Between the popular Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and the recent suicide death of rocker Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden and Audioslave fame) suicide is the internet’s new buzz topic. You’d think that I’d be thrilled about this as a person who often advocates for more openness regarding mental health topics and an end to stigma related to mental illness.
I’m not. I’m more and more frustrated at the way suicide and depression are being discussed right now: as if we who live with depression and/or suicidal ideation are some subspecies of human who either don’t care about others (patently untrue) or can’t be trusted with agency over our own lives or the responsibility of educating and caring for ourselves.
I’ve seen this meme around the internet about a dozen times in the last few weeks. It’s one example of a larger problem. I’m using it as the basis of this post because it covers almost every point I could make.
It’s not my intention to imply that the originators are wrong about the way depression saps your energy or the way society handles sadness or depression by sweeping them under the rug.
It is my intention to counter the horrible advice that the meme is giving and to say that it doesn’t represent my experience of having depression or being suicidal AT ALL.
- I have issues with the way this scenario disregards individual agency and puts all the responsibility on friends/family. People with mental health problems still have the same rights and responsibility to decide what we want in our lives. We have the right to decide when we do and do not want to be around others, and we have the responsibility to ask for someone to come hang out if that’s what we want. As a person who lives with depression, I know it can be difficult to ask somebody to spend time with us, or even difficult to get up the energy to want to be around others. You still have to take responsibility for yourself. If you’re dealing with depression or other mental health issues, you can make a plan with people you trust so they know how to help you in a crisis. (To be clear, re-posting a meme on the internet doesn’t count as “telling people what you want them to do in a crisis” because you’re still expecting others to decipher your intent.) You can’t expect family and friends to read your mind. You can’t just expect people to go sit with you when you haven’t asked them to or pester you to talk to them when you say/act like you don’t want that. The most a loved one can or should be expected to do is continue to offer support and companionship. When you encourage people to disregard your agency, you’re contributing to mental health stigma, not breaking it down.
- It’s presented as “do this every time no matter what.” I see a lot of comment threads indicating that people identify with the feelings and thoughts expressed here. I want to honor that and don’t mean to minimize your experiences. At the same time, they’re your experiences and they don’t represent every person with depression or suicidal ideation. Your experience may be that you wouldn’t tell someone you were suicidal–but that doesn’t mean every person feels that way or wants these kinds of forced “interventions.” I’ve never felt like a “burden” or felt like I would be rejected because I have mental health problems. I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks. If I withdraw from people, it’s usually because I’m tired and need time alone to rest, recharge, and get my head on straight. The last thing that would help me is to have somebody pestering me with unwanted company. You can’t just assume someone is suicidal, or assume that they want your company. When you give advice in sweeping generalities about complex medical issues, you are contributing to stigma (again) not breaking it down. Share your experiences–don’t presume to speak for me or for the entire population of people with depression.
- Sadness is not the same fucking thing as depression. I don’t even have further commentary on this. If you’re going to post things to educate people about depression, this is the first thing you tell them. Depression isn’t just “feeling sad” and people can have depression without appearing sad or down at all. (Me, for example.)
- People feel sad or withdraw from social situations all the time whether they are suicidal or not. Again, you can’t assume someone is suicidal just because they seem to be withdrawn or sad. You can’t assume it’s okay to intrude into someone else’s life and space. I’ve had well-meaning people barge into my home and refuse to leave until I called the police because they thought I was suicidal when I wasn’t. I was physically sick and desperately in need of alone-time to rest. I was also dealing with trauma-related issues from having been kept a prisoner in my previous home, so the violation of my personal space caused even more damage when my psyche was in a fragile state.
- It implies that friends and family of people with mental illness or suicide survivors in general aren’t doing enough when most of the time, people are doing the best they can and wish they could help more. The average person is not a crisis counselor and could easily make things worse if a person truly was suicidal. Family and friends shouldn’t have to be the front-line in suicide prevention all the time. It would be like expecting an untrained family member to perform a triple bypass.
For friends and family.
- If you suspect someone is suicidal, encourage them to get proper, professional help, or at least contact a crisis center. Let them know that they are not “bad” “selfish” or “a burden,” and that it’s okay to ask for help.
- If you see someone who is sad, ask them if they are okay. Let them know that they don’t have to be okay. Ask them what you can do to help. Don’t just ASSUME they want your company/attention/whatever. Don’t assume sad means suicidal unless you have some evidence and/or have talked to your loved one and specifically been told to intervene when they seem sad or withdrawn.
- You don’t have to take on responsibility for someone else’s health or personal decisions.