Over the last several weeks, with tragic celebrity suicides, and an increasing dialogue surrounding mental health, the messages have felt impossible to escape: You are not alone, you are loved, here’s the hotline that you should call if you are ever in crisis. I know those words and tweets and Instagram posts didn’t come from a place of ill will, but something felt off to me. The messages seemed almost ignorant, and ironically, telegraphed a sense of isolation. Perhaps it was that the words, “you’re not alone, call this number,” lacked sufficient nuance to tackle a topic as complex as suicide. Perhaps it was also that the mere reminder of the hotline felt like a suggestion to call one an instruction that places the onus on the individual in crisis while failing to acknowledge several other factors (like the importance of a support network, or how difficult it may be to ask for help in the first place). So I (unfairly) doubted the legitimacy of everyone who posted the hotline messages.
I’d see them and think, you clearly don’t understand mental illness. If they had, I thought, they wouldn’t be so quick to minimize it in a single, sweeping suggestion. Rationally, I know that the hotline reminders come from a place of support and solidarity and maybe, in some cases, a sense of speechlessness — an “I don’t know what to say, but I think I should say something, so here it is.” Still, they bothered me, so I reached out to Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a psychologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, about why I felt this way.
First, Dr. Dvoskin shared that it’s not unusual to “overgeneralize” in these situations, especially when it feels personal, and when suicide is so complex. He added, “I think you’re right that there ought to be more ways [to suggest people get help] than just hotlines, but I like the fact that there are hotlines, and there’s somebody to talk to, because if that’s the way you feel comfortable communicating, then that’s great.” Of course, Dr. Dvoskin is right. As he said, “the act of suicide is an escape from psychological pain,” so any safe method of lessening that pain is a good one.
Still, I don’t think I ever would have called a hotline. When I think of the moments, nearly 10 years ago, that I contemplated death over life, I remember them as moments when I didn’t necessarily want to feel better. Or when I didn’t want to work that hard to feel better — I wasn’t ready. Because as difficult as it is to live with mental illness, choosing to fight it and then honoring your commitment is a choice that’s both perpetual and exhausting. I went to therapy four times a week for three years, never missed a session, and only then did I learn the skills necessary to stop wanting to suffer.
I had to learn to examine the reason why we do what we do or feel what we feel. We often avoid that examination because those discoveries are painful, though enlightening. But in order to unlearn our habits and the ways we respond to conflict, which are key learnings for a person who struggles with mental illness like I did, you have to peel back layers of your life and talk about them — and that work is no joke. In the wake of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths, I would’ve liked to see messages that validated the people who are putting in the hard work to save their own life, to encourage them to keep going, and I felt like the hotline reminders dismissed how hard it actually is to do so.
I would have liked to see more simple reminders, like, “Send a text to someone you haven’t spoken to in a while,” or, “Let someone know you’re thinking of them.” I would have liked to see messages that outlined some red flags and what to do if you see them, though when I shared this with Dr. Dvoskin, he asserted that “red flags” aren’t entirely helpful.
“Red flags don’t mean very much, because most red flags are common experiences [even] for people who won’t commit suicide,” he said. Alternatively, he referenced The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as an excellent source for user-friendly advice on how to talk to someone who is struggling. Keeping his words in mind, I would have also liked to see resources like these shared, so that the livelihood of the people in our circles would be more of a shared responsibility, rather than an independent burden that weighs on a person in crisis.
When I originally spoke with a colleague about my feelings on all this, she posed the question: What if hotline use is a generational thing, tied to our relationship with technology? What if that’s part of why you have such an aversion to it? With that line of thinking, maybe an older generation (or at least, a generation that’s accustomed to actually picking up the phone and calling someone for something — admittedly, that’s not really me) would be more likely to use a hotline service. Dr. Dvoskin confirmed this theory, sharing that for 40-70 year olds, getting on the phone isn’t outdated at all. When I told him that as a 15-year-old, when I would have most benefited, I wouldn’t have called a hotline, he was quick to remind me that a lot has changed for teens in the last ten years. “The ways that kids communicate are different now. Many kids are much more comfortable on social media than they would be talking to a person on the phone. The more options there are for them to get help, the better,” he said. And I agree with him — the more ways to access help the better (especially considering 45% of teens say they’re online almost constantly). And if we continue to innovate our technology when it comes to mental health services, we may see real progress and a decline in suicide and self-harm.
Ultimately, I know that the National Suicide Hotline is useful and important and absolutely essential. I also know that I felt like the public’s reliance on it as a tool of support was outdated… but that doesn’t make it completely useless. While it may not have been helpful to me, and while I eagerly wish for more options that embrace contemporary technology, it’s still helpful to some. But I’m hoping that next time, I won’t just see people on social media urging the use of suicide hotlines — I’ll see people urging interpersonal connection, or texting, so that everyone, even me, feels included in the mental health conversation.