When my depression was at its worst, I was in crisis. I had plans for my suicide, but was also starting to experience suicidal impulses. I was abusing opioids. I kept my wife in the dark, but I did confide in a few close friends. They knew about my drug use and they knew I had contemplated suicide, but they did not know the true extent of my suffering and the danger I was in. Thankfully, one of my friends convinced me to tell my wife, and that got the ball rolling to get help.
My friends did the best they could given the tools they were given. Let me pause for a minute and say this: if you have ever been in a position where someone you know had a mental health condition, attempted suicide, or completed suicide, do not doubt your actions in hindsight. You did the best you could to help that person; it’s just that you may not have had the tools to know how to help more effectively. But above all, realize that you can only do so much. You can’t have complete control over another’s actions.
Now that I’m at this stage of recovery, I feel compelled to offer some tools – things I wish both the people closest to me and myself knew when I was in the midst of darkness. This is primarily directed to people who aren’t necessarily suffering themselves, but know someone who is. If you are suffering, let these words resonate with you.
It’s ok to ask questions. “How are you doing? Are you depressed?” If they say they are depressed, ask them if they have thought about suicide. If they say yes, ask them if they have a plan. If they do, then ask them to tell you about the plan. The more details they give you, the more worried you should be. The key at this point is to just listen. However, if you believe the person is in imminent danger of hurting themselves, this is likely an emergency situation where you need to immediately get the person to a hospital or treatment facility.
Do not minimize how the person is feeling, particularly if you’ve never suffered from depression or other mental health issues. If you haven’t, you don’t know what it’s like. Trust me. Just say, “I don’t know what you are going through right now, but I am here to help and be your friend.” I have friendships in which people do understand the suffering – because they’ve been there. Knowing that they understand brings an extra layer of comfort.
Encourage them. I have a list of five things to say that can be very powerful:
- You are loved. Look them in the eyes and say it with conviction. It may be hard for them to believe you, but over time they will come to realize it.
- I care about you. Make it personal. Sitting face to face, having the conversation, shows you care.
- Treatment works. This is directed to people who have never sought professional mental health treatment. If they have, remind them that treatment is a journey that takes a lot of hard work and patience.
- We will get you help. Again, this is primarily for those who have not begun treatment, but if they have, offer to support them and help arrange further treatment, such as making appointments, checking up on progress, and giving reminders.
- I will walk with you every step of the journey. Be present. Call. Text. Listen. Never give up on them.
Explain what treatment looks like. I explained some basics in this post. After listening and being present in their life, help them get help. Help them make the first (or next) step. But most of all, let them know they are loved and that you will walk with them every step of the journey.