On September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, something unusual happened to my Twitter feed. My friends' and followers' familiar profile photos were replaced by pictures of them holding up the same sign: "It's Brave to #AskForHelp."
The photos were part of The Trevor Project's National Suicide Prevention Month campaign to promote the idea that it's okay to ask for help when you need it. Targeted to LGBTQ youth, the campaign has a broader message that applies to any person who is struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide and self-harm: "Whatever it is, ask for help."
This message is an important one for all Americans to hear. It can be overwhelming to figure out where to turn for help, and many of us hesitate because we don't want to bother others with our worries and fears. Every person should feel encouraged to reach out when they need a helping hand, even if it might seem hard.
But asking for help is not where the story ends. In fact, it's not even where it begins. If you were in a restaurant and saw someone choking on their meal, would you politely wait until they asked for help before you performed the Heimlich maneuver? If you witnessed someone collapse in the street, would you keep your distance until they asked you to call 9-1-1? Of course not.
Asking for help is important. But our responsibility to our loved ones -- and to all our fellow citizens -- begins well before the moment we hear, "Will you help me?" It's up to us to understand when someone may be silently suffering and equip ourselves to come to their aid before it's too late. With 108 Americans dying by suicide every day and 25 attempts for every completed suicide, we simply can't afford to sit back and wait complacently until someone asks.
Much like asking for help, knowing how to give it can seem overwhelming at first. But there are a few simple things you can do to be proactive in lending a hand. One way is to become certified in Mental Health First Aid, a public education course that teaches the signs and symptoms of mental illness and how to reach out constructively to aid someone experiencing a crisis, including a person who is suicidal.
When more of us know how to help in a crisis, more of us can play a part in suicide prevention. So, what should you do when you suspect that a friend or family member may be contemplating suicide?
- Tell the person that you care and that you want to help.
- Don't be afraid to ask, "Are you thinking of suicide?" Although some people think talking about suicide can plant the idea in the person's mind, this is not true.
- Listen without expressing a negative judgment. If you express empathy and appear confident in the face of a suicide crisis, this can be reassuring for the suicidal person.
- Assess whether the person is an immediate danger to themselves by asking if they have a plan for suicide.
- Tell the person that thoughts of suicide are common and don't have to be acted on.
- Help direct them to professional help, if they are open to it. Thoughts of suicide are often associated with a treatable mental disorder, and being connected to professional care can instill a sense of hope.
Putting these techniques into practice saves lives. One day at a Mental Health First Aid training in Illinois, a participant left the class because of an urgent phone call. After about 45 minutes, he returned to the training room a little pale and sat in class appearing to recollect himself. Later, as the class was reviewing the five step action plan for helping a person in crisis, the man raised his hand and said, "this really works." He proceeded to share that the phone call had come from his daughter, who was away at college. She was distraught and in a "very dark place" in her mental state. The man said he was caught off guard and for a moment did not know how to respond, until he thought about the action plan they'd been discussing in class. He was serious and astonished as he explained how each step of the action plan had helped him connect with his daughter and help her through her mental distress. By the end of the call, he could be confident that she was not on the verge of harming herself.
Suicide prevention is all of our responsibility. As we work together with the Trevor Project and others to spread the message that it's okay to ask for help, let's not forget about the equally important message that it's okay to reach out with a helping hand even before someone works up the courage to ask for help.
It's brave to ask. And it's brave to help. Next time you see someone in need, be brave.
Have a story about depression that you'd like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.