Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade. Avicii. Robin Williams. Chris Cornell. Chester Bennington.
This is a list of people who were in pain and took their own life. Within the last year.
While I’m somewhat heartened by the outpouring of empathy and demands for support and understanding, I want people to really understand what they can do to help.
Full disclosure: I have bipolar disorder and some of the stats have suggested that 50% of bipolar people attempt suicide and nearly 20% succeed. I have an innate understanding of the topic because I know so many people who have been there and I know how it feels myself.
Some people think those who attempt or die from suicide should be ashamed or vilified, often addressing the question, “How could you do that to us?” That question, in and of itself, is quite selfish to expect someone who is suffering to have the bandwidth to care about anything else besides the razor-thin edge of their own survival instinct. People who ask this question simply have no idea what that feels like.
In other ways, people do not realize that mental health crisis – whether it’s a diagnosed condition or a temporary event – can affect people of all economic classes, all countries, all religions, all genders, etc. It is definitely harder to deal with mental illness when you’re poor, due to lack of affordable care and no safety net. But, as we’ve seen with celebrity deaths, it doesn’t matter how much money or success you have, it is not insulation. People still feel the feelings that lead to suicide.
There’s a flurry of emotion that comes into play that better writers than I can weave with words to try to help people feel what it’s like to be suicidal. I choose to refer to brain chemistry and its insidious emotional fallout under stress.
When things go wrong and you have a mental illness or even the random inner crisis of what some call “the dark night of the soul” (which may be just a bad day) what happens is you get overwhelmed. That’s a feeling, but it’s also a physical state of the nervous system.
Due to duress, the brain produces chemicals that fire off the synapses, leading to negative thoughts, which drive one to question why they should even go on with their life. The person’s brain tells the person things that just aren’t true, but he or she can’t see it. (He is worth nothing. She has nothing to live for.)
This is the physical state of despair, and making the pain and mental anguish stop is often one’s only thought. That is where suicide as a solution comes in: Stop the pain. Please, God, make it stop.
People who have never had this surge of emotion, and I mean this suicidal surge of emotion that is demanding action, really don’t get how powerful it is.
At this stage, the person’s state of mind is scarcely able to comprehend the idea of living one more second, never mind changing that mindset. It’s not all mental at this point and it’s not a choice; it’s a neurological response to stress that drives action – it puts a plan in motion.
Getting in between those moments is exactly when you can save someone or yourself.
What saves people is support from friends, family, first responders and doctors, or anyone else who connects with a person’s wellbeing. It could be a dog or cat, some personal connection that provides comfort or hope. As one of my Facebook friends suggested, you need to “be there” to help someone, virtually or in real life.
First off, don’t talk. Listen. But, don’t judge. Then, act. That means not leaving someone alone who has suggested they are “done”, “can’t take it anymore” or even said, “I want to die” or “I want to kill myself”. If you patronize and shame them, know that that won’t help.
People often ask, “After I listen, what are the right things to say?” My answer: Anything that makes a suicidal person feel not so alone is helpful.
Here are a few comments that made a difference for me:
“It’s going to be OK.” (Simple but effective.)
“You’ll get through this.” (Suggests there is life to live after these feelings pass)
“We’ll work on this together.” (The term “we” implies unity and connection.)
“We’ll get you help.” (There is hope for recovery)
More importantly, you need to act, and to do that you need to know how to get help that will save someone or yourself. Outreach is the key action, and it’s becoming more and more accessible in this age of technology and instant responses on phones and computers.
Important note: If you or the person of concern is past talking or has already acted, then call an ambulance immediately. In Singapore, that number is 995 (not 999 – that is the police).
If there is time for intervention before action, here’s who to contact in Singapore:
If you can’t speak or prefer chatting online or texting, consult these online tips and suicide prevention chats listed by country.
To help yourself or others in suicidal moments, you need to buy more time to let those brain chemicals – those feelings – pass. That intervention is the key.
Even though it may seem impossible to reach out, it doesn’t mean we stop telling people in crisis how and where to reach out. Some will and some won’t. But we do know that reaching out can save a life.
I like all the Facebook and Twitter posts laden with empathy, but in that, you gotta show up when someone needs you. That means knowing the signs, knowing what to say and knowing where to get the help.
Even if it’s hard to talk about, we must keep this conversation going. Truly, and I believe this, there is hope and there is help. You just have to know where to find it.
About Andrea McKenna Brankin
Andrea McKenna Brankin is a journalist and author from the United States who lives a full life with bipolar disorder. Her book, Bipolar Phoenix, is awaiting a publishing contract. She is also currently a volunteer at the DaySpring Residential Treatment Centre for teen girls in Singapore, providing befriending-family support, therapeutic writing and rugby coaching.
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