by Dr. Jem Tosh
(Content warning: Discussion of su*cide, mention of r*pe, abuse, rac*sm, and h*mophobia)
Another day and another '97% of people won't share this!' or 'copy and share if you agree!' - status update on Facebook that does about as much good for 'creating awareness' as Donald Trump does for social cohesion and world peace.
While these kind of posts are shared for many, many topics, from saving the bees to breast cancer, none irritates me more than those for 'suicide awareness'. What annoys me most about this brief, well-intentioned, invitation to talk, is that it simultaneously shows a desire to help those who struggle with suicide, as well as a lack of understanding of what living with suicidal thoughts is actually like for many people.
If only preventing suicide was as simple as having a conversation with someone who shared a generic statement to everyone. If only this mass (re)produced comment could convey all the comfort, care, and support that could drag you from the bottom of that pit of despair. To think that a Facebook status, that isn't even personal to the individual in question, would be enough to counter the enormously heavy weight that crushes the chest with excruciating pain, loneliness, fear, rage, and hopelessness, is absurd. Copying and pasting posts like this dramatically underestimates the pain involved in suicidal thoughts/attempts, as well as overestimates your ability to solve the problem with a single conversation. It also guilts people into sharing, because if you don't, like how mean are you for not caring?
It requests that the person who is contemplating suicide contact you - 'I'm always here to talk!' - like Dr. Frasier Crane in Seattle, just listening and waiting for a caller. How realistic is that? Have you ever sent out a mass email that urgently needed someone to do something, or to care about something as much as you do? How many people got back to you? It's a message in a bottle floating around in a polluted ocean.
Copying and pasting posts like this dramatically underestimates the pain involved in suicidal thoughts/attempts, as well as overestimates your ability to solve the problem with a single conversation.
To think that someone at their brink would have the enormous strength required to go to someone and disclose something that is not only stigmatized (i.e. as a symptom of 'mental illness'), but widely condemned in numerous ways (i.e. as a 'sin', or 'selfish'), is living in a make-believe world where we can make fascism disappear by coming together and giving Trump a chance.
The chances that a suicidal person will walk up to you and say that they are suicidal, is as likely as a rape victim telling you they have been raped (and we know how rare it is for people to disclose - and that these two issues are anything but separate). It's a very, very difficult thing to acknowledge, let alone verbalize.
Statuses like this also ignore the fact that people who are suffering great emotional pain, who are thinking about suicide, have been talking to you. They are saying - 'I'm in pain', 'I'm scared', 'I'm hurt,' or 'I'm being abused', 'I can't cope', 'I'm depressed', 'He hurt me,' 'No one cares.' They are also saying - 'Stop killing us,' 'This is sexist!' 'I can't bear to see another mass shooting of people like me,' 'I just want to be accepted,' 'I just want to be myself,' 'Why didn't my family accept me?' - because we also know that multiple forms of oppression and discrimination lead to an increased risk of violence and abuse, and a higher need for self-care as social action, campaigning, and challenging oppressive systems is physically and emotionally exhausting.
Statuses like this also ignore the fact that people who are suffering great emotional pain, who are thinking about suicide, have been talking to you.
More likely, though, than saying it, you'll see it. It'll get quieter. They'll go out less. They'll stop eating. Maybe there will be bruises and scars. Red and puffy eyes from nights spent crying. The truth is, that much of suicide attempts are linked, not to a lack of conversation, but of too much attention from harmful and abusive sources. Everything becomes too difficult, and isolation can feel like a temporary peace - as pretending to be 'okay' in front of other people can be just as painful.
But why pretend? Because people don't respond well when you start talking about the abuse you are currently going through, or went through years ago. They don't like it when you say you are suffering because of white supremacy or patriarchy. That these systems impact their daily life with a painful emotional cost. It makes you feel powerless, sad, and maybe even a little guilty. So, when it comes up, you say generic things like 'it'll get better', or detract from it by turning your attention to other issues like, 'it could be worse!' and 'all lives matter'.
So, seeing a status that says 'someone is always listening' is an insult to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts - because it's not true. As someone who tells friends, partners, teachers, colleagues, and is rebutted time and time again - telling them that all they had to do to save their life was talk to someone is a harsh slap in the face of a world that likes to say they care, but doesn't want to put in the work. If you want to prevent a friend or loved one, or even a stranger, from thinking about ending their life - then protect them from violence and abuse, believe them when they say that someone is hurting them, stop saying or laughing at jokes about homophobia, racism, rape, or xenophobia - and make your space and yourself a beacon for a caring and sympathetic ear that cares not only when they're at the brink, but long before it ever gets to that point.
The truth is, that much of suicide attempts are linked, not to a lack of conversation, but of too much attention from harmful and abusive sources.
If you want to show someone that you really care about them, and their pain, don't monitor their actions for some kind of definitive signal of when to intervene - and don't copy and paste a generic statement. It might make may you feel better, but for those who think about ending their life, it can be a trigger of a painful fact - 'no-one listened when I talked'. No-one wanted to hear or acknowledge my pain. We know why - we know you're not bad people - it's really hard to hear the pain that people are in, or the violence that we know exists in this world. It's even harder to hear it when it comes from someone you care about. But reach out, listen, love, and if you can't handle what they are telling you, help them access other support. Go with them to a group, or sit with them and look through websites for information. Ask them how therapy went if they choose to get support that way.
This kind of ongoing love and support is even more important now in a time of rising fascism and a growing acceptance of hatred on a mass scale for everyone who isn't a white, cisgender, heterosexual, man. If you have or promote your views that exclude people (such as being against same-sex marriage, believe that women lie about being abused by a partner, or think that racism towards white people is a real thing etc.), then be the change you want to see in the world - and change yourself. Because this isn't just a personal opinion, or a campaign strategy, you're talking about people's lives and their right to exist. It's not up for debate.
...telling them that all they had to do to save their life was talk to someone is a harsh slap in the face of a world that likes to say they care, but doesn't want to put in the work.
If you stay silent in situations of injustice, then speak up - each time you do, someone who is suffering will feel a little better, and a little less alone. Instead of hiding their statuses, or playing the redundant role of 'Devil's advocate', prevent further emotional pain (and yes suicide) by listening and supporting people who are suffering now. We've already had the situation of people running around shouting, 'How has this happened?! What can we do?' after Trump was elected, and marginalized groups eye-rolling because they've been saying this was happening for years. Don't let the same situation happen in the lives of the people you care about. Don't wait until the last minute of the game to start asking, 'how did this happen, and how can I stop it?'