Reaching Out May Not Help Your Friend in Crisis and That’s Not Your Fault
CN: This is an article about suicide. Do what’s best for you.
In the wake of the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, a lot of people took steps that they thought were helpful. They posted the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1–800–273–8255) and encouraged people who felt lonely or sad or hopeless to reach out.
Ask for help, I’m here. Here’s my number, call any time.
Within a few days, though, the people who shared the hotline were being chided—simply posting the hotline isn’t good enough, some critics posited. You need to do the work. You need to check in. Telling depressed people to do the work to reach out is unrealistic, and why are we so compelled to give resources for how other people can act, rather than examining our own expectations?
These sentiments weren’t incorrect—it is true that asking for help when you’re down is like threading a needle while drunk. It is true that a lot of folks are just not that good about being supportive friends.
It’s also true, through, that in spite of all of the emphasis on the need to “check in” on those around us, “checking in” doesn’t really do much if you aren’t prepared to do something when someone does reach out. As Dr. Melissa Fabello pointed out on Twitter, most true emotional support goes unnoticed, and vulnerability is “shut down.”
A lot of people never learn how to be supportive, empathetic, emotionally-available friends. They aren’t conditioned to send meaningful texts or make space in their day for friends who may need to lean a little heavy one weekend.
It’s also accurate, I think, that a lot of people would be more supportive, empathetic friends if they weren’t themselves being crushed alive by an economic reality that demands endless emotional output and doesn’t even provide paid time off. Given an ultimatum between self-care and emotionally tending to friendships, most of us take the self-care and that’s ok and in fact, it’s good.
As a result, collectively, we’re not great at suicide prevention.
We don’t learn about it in school, we don’t even like to talk about it. We don’t know the warning signs in ourselves or others. We don’t know the risk factors, ranging from education to indebtedness. We don’t know what to do about it after it happens or how to keep it from happening. So we turn to the hotline, or we tell each other to “check in” as if to remind ourselves to check in. But then that doesn’t feel like enough—or we’re told it’s not enough—and the cycle begins again.
Here is the fear that I have, though: If sharing the hotline isn’t enough, and just checking in isn’t enough, what is enough?
And, conversely, how can we continue to tell each other that, when someone you know takes their own life, that it’s not your fault — while also telling them that it is their fault for doing the wrong thing or helping in the wrong way?
Three things stopped me when I was at my lowest. One was the hotline. One was my dog. And one was a law in my state which discouraged me from purchasing a firearm in an impulsive moment*.
I think most people think of suicide prevention as an interpersonal thing—something we do in our communities or between each other. This is, of course, partially true—but really, suicide prevention is about broader societal systems, and concerted public health measures that are specifically meant to stop the immediacy of the act, or at least delaying it a little longer.
Posting the hotline can help. Checking in can help. But failing to talk to your lawmakers and public health officials about suicide prevention as a systemic action is really important.
Suicide doesn’t, for example, impact all demographics equally; the catastrophic suicide level among veterans, Native Americans, and the very poor, for an example, a larger failure of our support systems.
Infrastructure, too, has to be part of the conversation. Local governments may not always consider including suicide prevention in their roads and bridges money, but they ought to—and people should remind them of that. There is ample research to demonstrate that some of the most effective methods of suicide prevention have nothing to do with a kindly text message, but instead, with a physical or policy-based intervention or interruption. Fences, like on the Aurora bridge in Seattle, have been found to reduce suicides by around 68 percent, while the efficacy of safety nets is even higher. There is little to no evidence to show that a potential jumper, once thwarted by the fence, continues the pursuit of a spot to jump.
Similarly, though most modern attempts to curb the sale of firearms are designed to reduce outward-facing gun violence, interventions like background checks and safe storage requirements are exceptionally effective at reducing suicides. Suicide by firearm is the most common method; in a report prepared by Washington State on the subject of holistic, public-health-and-policy-based prevention, firearms as listed as the cause of death for half of suicides—more than suffocation, falling, and poisoning combined. And while battle lines are often drawn on either side of a perceived definition of the Second Amendment, a lot of gun dealers are joining the fight to reduce their own role.
Gun sellers emerge as unlikely ally in fight against suicides
"At first I was very skeptical, because we have been trained to think when people talk about suicide that it's nothing…
Suicide prevention is about community—it’s about confronting taboos and talking about subjects that most of us would just as soon run away from. But it’s also about changing the parts of our larger systems that push people to that brink. Gaps in services—a shortage of therapists, health care that costs too much, or work that doesn’t pay enough—and a general acceptance of income inequality are serious parts of the overall issue.
These are things that the hotline can’t fix—but checking in isn’t going to fix them either, unless you’re checking in with your Congressional represtentative.
Again, it bears stating: Someone else’s suicide is not your fault. It is never your fault.
But you might feel at fault, especially if you were told at some point in the past that you should be doing more to prevent suicides around you.
I have deep concerns with the post-suicide finger-wagging. When we tell each other that our modes of helping our hurting friends are somehow not good enough or require more strength than we can maybe muster at that moment because it deserves to be stated that helping someone who is very depressed is fucking exhausting , it sends a dangerous message.
There are countless stories of ways the hotline has been helpful — I have one or two myself — and the idea that it’s patently useless is untrue. It’s recommended as a first step by just about every reputable source because it has a use. It might not be useful for everyone, and it might not always be perfect advice, but for those who have never felt that despair, never tried to count the doses and ensure efficacy, it’s a start. And it might be a first step of many.
That doesn’t make it unnecessary or unhelpful, it just means that it’s not a comprehensive solution to a much bigger, darker issue. Of course it is.
If the advice we give each other about suicide prevention is to reach out or check in, then by necessity, a completed suicide must be due to a lack of reaching out, of checking in. There is implicit fault there.
I don’t accept that. And I wish others wouldn’t, either. We should all invest in building deeper, more emotionally honest friendships. We should be kind and we should check when we can. But we also have to balance our own mental health and well-being, because that is actually how you prevent a suicide. And we all have to be involved in the parts of our government and judicial system and economy which play a pivotal role.
Where is that message?
Check in on others. Check in on yourself. Provide resources to your community in the hope (the chance?) that they help even one person. Make yourself available when you can, and protect your time and your wellbeing when you can. But know know that all of the checking in and emotional support in the world may not help a friend in crisis, because we live in a world that makes crisis all but expected. And that’s not your fault.
*Of note, my state does not have a mandatory waiting period; instead, there are compulsory background checks. Those background checks can be completed in minutes, but often take longer, depending on the purchase. Even having to submit to a background check was enough to make pause, reconsider, and walk away.