This morning I saw that it’s National Suicide Prevention Week (September 9-15) and in the interest of transparency, I admit I wasn’t even aware. I have little idea what is going on in the world of late. I have withdrawn from most of the activities that previously comprised my life – working, socializing, having my hair and nails done, watching live TV (especially the news), grocery shopping and cooking, reading fiction, even looking at Facebook – to just be. I’ve been avoiding all of it like a turtle hiding in her shell waiting for a never-arriving safe moment to reemerge. And that is not said self-deprecatorily because I am growing new fibers to heal my heart and soul from the gravest of traumas and this is what feels best for me right now.
It has given me a lot of time to think about what makes our organization, Mckenna’s Grace, different than the unfortunately many other suicide prevention charities. Of course, we have the Grace App in development which is unique to what is already on the market. But I feel a need to also focus heavily on the suicide awareness piece.
I’ve thought a lot about everything that went wrong for Mckenna the night of April 3rd. She actually did reach out to a few friends that night and even a few more in the days before taking her life, but nobody understood how serious her feelings were or especially that she might be at risk for acting on those feelings.
I am not sure she was even aware she was at risk for suicide that night. This is not a “judgement” or attack against anyone because even her father and I did not believe she was capable of doing such a thing, but factually, of those friends with whom she shared her feelings, none called for help when she was most unable to help herself. So in my mind, that is the problem that our organization and others like it need to be addressing. We can change how we communicate about the darkest of feelings and how we respond to them.
What would keep a friend from physically knocking on the door and checking on someone they knew to be struggling? Or why would one ignore an existentially provocative text message conveying fatigue with life in general? What would keep a friend from anonymously calling to send help to someone who might need it? We have to understand the answers to these questions before we can address the problem.
Recently I personally experienced why that may be happening through an encounter with a young man in the throes of a severe depressive episode complicated by addiction. Although he did not share an immediate plan to harm himself, he did say that he was tired of living and did not feel joy in life anymore; that he would welcome not awakening one morning. I know this to be a form of “passive suicidal ideation” and told him as much. We talked about my daughter’s death, which he already knew of, and I listened and tried to be there for him in a way that might have helped her. I learned he had recently stopped taking all his medications all at once, and I became more concerned. I insisted he must have a conversation with his doctor as soon as possible and to follow the medical advice given. He left a while later, but he didn’t stray far from my thoughts for the rest of the day.
Later that evening around 8:00, he sent me a text and asked if he could sleep on our couch as he feared being alone. I told him of course and that I was in for the night so he could come up at any time. After a couple of hours I sent him a text and asked when he was planning to arrive because I was getting ready to go to bed. He didn’t respond. Another hour went by and I texted again. Still no response. I called him and my call went to voicemail after several rings. I was worried now, so I went to his door and knocked loudly; no one answered. I returned to my apartment and reread our texts to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. Nope, I hadn’t misunderstood. I called again and left a voice message telling him how worried I was given our earlier conversation and that he needed to let me know he was okay. I also sent another text. I went downstairs once again and knocked even louder on his door. Nothing.
By now it was around 11:30 pm and I made the decision to call for help even though a neighbor told me that sometimes this young man makes plans and just disappears and doesn’t respond – and that he was probably fine. Probably fine. Isn’t that what everyone had thought about my Mckenna? Obviously this sort of thing had happened before according to his neighbor, yet no one was concerned. I made the call anyway, to potentially spare another mother my pain. The police came, and sure enough, he was just asleep – and absolutely livid that I had called for help. He said he had just changed his mind and didn’t think it important to let me know. I believe he is still angry as I have not heard from him since.
Given all that I have been through the last five months, I was terribly upset; but I am grateful for this experience because I learned why people don’t call for help. Primarily, they don’t want to piss anyone off who may not really need help and secondly, young people talk so frequently about harming themselves or dying that it’s become part of the culture. Nobody expects anyone to take such talk seriously. Sharing stories of cutting, or other forms of self-harm, or fantasizing about suicide or dying are as common as sharing opinions about the latest Netflix series. It is part of the millennial culture and I think a big part of the problem.
I want to say it repeatedly and loudly. It is not normal to feel like hurting yourself. Cutting is not a normal way to deal with unwanted emotions. Using substances or engaging in risky behaviors primarily to escape intolerable feelings is not normal. And everyone needs to stop acting like it is. If someone is exhibiting these symptoms, we need to be brave enough and care enough to risk making an unnecessary call or having an awkward conversation. So what if we make someone mad for caring about them? It’s unlikely you would ever know if your call saved a life anyway, because someone who is in such distress is not apt to call you after the police leave and thank you for sending help. It’s embarrassing because we are such an “outward” judging society and nobody wants to be viewed in an unflattering light. It’s that stigma about mental illness again. Because let’s look at it another way. Suppose you called for help because you were concerned someone had fallen, or had a heart attack or stroke. The response would likely be quite different.
In looking through my daughter’s phone, I saw that a friend sent a text to Mckenna right around the time we believe she took her life. The friend simply sent a message asking if Mckenna was in her room that night, probably because she usually left her door open, and then a quick follow-up text apologizing for bothering her. Of course Mckenna did not respond. I want people, especially college students, to bother each other. Put the phone down and knock on the door of a struggling friend. Be in each other’s physical presence. Communicate accurately and honestly about what you are feeling and intending. Yes, everyone experiences dark moments, but the beauty of community is that everyone does not experience them at the same time. And you can help each other out of them.
If someone asks if you have ever tried to kill/cut/harm yourself, do not leave them alone. If someone is reading or talking about poems that relate to suicide or death, ask the awkward question about why they have been reading such. If someone says they aren’t going to be here anymore when you want to get together to talk, please do not ask if they are okay and believe them if they say, “I’m fine.” Stay with them or make sure someone else does. If someone says they are feeling weird and need to talk, drop what you are doing and get to them or get someone else to them. If someone sends a message that they need a hug, go to them, hug them, and find out why they feel that way. When Mckenna was worried about a fellow student, she didn’t leave them alone. She made them sleep on her floor or futon, or she slept on theirs but she did not leave them alone or believe them if they said they were okay. I think it’s because she knew firsthand that often they were not.
I realize this is what I want Mckenna’s Grace to bring about with its focus on suicide prevention. First, changing the culture of communicating in a glib or non-serious manner about dying or hurting oneself; and second, being brave enough to act when someone is making one of these disguised cries for help, because that is what it is. If we can change the way we talk about suicide and get help each and every time there is even a potential for harm, non-serious “wolf cries” will stop. And just maybe we can save lives.
We need a campaign. How about #doyoucareenough or #DYCE for short? Do you care enough to roll the “dyce?” And risk placing an unnecessary call for help and possibly angering a friend? Do you care enough to save a life?
Consider promoting this campaign on your social media profiles and let’s shine a spotlight into the darkness. #doyoucareenough