It was 18 years ago this month that I decided that my family, friends, and I would be better off if I was no longer alive. Suicide had taken over my thoughts for almost 6 weeks non-stop. I was symptomatic 24/7 with undiagnosed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and clinical depression. I could barely move. It was painful to breathe.
I didn’t know how to ask for help.
The suicidal warning signs were blaring my family and me in the face. My grades had dropped that semester, I had lost significant body weight, I was isolating, and had no desire to do my normal social activities. I was riddled with thoughts on how to end my life day in and day out. I didn’t want to die, but I believed that I had no other choice. I wanted the pain to stop. I wanted to torture in my brain to end. I also believed I did not deserve to live. My delusional scrupulosity told me that God wanted me to die as well. I believed that if God didn’t think I should live, there was no hope. I knew it was inevitable.
The shame and guilt accompanying the suicidal thoughts was crippling enough to keep my mouth shut. My family would be disappointed if they knew I had these thoughts. I had always heard how selfish people who committed suicide were, which fueled the guilt and shame. I couldn’t stop the thoughts. I couldn’t control this looming depression. How does that make me selfish? I didn’t ask for all this? I had heard growing up from certain preachers (not my father) that people who commit suicide go to Hell. I didn’t want to go to hell, but my life had become a living, breathing nightmare of obsessions, compulsions, and tormenting anxiety. I couldn’t imagine Hell being worse than how I was already living. My life was so miserable, I was willing to take my chances.
I survived near hypothermia from lying in a freezing cold creek after a self-inflicted stab wound to my stomach. It was miraculous that I was able to crawl and find help when I decided that night was not the night my life would end.
Oftentimes, I think about how different things could have turned out if I had been able to talk about how I was feeling suicidal without the embarrassment and guilt. What if I had been able to bring up the symptom of suicidal ideation the way that I explain symptoms of the flu to a doctor? What if I could feel confident talking to my friends or family when it started? What if friends and family were able to hear the words and feel confident that we would be able to get help and feel better? What if the feeling of panic, fear, and anxiety could be eliminated when the word ‘suicide’ is said out loud?
It can. But, it starts with ME and YOU.
Just as people over-react with fear and panic when they find out they are labeled with a brain disorder, suicidal thoughts can send sufferers and their loved ones into a tizzy when it is mentioned. And it is THIS very reaction that keeps people from sharing with others when they are feeling suicidal.
No one wants or likes to be suicidal, unfortunately it can be par for the course when living with a brain disorder. The more aware you and your support system are about suicidal thoughts, the more likely when they happen, you will be able to act accordingly to stay safe and get help and relief as soon as possible. It isn’t uncommon for individuals to wait out suicidal thoughts hoping they will magically disappear so no one has to know. This is dangerous and risky. No one should have to endure being suicidal because they fear the repercussions of speaking out. And you should not make anyone suffer repercussions if they confronting you with their suicidal thoughts.
Often when I work with people with OCD or as a peer support for mental illness, they are surprised when I make the inference in planning relapse prevention with ‘when you feel suicidal again’. There is a look of sheer terror and panic about the possibility of it happening again. The reality is if they have happened once, chances are they will happen again if you relapse. This doesn’t have to be a source of fear or panic. It is a symptom that can gauge severity or indication that you may need to seek help. I look at it as a tool for recovery. When I communicate this to individuals, I have often watched a wave of relief overcome them. It is as if I have given them permission to have suicidal thoughts and not feel like a horrible, shameful and guilty person.
A common symptom of mental illness is suicidal ideation. If you understand this, you understand that it doesn’t have to be something to be afraid of. Please understand that I am not indicating someone being suicidal should not be taken seriously. If this is what you are getting out of this blog, take a breath, clear your mind, and start over from the beginning. Suicidal thoughts can be anticipated in a way that can identify a brain disorder, validate severity, and be an indicator of relapse or med-complications.
Suicidal Thoughts can Lead to Proper Diagnosis and Treatment
It is statistically unfortunate that many people live for years with undiagnosed mental illness until it is so unmanageable they are forced to seek help. This has mostly to do with stigma and lack of education. Before proper diagnosis, people will manage their symptoms as best they can, but as I mentioned previously, suicidal ideation is often a common symptom of brain disorders. When individuals experience suicidal thoughts, they are likely to become afraid, ashamed, and guilt-ridden. However, the fear and urgency tied to the thoughts can also be an urgent driver to seeking help. It is not uncommon for individuals to finally seek help and receive a diagnosis because they began experiencing suicidal ideation.
