Life is just a bowl of cherries. I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. A nice thought, right?
But as all of us humans know, life isn’t quite that way. And living with mental illness is certainly no bowl of cherries. With some great days, some good days, some not so good days, and some bad days.
Sometimes those bad days can feel awful. So awful, in fact, that you may at times wonder how you can keep going. Or if you even want to keep going. And that can lead to thoughts about the s word. Suicide. This is an especially appropriate time to talk about suicide, because September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
I sometimes hear that word from my clients. I have to admit that each time I hear or read a reference to suicide, I feel my heart beating a little bit faster.
Suicidal Thoughts? We Are Never Without Hope!
Suicide is a scary word. Mental health professionals don’t like to use that word, either. So we often use the phrase “self-harm.” Whatever you call it, the meaning is the same: doing something to bring about the end to your own life. But I cut to the chase with my clients. I am not afraid to use the word "suicide." Let’s talk about it.
It’s been my experience that people consider suicide because they feel helpless and hopeless, and without solutions. The symptoms of their mental illness may be overwhelming. Living with HIV and all that is involved in taking care of their health, as well as the other challenges that may be coming up for them, may make them feel like they are stuck on a treadmill. Or sinking fast.
Clients contemplating suicide often talk about how the ways they have coped with these challenges in the past don’t seem to work anymore. Or they're facing new challenges that they feel unprepared to cope with. In other words, they have hit a wall. They describe overwhelming feelings of disappointment, frustration, anger, and fear that have built up over time. Along with being tired of struggling with it all.
I have to ask: How are things going for you?
If you are having thoughts of self-harm, I first want to reassure you that having thoughts of self-harm doesn’t mean that you are destined to follow through on these thoughts.
Things may feel really awful right now. But no matter what you are dealing with, no matter how you feel emotionally, physically or spiritually, there is help – and hope – for you.
Here’s what you can do:
This too should pass. Suicidal thoughts often pass after a period of time. So if are having these thoughts, tell yourself you will take a couple of days to get some perspective on your life, to consider your options, and to get some support. And also keep in mind that you can take actions that will help these feelings pass more quickly. You can get through this.
Check your meds. It may be time to talk to your doctor about adjusting your medication regimen. This is definitely worth a conversation with your physician – as soon as possible. Make sure they are aware of any medications you may be taking for other conditions as well. Some medications can have side effects that include depression.
Stay hopeful. You are not alone in having thoughts about ending your life. Others have felt this way, too. And they found their way out of the despair you may be feeling right now. Don’t give up hope.
Stay healthy. Watch what you eat. Avoid self-medication through alcohol and drugs. Get rest. When you aren’t at your best physically, you are that much more susceptible to feeling overwhelmed.
Remove the means to hurting yourself. If you have actually come to the point of thinking about how you might self-harm, then remove the means of suicide from your environment. That might mean asking someone to holding on to any pills you might have stocked up on, or removing sharp instruments from your house.
Stay involved in your life. Even though you don’t feel like it. Do the things you normally do in your daily life. Like going to work, keeping your house clean, and staying active in your other normal activities. Don’t wait to feel until you feel like it. Do it and let the feelings catch up. Schedule yourself. Ask people to hold you accountable.
Do things that make you happy. I know this sounds pretty hard right now. But think of the things you do that bring joy to your life. The simple things, like taking a walk, listening to music, watching favorite shows on TV. Do this to remind yourself that life can be good.
Get support. Spend time with friends and family members who can listen to how you’re feeling, do an activity with you, or even just sit and be quiet together. Keep supportive people around you. Let them know what’s going on with you!
Don’t judge yourself. Self-talk like “I shouldn’t be feeling this way” or “I must be a weak person” doesn’t help. In fact, that kind of self-talk can make you feel less able to cope. Negative thoughts can be automatic. When they pop into your mind, you don’t have to believe them. Instead, tell yourself: “I am going through a rough time. But that doesn’t mean I’m weak” or “I’m struggling right now. It’s normal to feel pretty bad.”
Make plans for the future. Tonight, tomorrow, later this week, next month… If you can make plans with others, then that’s even better.
And if you feel you are without options and stuck in hopelessness, get help!
Remember: Mental illness is treatable. So reach out. There is no better time than right now to connect with a mental health professional. If you already have a psychiatrist or a therapist you are working with, reach out for help. And if you aren’t connected with a professional, then get the process started. Your insurance likely covers therapy. One of the bravest things you can do is to admit you can’t do it on your own and seek help.
Get connected. If you have health insurance, you can call your provider and ask for a referral to therapists in your network. Some companies will assist you with a clinical emergency. You can go on their website. Or call the number on the back of your card. Or check with local community resources. You can also get in touch with your physician and ask to be referred for help.
But don’t wait. Sometimes it can take a few days, or longer, to get an appointment with a mental health professional. So also consider hotlines as well as local emergency resources.
Call a national helpline. Here are two national numbers to call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433). And you can find more resources, including international resources, on www.suicide.org.
Or get immediate help. Call 911 or report to your local emergency room. Let them know you are having thoughts of harming yourself. Personnel are trained to give you the help you need.
I know what it’s like to be hurting. I’ve been there. So have my clients. You may also be feeling like there’s no way out. But you are not without hope. Reach out for help. Don’t go through this alone!
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and educator, specializing in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening health conditions, as well as their families and professional caregivers. He works with them to understand and cope with their emotions, to learn about their lifestyle and treatment options, to maintain compliance with medical regimens, to communicate effectively with each other and healthcare professionals, and to listen to their own inner voice as they make decisions about the future. His website is JustGotDiagnosed.com.