Illustration by Jao San Pedro
Please note: This Episode talks about self harm, suicidal ideation, and depression. Please be kind to yourself as you read, and skip down to the helpful resources section at the bottom if you need support.
That’s the question so many of us asked ourselves, again, after the sad news of the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in June 2018. For a few days, we shared crisis center phone numbers and messages of love, as if to desperately push back against the feeling of powerlessness that always creeps up when we hear of people who seemed well, who still had so much to give and receive, deciding to end their own lives. Suicide tends to leave us bewildered in its wake. Or, as my friend Kevin Braddock put it, “It’s the end of knowledge for us, for anyone.”
I know this because I was there once. During the darkest hours of my depression, I felt the wish to be dead. It wasn’t sadness or anger or desperation or even self-pity that drove it—rather, it was the total absence of any feeling, most importantly hope. I wasn’t alive, so it might be easier to be dead. It never went further than thoughts mostly because I was too tired to even lift myself out of bed. I simply lay there until I got better, sustaining the speck of humanity that remained inside me with audio literature. But that’s not how it goes for many people.
So, what helps? We asked three people, and here’s what they told us.
What Helps Kevin
Kevin Braddock is a survivor and mental health advocate.
“Suicide is almost a complete breakdown of the concept of reason. You’re outside of that philosophical paradigm of good and bad. You’re in something that’s so unrelentingly empty. When I was able to rationalize my thought process, I realized I was thinking there wasn’t anything. There was nothing. That’s all there is: nothing. And consequently maybe I should meet this nothing, become one with it.
What was happening in my head, as best as I can remember it, was a compulsive train of thought about words: gun knife blade pills bottle. They felt like commands. They felt like someone was telling me to do it. And then at one point I thought, well, I could do something different. Another thought came in, which was, ‘Ask for help.’ And I had gone halfway down that road the night before. I’d put something on Facebook, euphemistically saying, ‘I’m not in a very good state’—relying on people to interpret what I’d said. A few people did and someone had messaged me and said, ‘I’m sorry to hear you’re having a bad time. There’s a crisis center at this hospital.’ So I thought, perhaps I can go there. I couldn’t go on my own, I couldn’t use my voice—it was something I noticed a while later, that I couldn’t speak, I seemed to have lost the verbal capability—so I had to type it. I wrote it on Facebook. And it took me a long time to press post. I don’t know how long. But I thought, I have nothing to lose, and pressed post. And then everything very quickly changed: someone came and took me to the crisis center. But I don’t know where that thought came from.
The message on Facebook had come from someone called Nadine who I’d met once. She just out-of-the-blue said, ‘Look, there’s this crisis center, go there.’ I met her again last year to say thank you. And she said, ‘Someone else had told me.’ She had gone there in the same state. And the person who told her had gone there in the same state. And I put it in my magazine and someone else read it and then went there. So there’s this chain of four people now, and maybe that person will tell somebody else someday.
I think that we need to invest in better media. But the risk with media is that it sensationalizes. It objectifies something and makes it abstract rather than personally meaningful. With my work all I want to say is, if you’re there, ask for help, and that recovery is possible. And that’s borne out by tons and tons of people who had exactly the same experience. That story needs to be continually retold.
But media is only ever the carrier of these things. Fundamentally it’s about messages between people. We can’t algorithm it into something that’s reliably effective, that’s the problem. Because that’s based on the idea that everyone reacts the same—and they don’t.”
Kevin Braddock now uses his experience to advocate for mental health through his magazine, Torchlight.
What Helps Z.
Z. is currently in treatment for severe depression.
“I was really struggling, really couldn’t cope anymore. I’d been to a therapist’s, to their emergency hour, and they turned me away because they couldn’t help. Then my big breakdown happened. My wife gave me a couple of therapists’ addresses to go to in the morning, and I think it was having these options that stopped me from doing something.
