How To Help A Friend In A Mental Health Crisis, From Someone Who’s Been There

Let’s just get right to it. Mental illness does not discriminate. The recent sudden shocking deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are proof. On paper, and to the outside eye, these two had it all: money, fame, power, success, family…yet these two lives were tragically lost to mental illness.

At any given time, 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness. And according to Suicide Prevention Canada, approximately 11 people will end their lives by suicide in Canada today, while approximately 210 others will attempt to end their lives. These numbers have been steadily rising: suicide is one of the leading causes of death in both men and women from adolescence to middle age. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: it’s about time the stigma surrounding mental illness is removed and we realize that mental health is health, and needs to be treated as such.

After the sudden deaths of Spade and Bourdain, social media was flooded with messages filled with sadness and empathy. People began opening up and sharing their own stories of times that they battled with suicidal thoughts themselves.

I know that personally, this news was also triggering for me. See, I am a suicide survivor. In February 2013, I hit the lowest of my lows and attempted to take my own life. The boogeyman in my head tightened his grip and eventually took over. I was left feeling that my only escape from the darkness that is depression was to end my life. I wasn’t being selfish. I was being, what I thought, realistic. I felt like I was a burden on everyone around me. I felt as though there was no way to escape the overwhelming sadness. Every ounce of my being thought that by ending my life, everyone else would be better off.

And while my loved ones knew something was wrong, no one knew how bad it was…and no one knew how to help. Not to mention, I didn’t make it easy for them to help. That’s the thing with mental illness, you often become: a) master at disguising your illness and suffering in silence, and/or b) an utter and complete angry asshole. That’s the defensive mechanism. But in reality, I needed help.

I needed someone to be there to help me through the darkness so I could find the light again.

It can be extremely difficult for an outsider to know how to help, though. If a friend or a loved one has confided in you about their severe depression or suicidal thoughts, it’s not something to take lightly. Mental health is a difficult subject to approach, and there is no one right answer, but there are definitely steps one can take that will make a massive difference in the lives of your loved ones who are suffering.

As someone who has been on both sides, suffering in crisis and offering assistance to those battling their own mental health demons, when someone is in crisis, they need to be reminded that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

If you know someone in a mental health crisis, here are some tips on how you can help.

Listen (really listen)

It’s so easy to jump to conclusions and assume things. If a loved one opens up to you about their mental health struggles or suicidal thoughts, try to remember that this was a very difficult thing for them to do. They have confided in you because they trust you and they need to talk to someone. Try to avoid going into panic mode and just take a moment to listen.

Listen to them explain their thought process. Ask the right questions, like “Are you contemplating suicide?” “Do you have the means to follow through with your plan?” If so, make arrangements to remove said means. Reassure them that you are there to support them and help them through this difficult time. Focus on the positives in their life. Reminding them that they have a support system in place can help begin to pull them out of the darkness. By not offering unsolicited advice, but instead listening and working together to help them open up about what’s really going on, you will help your loved one feel a little less alone.

Don’t try to fix anything, it’s not your problem to fix; just listen and reassure your loved one that everything will be okay.

Check In on a Regular Basis

Depression is an extremely lonely disease. You feel utterly and completely alone, yet crave interaction…but, cannot fathom the idea of actually following through. So if a loved one is depressed or feeling suicidal, make the effort and reach out on a continuous basis.

Show up, be present, remind them that they are not alone — that there are people who care.

Check in and ask how their state of mind is. How bad is the depression? Are they functioning (school, work, showering, eating, etc.)? These average day-to-day functions become excruciatingly difficult for those suffering mental illness. Just getting out of bed and taking a shower every day seems feasibly impossible.

It can be incredibly helpful for a friend to make themselves available. Bring your loved one some food, see if they need assistance with getting to appointments, invite them out for a walk. Getting them up and out of bed is always a step in the right direction. Allowing them to sit at home alone with their thoughts is counterproductive. While doing this, try to remember that you don’t want to belittle their feelings, judge them or brush them off.

The sadness and suicidal thoughts will still be there after the shower, and they’ll need to be worked through properly.

Be Proactive

Leading up to my suicide attempt, I didn’t necessarily display what one would say were suicidal actions. I was living an excessive life, trying to mask the sadness by any means. I was acting out of character, but I never mentioned suicide to anyone, until right before my attempt, and by then, it was too late.

If you know someone who is battling mental illness, be proactive and don’t wait for them to approach you. If something seems off, approach them. Don’t be worried that you’re going to upset them or make it worse. It’s always better to say something than to say nothing at all.

If you don’t know what to say, just say something along the lines of “I can see something is wrong, and I just want to help.”

Assist with Getting Them Help

I cannot express this enough, if someone is depressed or suicidal, they need to know they are not alone. Listen to them, let them know you understand they are hurting, acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and tell them that you care and want them to get help. Offer to help find a therapist or counseling group for them. You can even be proactive and have a list of numbers ready and offer to be there to support them through the first call.

If therapy isn’t financially practical, let them know there are alternatives. Many therapists offer services on a sliding scale, and more often than not, the sessions can be covered by insurance. Offer to help research what their insurance covers. If they don’t have insurance, their family doctor may provide a referral for covered assistance.

In the end, what you need to remember is that if someone is battling mental illnesses, it can be an exhausting, lonely time. They need to be reminded that there are people who love and care for them and that the darkness will pass.

They deserve to be happy and that you will be there to help them fight for that happiness.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling and experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out to Suicide Prevention Canada. This link will direct you to local crisis centres in your area.


Tags: Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, mental health, mental illness

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