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mental health

Opinion: How I think the advice we give on Suicide Prevention Day fails us all

World Suicide Prevention Day has always been a difficult day for me. Not because I don’t agree with the notion, frankly as someone who has seen loved ones battle with suicidal thoughts and as someone who has dealt with them myself – I appreciate that nationwide a day is allocated to discuss the importance of preventing suicide and also to spread awareness of how many people, especially in marginalised groups, we lose to suicide each year.

I struggle with this day because I feel we as a society, especially online, do not handle the day well. On this day, social media is filled with posts from organisations to sole individuals stating how to look after a friend or loved one with suicidal thoughts – warning signs, symptoms, advice and inspirational quotes are shared with incredible intention. Inherently it’s all positive and a step in the right direction but we never acknowledge the fact that everyone and their situations are different and that inevitably nobody is obligated to save anybody else. We also ignore the fact that 1 in 4 people in the UK are experiencing a mental health problem every year, so in reality it’s going to be hard for us all to look after each other with the expectations we are placing on each other. These are high expectations that aren’t sustainable with the fact that we are all flawed humans struggling along in a system that doesn’t favour our mental wellbeing.

From personal experience, I grew up in the romanticized mental illness online era. The tumblr years where you expressed your emotions through Lana Del Rey lyrics, borderline triggering imagery and placing yourself in the isolating boat of ‘nobody feels the same way I do’. Online sources like that were essentially a moodboard of unrealistic expectations; in this online reality your ‘real’ friends would be ready and waiting to answer your cry for help at 3am in the morning. ‘Real’ friends would recognise your struggle by a slight change in the tone of your text. In ‘real’ friendships you wouldn’t even need to reach out for help, these people would just know you that well. Who knew the actual people behind these online statements that would drastically mould young teenage brains – whoever they were they were extremely wrong. It was almost like online psychological grooming or just a bunch of young people convincing each other that one day we would find that perfect friend or partner who would understand us from the get go without us ever needing to say a word, go to therapy or acknowledge that we need help. We were influenced by quixotic media – books, tv shows and films refusing to show the real consequences of not getting professional help when it came to mental illnesses.

When you grow up with this, maybe even fall into jarring young relationships in which these beliefs that nobody will ever understand you are ingrained even further, it’s easy to fall prey to relying heavily on others when your mental health takes a bad turn. This leads to almost toxic conflict between friends because you expect them to do something without you even uttering a hint that you might be struggling. It’s a stark wake up call to the reality of life: we are all struggling and we have so much on that we can’t be everything for everyone.

This is why I think our societally wide advice on Prevention Day fails us all.

I know many people who, on days like this, will put up a message online saying that they are here ‘no matter what’. It may go along the lines of ‘always here for a chat’, ‘my DMs are always open’ or even something as dramatic as ‘I will drop everything to help’. Exaggerated assurances are put out there vaguely to nobody in particular but everybody at once – people who have been there in the past, but are still in no way qualified, are putting themselves out there on a tightrope to be a therapist to people they might have not even met in person. It’s a dangerous game that will only end roughly or redundantly. So what’s reckless about doing this?

We put up expectations for both us and the person who needs help that cannot be fulfilled

Let’s face it, you are not going to be there for a chat ‘at any hour of the day’. Unless you’ve transgressed societal life and can now stay awake 24/7 with no physical detriment and you’re rich enough to not need to work – you will have a weekly routine that prevents you from being available constantly. We are all humans who are either working, studying, volunteering on a weekly basis. We need to eat, sleep, socialise, exercise and take time to ourselves. In reality, even if we are someone who has their phone attached to their hand like glue – we’re not always going to feel ready to reply or check messages. Obviously, your words and stance is all out of kindness and the need to be there for your loved ones and that is fine but it might be time to reword what you say online. You don’t need to claim to strangers online that you are ready to drop everything to talk someone out of a dark place – you are still just as supportive sharing hotlines and occasionally checking in on your friends.

We put the ball in the other person’s court, which is naturally unfair

You’ve seen the social media campaigns: ‘Reach out’, ‘Talk to a friend’, ‘Put yourself out there’. Although it is quite true that talking out your feelings and getting help is the best way to go when dealing with severe mental illness symptoms, suicidal ideation and thoughts or even something as simple as feeling depressed, the reality is that when it gets as heavy as suicidal thoughts and feelings a lot of people struggling do not feel like ‘reaching out’ or putting themselves out there. Suicidal feelings are incredibly isolating. Sometimes you don’t even want to die or feel like you have a ‘good reason’ to feel this way. You feel guilty, ashamed and drained. The last thing you want to do is reach out and interrupt someone’s day to tell them this. Nevertheless, I do think we should continue highlighting the importance and benefits of asking for help, but we need to understand that checking in with your friends is just as important. Again, I’m not saying promise the friend you’re worried about that you can drop everything, just asking questions and asking them if they need help to get help is a better route than leaving the responsibility on the person struggling.

Professional help isn’t accessible enough

Now this is the real point that needs to be discussed more on days like this. Community and helping each other is an integral aspect of a happy, supportive life however, with the people who have been educated, trained and received qualifications to declare they are ready to help others struggling with mental illnesses and poor mental health being out of so many people’s reach – we are inevitably stopping the prevention of so many suicides. In the UK suicide rates in under-25s has risen in recent years which proves that there is still so much more to be done and it is not down to how ‘open our DMs are’ or how many people are reaching out for help. If the relevant courses, support and help isn’t instantaneously available for the people who need help then we are immediately failing people with suicidal thoughts and feelings.

So what needs to change? I don’t think individuals should be stopped from sharing their stories online as it is proven to be useful. Respectively, I found it easier to identify symptoms I was struggling with by reading about other people’s experiences on websites such as ‘Time to Change’ and through reading memoirs and books. However, the main factor that benefited me was when I then went on to visit my GP, get diagnosed and referred to therapy was where I could understand why I felt this way, learn more about how to deal with it and finally feel listened to. Getting the professional help was a necessity for surviving the heavy symptoms of depression. We, as young unqualified, bumbling everyday individuals cannot replace professional help for each other. We can listen, we can give general advice, we can distract, but when it comes to suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behaviour we can only be the person to suggest therapy and professional help. We cannot be the therapists ourselves.

I write this piece as someone who is teaching themselves to lower their exceptions on what others can do for me when a breakdown is heavy. I appreciate kindness and I appreciate the want to be a beacon of hope for their friends and loved ones, but some days when I’m personally struggling I feel like we all risk our personal relationships with the expectations we put on each other. Suicide and suicidal thoughts are serious subjects and are not explored enough. As humans we need to stop expecting people to fix us and we also need to stop promising vulnerable people we will drop everything for them.

Best things to do if you think a friend is struggling with suicidal thoughts?

Don’t be afraid to use the ‘S’ word straight up. It is a myth that talking about suicide will make someone with ideations actually go through with it. Check in with your friends and ask them if they are feeling this way.

Offer to help them when you are readily available. Be honest with them and set boundaries. If you are about to go to work and do a shift, tell them that. If you are about to go to sleep, tell them that. Letting them know why you may not be replying or what you up to can help prevent them catastrophizing and overthinking.

If you cannot help them in the way that they need, see if you can direct them somewhere else. Respect their choices in who they want to communicate with. Share hotlines with them. Samaritans say you can contact them on other people’s behalf via calling or email which is useful. If you think your friend is in immediate danger, you can call an ambulance on 999.

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