I have sat in front of my screen for hours thinking about what I want to say. Thinking about what could be said to help both those having suicidal thoughts and their loved ones. My journey has been long and difficult, but I am at a place where I can share a few of my thoughts.
I was always a sensitive person. When I felt emotions, I felt them strongly. I picked up on the feelings around me and it would greatly affect me. As I grew older, I embraced this quality. I went with the feelings and tried to use them to help my friends, but then things changed during the third year of my Ph.D. program.
It wasn’t just me being a sensitive person. I was anxious all the time. Happy emotions were muted and sad emotions were heightened. I started seeing a therapist before I got to this point, which I am very thankful for because I don’t know if I would have had the power to start seeing one by the time things got as bad as they did. She referred me to a psychiatrist who prescribed me an SSRI and some anxiety medication.
As with most people with antidepressants it took around six weeks for me start feeling better. I started feeling happy emotions again and the “lows” as I call them weren’t as bad. Lows are moments when I am overwhelmed with negative thoughts.
Fast-forward a year, I went on birth control and it felt like every negative emotion came crashing down on me. Birth control has been linked to depression in women so it’s not surprising, but that’s when it started. They started out quiet, but they were there. These thoughts of not wanting to exist anymore. It’s as if my mind would start to go dark and I could only focus on these thoughts.
To be clear, I made no concrete plans, they were thoughts. Urges in a way that overwhelmed me. I still went into lab and did experiments.
Sometimes we have this idea that if someone is suicidal they are curled up in their bed doing nothing. Sometimes that is true. But sometimes you go to work and are fighting to accomplish something in the hope that it would be what pulls you out.
My therapist was aware of my situation and we worked on it. She gave me numbers to call when I was having a “low” day. We came up with game plans that worked for me. But despite being on medication, seeing a therapist, and having a game plan, it was still a struggle.
The truth is there are many like me. In my clearer moments I have thought about what would have made it better. What advice could I give to my loved ones such that they are able to help me?
1. Recognize that depression is an illness. Like diabetes or the flu. There is an imbalance in the body which leads to symptoms. With the flu you might vomit, with depression you might have suicidal thoughts. With both, medicine might help but won’t always prevent symptoms or make the illness completely go away. This is also important when it comes to religion. Religion talks about sadness and tells you to seek refuge in God, but religion doesn’t talk about depression. It does tell you to seek help when you are sick. This idea applies to mental health as well.
2. Listen, empathize, and recognize the gravity of the situation. If someone tells you they need your help, help them. You might be thinking duh, but the truth is, many won’t help. I have amazing friends and family, but the truth is I am not sure they recognized how hurtful their actions could be. I am not giving this advice to make anyone feel guilty. I say it so those who aren’t aware how their actions are seen, might have some new insight. I also say it for those who were there for me to realize how much it meant to me.
For example, I would ask a friend to come over because I didn’t want to be alone. Oftentimes a good way to prevent possibly hurting yourself is to be around others. I recognize that a person can’t always drop everything to be there for someone or that sometimes others are going through something themselves. If you are going through something, just say so. It would be understood, and it would not be seen as a rejection. As for being busy, let me put it this way, is whatever you are doing worth more than a life? Because that’s what it feels like when that excuse is used. Sometimes when our loved ones are sick, we might have to burden ourselves. It will be difficult, but it could save their lives.
Some of these “low” moments might occur at work. One might think “Leave! If you were physically sick you would go home so leave!” That’s 100 percent true, but that’s one of the difficulties of mental illness — you can’t make rational choices sometimes. Someone’s mental health isn’t the responsibility of coworkers, but this is when I go back to point 1. We treat physical illnesses like they are real, we should do the same with mental illnesses even if it means you have to cancel a meeting or give someone space.
That’s it. That’s the advice I have. Only two things really because to be honest it can be that simple. I recognize that situations can be much more complex but listening and empathy can go a long way.
For those who have lost loved ones to suicide, I am truly sorry. Please don’t blame yourself. Mental illness is an illness. Sometimes no matter how much we try to treat an illness we can’t. Know they loved you and cared for you.
For those who have struggled with suicidal thoughts please remember there are resources. The national suicide prevention line has both phone and chat options. They are there for you for whatever you need, whether you want to talk or just have someone on the other the end. It can be scary to talk to someone you don’t know but they are there.
When you are having clearer moments, think of game plans to help you get through some of the harder times. Breathing exercises, friends to reach out to, a meal that makes you happy, etc. I know that at the time these blinders go up and your focus becomes on that one thought, but remember there is another you behind those blinders. The you that recognizes how important you are, how loved you are, how amazing you are.
The suicide prevention line is: 1-800-273-8255.
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Nour Al-muhtasib is a post-doc at Yale University. She is passionate about science education and communication, cats, and french fries. You can find her on Twitter at @Nouronal.