My son Chuck has just posted it on his web page, I thought it was an interesting piece and wanted to share it with you.
What Can You Do? by Chuck Murphree
I have often been asked, “What can a family member or loved one do to help someone with depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation?” It’s a good question, so I needed to reflect on when I was at my low points, my darkest times, or the moments when I questioned if life was worth living anymore, what would I want someone close to me to do or say?
I have been talking with teen groups for the past several years, individual students, parents, friends, and relatives, and have been asked to come and talk with entire student bodies at high schools. I will say, I don’t have all the answers, and I honestly wonder why anyone is looking to me for advice. Well, that’s my schemas talking, those dirty little bastards. They make me question my worth. When I counter these intrusive thoughts, I realize that many are looking for answers, even the simplest response, in order to help someone they care about who is suffering. So, I offer my perspective, experiences, and stories of having trauma, depression, anxiety, and experiences with suicidal ideation.
My quick response to what can someone do to help a loved one who is suffering is the following:
Learn the symptoms of depression and anxiety. They can vary from person to person but in general, they look like this:
- Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
- Irritability or frustration
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Tiredness, exhaustion, and lack of energy
- Changes in appetite — reduced appetite and weight loss or increased cravings for food and weight gain, especially sweets
- Anxiety increases
- Slowed thinking or even being physically slower
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, blaming yourself for things out of your control.
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent mention of death, suicidal thoughts
- Body aches, such as back pain or headaches
- Numbness. Or the dreaded numbness of not feeling anything.
Everyone who has depression has a higher risk of being suicidal. Here are some of the warning signs:
- Making statements such as “I’m going to kill myself,” “Everyone would be better off without me,” or “I wish I hadn’t been born”
- Getting the means to attempt suicide, such as buying a gun or stockpiling pills
- Withdrawing from people, social media, and wanting to be left alone
- Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation, like you cannot get out of it
- Excessive and increased alcohol or drug use
- Changing normal routines, like sleeping patterns
- Doing risky or self-destructive things
- Giving away belongings
- Saying goodbye to people as if they won’t be seen again
These are definitely not all of the signs and there are many more, but it is a few to recognize. Some people that kill themselves show no signs at all. Looking back on my friend’s suicide, I now realize that the signs were there, but I didn’t recognize them at the time. There is also the harsh reality, that when someone does decide to take their life and gets to their end, there is not a lot you can do. If they have decided to go through with it, they will. This was difficult for me to accept, which is why I carried around the guilt of my friend’s suicide for years, and still do at times.
So what can you do? Be mindful of the above signs. Educating yourself on what depression, anxiety, and suicide look like is a good start to being proactive and helping someone cope. Listen in an empathetic and compassionate way, but do not feel sorry for them. Listen without judgment and do not try to “cure” them or solve all of their problems. The person you care about may be judging themselves harshly, saying horrible things, it is a normal part of having a mental illness because they feel like they are worthless. Offer them positive reinforcement on the things they do offer or are good at. They may not seem like it but they are listening. Offer assistance, if needed, in certain tasks or things that they may be forgetting or not have energy for. They are probably exhausted. You can also offer them resources that may help them, like going to a therapist or practicing mindfulness. However, do not bombard them with resources or shame them when they do not take your suggestions. They will get help when ready but still offer support.
For me personally, when I am in those dark places in my mind, drowning in the stormy waters, I just need a gentle soul to be near me, never passing judgment, and understanding that I am doing my best. I am doing the very best I can at that moment so please do not give up on me.
You also need to take care of yourself and realize what is and is not in your control. This is difficult for many to accept and understand. You cannot “fix” someone’s mental illness. You cannot stop them from killing themselves. You cannot force them to seek help or practice coping skills. It’s a reality that many do not like to hear. However, the truth is, you can provide all of the support in the world, and do everything I mentioned above and more, but the person who is suffering from depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation, needs to do the work. They need to find the things that help them, put the coping skills into place, and build resilience. That is the important part. Resilience is key.
The best thing you can do, and society can do, stop the stigmas. We all have a responsibility to stop stigmas that are cruel, and false dialogue about mental illness and bring more awareness. It is a disease, not unlike cancer or any other disease. It can be a killer. Would you place a stigma on cancer? Would you tell someone with cancer that they need to just suck it up and quit complaining? Most likely not, or you would be a pretty horrible person. The same applies to people that struggle with mental illness.
The worst thing we can do is not talk about mental illness and suicide, ignore it, and brush it under the rug as if it doesn’t exist. Yes, the conversations are difficult, but we are in desperate times where anxiety and depression are on the rise. We need to normalize talking about it. There is no other choice and we can no longer wait. There are too many people, especially young people, that are experiencing depression and anxiety, that are taking their lives. Silence isn’t an option anymore.
We are entering a time in our existence as humans where anxiety and depression are at crisis levels. There are not enough psychiatrists, psychologists, or counselors to help the increasing number of people that need assistance. That is why we need to make mental illness and suicide a part of our conversations. We need to be transparent and not be afraid to speak up or feel shamed and silenced by stigmas. We need to learn from other people’s experiences. If it helps you, I will always be transparent about my experiences with trauma, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. If I can help one person cope, become more resilient, and survive, then I have fulfilled my purpose.