I didn’t have a clear plan in my head to kill myself. But it was becoming more and more apparent that it was probably the easiest way to deal with it. I felt totally alone. I have a family, I have two kids, I have friends, but I was so alone. In my head, I didn’t have anybody. I couldn’t understand what was happening and didn’t know how to solve it.
I had to get across the street to my car, and there was a tram travelling at pretty high speed and at that moment I thought I was just going to throw myself in front of it. But on the way towards the street I remembered I had another address. So I got myself to my car but I had to go to another part of town and I couldn’t find any parking spaces—and then I completely lost it. That’s when the story of a hospital someone had told me about popped into my head. I have no recollection how I got there, just that I found myself talking to a staff member, saying that I can’t cope anymore.
I haven’t had any suicidal thoughts recently and I think that’s because I know there are people out there that can help. It’s enough just to call another friend from the clinic and to say, you know what, I’m really struggling. Saying, you know, I’ve had this thought again and it’s coming back, and then having people around me who were supportive. I think that’s for me has been the biggest help.
I think the frustrating thing, looking back, was just not knowing what options were out there. When there’s a fire, you call the fire brigade. When you get burgled, you call the police. When you break your leg, you go to the emergency room. But when you’re struggling like that, you don’t have the mental resources to pick up the phone and call therapists to try and find one that might be able to help you. But the moment I had that access to the hospital, everything got easier and more hopeful. It hadn’t occurred to me to go to the emergency room and say, I can’t cope anymore—even though my brain was broken.
Last year in treatment, I had an emotional breakdown in one session and I had a therapist there who said, here’s an emergency number, here’s a clinic, these are your options. I think it really helps to know these options.”
Z. hopes their story inspires others to seek out mental health options available in their area.
How to Help.
Natalie Harvey is a therapist who has worked with many suicidal patients over the years.
“When people have lost hope in life, it helps to feel that they have a community. It is enormously valuable to have someone in their lives who accepts them in their sadness and hopelessness, and who can sit with them in that place and help them feel less alone. It helps to talk about it. Use the word suicide. Ask them if they have a plan. Tell a trusted family member or loved one of the suicidal person. Facing these issues head on does not promote a person to be more suicidal; it does exactly the opposite. It shows them that you care, they are not alone, and are not scared of talking about what is happening for them—that it is ok to talk about what they are going through.
Throughout my practice I see how harmful our culture’s value is put on people being independent. People feel that they have to figure it all out on their own, be ‘strong’ and not need anyone—and that if they do, something is wrong. This is causing people to feel alone and overwhelmed and quite often like they want to give up. Understanding that humans have been and always will be interdependent is crucial for us to have a healthier society, culture, and individuals. We rely on each other to thrive and get through the difficult times with hope and a sense of things being manageable.
If you or someone you know is prone to depression, addiction, anxiety, or other mental illnesses it is even more imperative that you have a sense of belonging to a community. You need to reach out to others for help. They can be there to remind you that suicidal feelings will pass, and that you are important and loved. When people are feeling hopeless, it is crucial that they are reminded of their worth and of the devastation that will be caused if they choose to kill themself. In my experience, one of the best ways to help suicidal clients is to remind them of what they will miss and who will miss them if they are gone. In those dark places it can be hard to recognize your own worth; what’s more accessible is the worth of others and how impacted loved ones and friends will be if they are gone. People tend to realistically feel that others will be better off without them, so it’s important to help them see that this feeling is not the truth. It’s their depression talking, telling them to relieve their suffering.
Getting professional help is incredibly important if you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or is actively suicidal. This could mean different things for different folks, but the point is to start somewhere—calling a suicide hotline, taking them to the hospital, finding a therapist, or seeking a team approach of rehabilitation. This will show them that many people make it through these times and get to brighter, more hopeful days ahead.”
Natalie Harvey, MS, MFT, is an adult, adolescent, and family psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay area, CA, and a member of Anxy’s mental health advisory board.
If you need to talk to somebody, America’s National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1–800–273-TALK (or if you're in the UK, call 116 123). You can also browse international help centers through Befrienders Worldwide.