How to stop a suicide

For the past few weeks, social media, blogs and the op-ed pages of the traditional press have been filled with articles about mental illness, prompted by the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

In many cases, these articles are hand-wringing: Why, in such an advanced country, has the suicide rate grown by more than 25% in the past two decades? Why does suicide still make the top 10 list of leading causes of death in the United States, with about 100 people killing themselves daily? And why – Lord have mercy – has there been a near doubling in suicidal ideation and attempted suicides in the past few years among children?

All of articles and posts ended the same way: Telling those who might be suicidal to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

While this is important advice (research shows that the risk of suicide declines sharply when people call the hotline), as someone who has survived depression for more than 40 years and wrestled with its demon cousin anxiety for the past 20, let me share a little secret: Many people who feel suicidal don’t have the energy to call that number. Or, just as likely, they don’t feel they deserve to call that number.

For those lucky enough to be born with a brain that works correctly, it is hard to understand how paralyzing depression and anxiety can be, how dialing a phone might be too much on a day you can’t even get out of bed. Sometimes, you’re simply exhausted from the battle and you want to lay down your weapon, pick up a scarf, a necktie, a gun, a bottle of pills.

And that’s why we need to do more than share the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number. Instead, we need to be that lifeline. If you suspect any of your family or friends might be depressed, you should call them. Not tomorrow, not in a week, not next month, but right now. During that phone call, do the hard thing and ask your friend, relative, colleague if they are thinking of hurting themselves or, possibly, just stepping in front of an oncoming bus. Listen to their response. Is there a pause? Do they force a laugh, stumble on the answer? Do they sound like they are lying to you?

If so, tell them you love them, that the voice in their head telling them that suicide is the answer is wrong. Tell them you’re there for them, that you need them in this world and that you will help them get help. Then, go help them. Get to their house and help them set up an appointment with a psychiatrist – ask the pesky insurance questions, navigate the nightmare that is the mental health system, be the advocate. Drive them to the doctor’s appointment if you can. Get them over that first hump and then call and check on them daily until they get back on their feet — and then weekly for a long time after that. If you’re not in the same town, Skype (or FaceTime, Google Hangouts, etc.) with them and help them figure out the steps to getting help.

None of this is easy. But all of us can save a life if we’re willing to be the one who makes a call, asks the hard question and follows up. Sharing the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is important – because some people do call. But there are so many people who will not call (especially men) and that is where we come in. We must call. Not send  a Facebook message or post an inspiring meme on Instagram, but actually pick up the phone.

A few years ago, I saw suicidal-minded posts from my eldest sister on Facebook. I tried to reach her, but she didn’t answer the phone, so I called the police in her town on the other side of the country. Law enforcement arrived at her house late in the evening and explained that her little sister had called them. Carla convinced the cops she wouldn’t harm herself, then called me and yelled at me for 15 minutes. I didn’t care. As long as she was yelling at me she wasn’t killing herself. We stayed on the phone for an hour until I was certain she’d be alive the next day.

I called again the next day and multiple times for three days until I’d bothered her enough that she made a doctor’s appointment, called her AA sponsor and reconnected with a friend who called me and explained that she would make sure my sister made the meetings and got to her appointments. I was her suicide prevention lifeline because she didn’t have the strength to call the real one at that time. 

We can all do that at some point for someone in our lives. They may not cry out on social media like my sister did. In fact, many depressed and suicidal people seem fine most of the time. Depressives work really hard to appear “normal” because we already feel like failures most days; why would we make it worse by also letting our sadness leak out in public? Some of us function quite well due to medication and therapy, and others of us just grit our teeth and fake it for decades, racking up honors at work and accolades at home or in the community until we just can’t do it anymore. Then, we might start rejecting your invitations to a movie or a happy hour, or seem a little out of sorts, or maybe – especially if we’re male – be angrier, more irritable, drink too much. If we’re female, we might seem distracted or lethargic, and if we’re in that hell hole we call adolescence, we will isolate even more than usual.

If you notice any of that — call. Please. Yes, share the suicide prevention phone number [1-800-273-TALK (8255)]. But also, call anyone you’re worried about. Ask the hard question. Listen to the answer. Help them. We’re in this together. There is no us (healthy) and them (suicidal). There is only us.

  • If you wonder what it is like to be depressed, these comics can help.
  • If you need help knowing what questions to ask if you think someone is depressed, here’s a good list.
  • And finally, if you are depressed or suicidal, listen to me: I know it is hard to make this call, but the people at the end of this phone number really want to talk to you. Pick up your phone and text HOME to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.


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