Trigger warning: The below includes mentions of suicide and a few descriptive examples of what the author experienced while living with someone who struggled with untreated mental illness.
Two weeks ago, a friend of mine publicly posted about her personal struggles with suicidal thoughts. A week after, as the world grieved the loss of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two more friends came forward. All three women made their proclamations on social media, and none of them were asking for help, necessarily, nor sharing ways they were helping themselves. They simply shared.
These women aren’t alone; they are participants in a new wave of online confessions. Lately my feed has been full of declarations regarding various mental health struggles — from the famous and non-famous alike — whether it be with a meme about depression, a carefully drafted caption under a beautifully shot photo, an intimate confession on Instagram stories, or even by wearing a nameplate necklace that bears the word “depression.” I understand the impetus: to reduce the stigma around issues like depression, mood disorders and suicidal thoughts. I’m glad these discussions have started — that kind of awareness is sorely needed — but I can’t help but notice the stigma around actually seeking help remains. Over the past weeks, I’ve been considering how to make sure that conversation isn’t lost in the confessional shuffle.
I admit I have a particular sensitivity around the topic of suicide, especially the topic of seeking help. Nearly eight years ago, my father died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was alone in his apartment; it would be days before my grandmother and uncle came to identify him. When they did, it was the first time they saw the truth they’d let stay hidden for so many years. For me, my mother and my sisters, who had made the decision to leave him 15 years before, that truth had been part of our daily lives.
My father was a Baby Boomer, and he was raised like many other men in his generation: with the belief that his worth was tied to perhaps unachievable levels of wealth and success, and that falling short meant he was a failure. And so, as his depression and addiction loomed, he got really good at crafting his veneer.
One of my clearest memories from childhood is exploring the objects on my father’s side of the bathroom sink: the pink brush he’d use to carefully style his salt and pepper hair, the fragrant hair spray he used to keep every strand in place. He kept a nice car even when he wasn’t able to hold down a job and could engage in charming conversation with anyone, regardless of the topic. Because of this, it would be years before his cracks began to reveal themselves to me. By the time I was 14, though, he became incapable of hiding his inner demons. Regardless of what he presented to others, at home we got one of two evils: the unconscious one who slept all day in our basement, the smell of alcohol seeping from his skin, or the conscious one who would steal our babysitting money to buy another bottle, stab a knife into the back of a chair, or leave a message next to a dead mouse in a trap that read, “This is how I feel.”
The helpless feeling of being around someone as dysfunctional, destructive and deeply disturbed as my dad is indescribable. As a young teen, I remember calling a 1-800 number I’d seen on TV out of sheer hopelessness. One day, as he sat on the couch in a rare moment of almost-consciousness, I asked him what we could do. There was one last glimmer of light left in his eyes as he answered, “Just love me.”
But loving him hadn’t seemed to make a difference. He was impossibly resistant to change or help. Still, we stayed with him until the moment he was forced by police to leave after a particularly threatening and dangerous incident. After that, we found a new place to live — without him. If we couldn’t save him, we had to save ourselves.
The experience of living with and ultimately losing my father makes the topic of suicide and depression a tricky one for me, and it’s why I become concerned when anyone close to me is struggling with the same demons yet for whatever reason is resistant to seeking solutions. I can’t help but think of the new chapter my father might have gotten if he’d accepted help or been open to the talk of solutions. He might have have found health and happiness. He could have been a functional father that offered me the support I’ve been missing all these years.
I understand why my friends see the value of talking about their thoughts out loud. I applaud them for it. Destigmatizing mental illness is important — but so is destigmatizing asking for and pursuing help, whether it be by way of psychotropic medication, therapy, or finding support networks. That’s why I push — and will keep pushing — for these conversations to go beyond the abstract, and for these confessions to not only exist on Instagram, in personal essays, in casual conversation or in jewelry, but in person, in action and in ongoing conversations. When a friend or loved one expresses feelings of despair or apathy toward life, I can’t and won’t stand idly by. In addition to supporting their steps to come forward with their feelings, I won’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions, like how bad their depression and suicidal thoughts get or what, if anything, they’ve tried to combat these feelings. I will encourage them to call helplines, consider medical evaluations, or seek counseling. I will them know how I feel as someone left in the wake of suicide.
I’m grateful to live in a time when our voices can be heard, even if through a screen. We have far more support and information than my father had growing up in the 1950s and 60s. But in addition to putting a name to this kind of suffering, we also need to know what we can do about it, and I hope that conversation doesn’t get lost in this new era. If you know someone suffering, or are one yourself, a list of resources below.
For a hotline with support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
You can also speak to counselors 24/7 with the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center at 877-727-4747.
For a digital therapy app, download Talkspace.
For online private counseling with licensed and credited LMFTs, social workers, and psychologists, visit BetterHelp.
To find a therapist near you (and to see if it they meet your desired criteria), visit Network Therapy.
For advice on what to do if you have financial constraints, read this advice via Care For Your Mind.
To learn about low-cost anxiety and depression treatment options, check out this resource from the ADAA.
If you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one who committed suicide, visit the American Association of Suicidology for resources and options.