Suicidal Thoughts can Validate Severity:
I’d love to say that most people ask for help with mental illness before experiencing the symptom of suicidal thoughts. Sadly, that isn’t always the case. Ignoring certain symptoms of your brain disorder can be manageable but when suicide enters the picture, it’s time to stop waiting. If you know that suicidal ideation is one of your symptoms, then you should know when it happens, it’s definitely time to seek treatment. We don’t want to mess around with ‘riding the thoughts out’ or ‘hoping they get better’. So, when you find yourself feeling suicidal, you can bet that what you have been doing to manage your mental illness isn’t cutting it anymore. Suicidal thoughts are a symptom indicating that your illness is becoming increasingly unmanageable and severe enough to seek treatment.
Suicidal Thoughts can be an Indicator of Relapse or Med-Complication
How do I know I am experiencing a relapse? Suicidal thoughts, always. Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize a relapse because of reality perception. If symptomatic, we cannot always tell there is something wrong. We may believe because we perceive our world a certain way, it has to be real. This can keep us in denial of symptoms and relapse. However, it is hard to deny suicidal thoughts and this can be a positive thing when we need to be snapped into reality. When they appear, they can be scary. But, they can be the blaring alarm clock that we need to wake up and get help.
Suicidal thoughts may also be an indication that you are in need of a medication adjustment. Again, you may not realize you are experiencing symptoms of your disorder if you’ve been managing fine on medication. When suicidal thoughts appear, it is the wake-up call that something needs to be changed and done quickly. Your psychiatrist can help figure out if a dosage needs to be adjusted or meds need to be changed to help get you back on track.
So, how do you tell someone you are experiencing these symptoms?
You tell the person you have designated who will not freak out, panic, and make you feel bad for having them. This designated person will be someone who can handle hearing you are suicidal and can help you take action to get help without worrying every second you will end your life if they aren’t looking. The point of asking for help when needed is that you are being proactive instead of desperate. This is what the designated person will understand. This will be the person that you know you can talk to and they will not judge, react negatively, or brush you off. This is someone you trust and will talk to in advance about what to say and what to do if you experience suicidal thoughts. You can have as many designated supporters as you want! They will be your rock when you need them.
It is always unsettling as a Peer Support to hear that someone is suicidal. It can be jarring and scary. But, I also know their level of comfort and outcome in getting help can be affected by my reaction. If I panic, they will panic. If I don’t take them seriously, they will think no one takes them seriously. If I trap them with ultimatums, they will likely retract the threat and not reach out again. If I remind them of all the people who will miss them, they will add that to their burden.
As a designated person to help, I will empathize with them and remain calm. I will take their symptoms seriously. I will treat them with dignity. I will ask them what we need to do to find relief for them. I will let them have power in their decisions on what to do next. I will believe them that these symptoms are real. I will treat these symptoms in the same manner I would treat severe physical illness symptoms, with calm and reassuring urgency. I will do what I can to keep them safe until I can recruit more appropriate help at a crisis center or hospital.
I will respect these symptoms. I will respect their humanity.
It is a misguided myth that talking about suicide will put the idea into people’s heads and they may be more likely to attempt or commit suicide. It is unfortunate that in our society, there is not more of an open dialogue of acceptance for those that need to speak out and receive empathetic response when needing help with suicidal thoughts.
Ignoring the epidemic of suicide, refusing to say the word out loud, and missing the opportunity to educate about the realities of suicide will only make it harder and more shameful for people to ask for help.
When I attempted suicide, I didn’t ask for help because I was afraid. I didn’t ask for help because I was ashamed. I didn’t ask for help because I believed I was a bad person for having the thoughts. I believed I would let everyone down if they knew I was experiencing the thoughts. I believed people would perceive me as weak. I believed I did not deserve to live because of these thoughts I couldn’t control.
I now value the symptom of suicidal ideation in my life. When I experience them, I know it is imperative to get help. I don’t enjoy them any more than anyone enjoys having a high fever with the flu. But, I know that they are an indicator that I need help. I know they are a warning sign for me that I am slipping into a relapse. They are a gauge for me on knowing when to let go of denial and take charge. My symptoms of suicidal ideation now essentially save my life.
My hope is that through my advocacy and your advocacy, we will begin to use the term ‘suicide’ in our language that makes people comfortable to ask and receive help. My hope is that we will not have to look at suicidal thoughts as a reason to shame individuals, make them feel less human, or weaker than they already feel. My hope is that by talking more about suicide we will save people from dying by suicide.
Mental Health Advocate/Public Speaker; CBT/ERP Coach Effective OCD Treatment; Host ‘Mental Illness Matters Radio’; Crisis Intervention Team Presenter/Denver Police & Sheriff Department; Peer Support Specialist/Behavioral Healthcare Inc. & Ft. Logan Institute of Denver