stories of how children who are bullied at school take their own lives. Thankfully, many schools are addressing bullying. They are working with students to provide lessons on empathy and creating a mentoring system among students. Teachers are becoming more observant and aware of their students’ needs, even though the teacher-student ratio is too high to be able to deal with everything.
I believe there is another contributing factor to low self-esteem in our society that makes people believe that success should be easy and superficial. We see posters and Mr. Wonderful agendas with sayings like make today the best day of your life or nothing is impossible. And my personal (un)favorite, if you can dream it, you can do it. Young people who work hard and are knocked down or unsuccessful think they are not worthy. In reality, we know that success and peace of mind comes from many failures, frustrations and loss. We don’t know true peace until we are mature and yet we are sold easy sayings and superficial solutions.
We cannot answer the question of suicide without first addressing another stigma in our society, mental illness. Mental illness is not a personal choice. Just as nobody chooses to have cancer or diabetes or high blood pressure, no one chooses to have mental health issues. In addition, mental illness is not necessarily caused by bad parenting, dysfunctional families or drug use, as many would like to believe. As more research is done, we are finding that there are genetic, hereditary, behavioral and personality factors. Some mental illnesses cause sufferers to deal with suicidal thoughts and impulses on a daily basis. These people are not weak; on the contrary, they are haunted by demons that they have to fight off and learn to deal with. As a matter of fact, some of the most hardworking, introverted, intelligent and well-mannered people are fighting mental illness. Unfortunately, I have seen the inside of psychiatric wards and I can assure you that patients with mental illnesses come in all shapes and sizes. Mentally ill is not synonymous with crazy. Some patients later become the doctors, nurses, social workers and empathetic teachers who treat others. Treatment and therapy can take a long time.
As a society, we cannot turn away from mental health issues and expect to prevent suicide with a quick conversation.
So, how would you convince someone not to commit suicide? I would start by offering my hand and asking lots of questions. I would try not to judge. I would try to acknowledge their feelings. I might try to convince them that even deep pain isn’t permanent. I would offer help, or at least take the person to a place where they can find the help they need.
A concerned citizen
P.S. In Spain you can call the emergency services number 112 for any type of health emergency, which includes mental health emergencies. Most people aren’t aware of this basic information. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?