After I heard the news, I spent most of the day in a hazy cloud, filled with tears and frustration that one of the best creative minds of our time - Kate Spade - had succumbed to suicide. I wish I could've done something, anything. Should I have reached out on social media and told her she was one of my heroes? I never did. Would it have mattered?
Kate Spade's death was high-profile, but there are so many more that go unnoticed, swept under a rug by friends and family who (understandably) want to avoid the negative comments and stigma that comes with it. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America. There are 123 suicides everyday, and for every death there are another 25 attempts. (Source.) So what can we do?
While I am certainly not a doctor or licensed therapist, I've shared some tips below that I think can make an impact on this epidemic. If we can chip away at the dangerous stigma attached to suicide, we can save lives. Our words matter. And while I know it's a difficult topic to empathize with, and to know the right things to say on social media, here's some food for thought to get you started:
((Please note: this discussion is specific to softening public responses via social media and reducing the stigma of suicide on a societal level. If you know someone who is struggling personally, please seek professional advice and help on how to address your loved ones. This article is a good place to start, and the Suicide Prevention Hotline is also a resource for you - it's not just for those with suicidal thoughts.))
1. Understand that suicide is not a choice, it's a disease. We don't look at someone with Alzheimer's and question how they could be so selfish and cause their family pain by, for example, sneaking out and wandering the neighborhood at night. We recognize that their brain has been captured by a disease, and yet, with suicide we typically blame the person. While suicide may not be an actual "disease" (at least, it's not recognized by science as such), for a person who is suicidal their brain has absolutely been taken captive and there's a break in reality. Recognizing this key difference and treating them as if it's not "their fault" but rather a result of a hijacking of the mind in the truest sense, is perhaps the most impactful thing you can do.
2. Recognize that no one is exempt. Not the rich, the successful, the beautiful. Saying "she had it all" is missing the point - a person with "everything" still gets a cold, they can still get cancer, they can still get mental illness, and they can absolutely succumb to suicidal thoughts.
3. Acknowledge the pain. Imagine being in so much pain that you would be willing to do anything to make it stop. That's someone who is suicidal. They are not simply "not happy" or just "down in the dumps" they are in extreme, extreme, extreme amounts of pain. To the point that they would do anything to put an end to it. Understand that and you're halfway there.
4. Hold back on offering flippant advice. Please don't say that people need to just "take a walk, call a friend, or have more hope." Unless you genuinely believe those things are going to heal someone from a deadly disease, you are trivializing what suicidal people are going through. In tough times it can be great to get some fresh air and having faith certainly helps in difficult situations. But don't solely address the symptoms, and not offer support and solutions for the root cause. Try offering these types of supportive comments instead: "If you are ever in this much pain, please know that I am a safe space and we can get through this together," or "Reach out to me and I am happy to help you find the relief you are seeking," or "You are not alone."
5. Recognize that reaching out is the biggest obstacle. For a person with suicidal thoughts one of the biggest lies their brain is telling them (beyond just "you need to end this" and "your family and friends will be relieved you are gone") is that they cannot and should not reach out for help. This is the cunning, manipulative cruel nature of this "disease." Often, reaching out or telling a friend feels like they are being a burden, and shame keeps them from asking. So just throwing out the number to a hotline is tough. There are insurmountable objections in their brain to overcome before they can even pick up that phone. Stressing that they will be loved and accepted, and that we (as a society, even) will never give up on them can have a much greater impact.
6. Be open-minded and willing to not understand. If you don't understand suicide, if it seems illogical to you, or crazy, that's okay. It's shouldn't make sense! It doesn't make sense! Perhaps you don't understand it, but you need to be okay with NOT understanding. Be willing to offer grace, love, support and empathy even though you can't comprehend it. A little love and encouragement goes such a long way.
If you have stories, tips, resources, or other ideas for helping reduce the stigma surrounding suicide please weigh in below (or email me). I would love to hear from you.
And last but not least, if you are hurting please know: You are not alone. You will not be rejected or judged if you reach out for help. Your mind is playing tricks on you, and it's not your fault. There are so many loving people like me who will understand, accept you, show compassion, and get you the help and relief you need. We are here for you!