I couldn’t begin tell you what my old home phone number was before I moved. It takes me a moment to recall my mom’s cell on the rare occasion I have to dial it. But I can easily recite the suicide hotline number on command.
Part of this, of course, is because I’ve been a mental health reporter for five years, so it’s embedded into my memory. Lately, however, the reason why it’s so ingrained in my brain is because of the tragic suicides of prominent figures like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, and the public reaction that follows.
It’s almost ritualistic at this point: A celebrity dies by suicide. A dialogue reignites about mental health, which almost always includes a flood of people posting the suicide hotline number on social media. The PSA eventually disappears. And so on, until the next tragedy.
It’s not a solution. It’s a Band-Aid for a wound that demands a better cure.
The Real Secrets To Helping Those At Risk
The posts are obviously well-intentioned. And, if given a choice between these reactions or nothing at all, the decision is easy. But the flaw with posting these numbers out into the void of the internet ignores a hard truth about suicide: Saving a life can’t solely rely on the person who is at risk.
If you’re so moved to share a hotline number, then there are many other actions you can take for the people in your life. Picking up the phone yourself, replying to someone who posts a sad status or tweet, or going out for coffee are other low-lift ways to help.
There must be more emphasis on early intervention when someone seems “off” in order to curb suicides ― a responsibility that lies on everyone, said Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. An easy way to do this is just by simply paying attention to the people in your lives.
“When people deviate from their usual patterns of behavior, something is up,” Moutier said. “It doesn’t mean to make more of it than it is, but it simply means that it’s not going to hurt to check in in a caring way.”
Behavior changes could be something as small as turning down their favorite activity several times in a row or sitting away from their best friends when they normally eat with them every day. This certainly doesn’t mean a person is suicidal by any means, Moutier stressed, but it may be a sign someone might need support.
“It’s less about what you say and more about how you encourage them to talk more and give them a response that’s nonjudgmental and really supportive.”
And if a person does admit they’re experiencing mental health complications ― whether it’s a low mood, anxiety or other intense emotions ― one tiny skill can lead to a more productive conversation: Active listening, which requires full concentration on what the other person is saying in the moment.
“Active listening skills are something none of us are really taught,” Moutier said. “It’s less about what you say and more about how you encourage them to talk more and give them a response that’s nonjudgmental and really supportive.”
In a perfect world, this would play into a bigger, comprehensive approach to mental health that starts sooner than it has in the past, Moutier said.
“We need to deepen the mental health literacy of our nation, to the point that people become self-aware of the triggers and improvers of their own mental health like they are with their physical health,” she said. “There are really basic things most people just know, like if we exercise, we feel good or if we eat terrible the day before, we’re going to feel crappy the next day. I think that those same basic principles do apply to mental health, but that hasn’t become infused into our society yet.”
“We need to deepen the mental health literacy of our nation, to the point that people become self-aware of the triggers and improvers of their own mental health like they are with their physical health.”
This full understanding requires effort: It also takes good parenting, especially since research shows mental health issues can appear in people as young as toddlers or preschoolers. It depends on proper health care and better access to treatment, particularly in rural areas of the U.S. It means correcting ― or even just noticing ― if people use mental health-based language in a derogatory way, like saying “I want to kill myself” over a minor inconvenience. All of this builds into a new compassion for mental illnesses, which data shows are still viewed as less than.
“We need to continue to work toward educating people that mental health issues are real and may require more courage to seek help than other diseases because of the stigma,” said Ana Moreno, co-founder and clinical director of Family Recovery Specialists, a facility at Delphi Behavioral Health Group in Miami.
The Undeniable Perks Of Suicide Interventions
This isn’t to say that crisis hotlines aren’t vital resources. Outlets like The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Samaritans have existed for a decade or more. The Crisis Text Line, which relies specifically on text messaging, has received more than 70 million messages since it launched in 2013.
The resource even extends a service beyond its baseline purpose. “A high percentage of people who call the suicide lifeline are actually not even suicidal,” Moutier said. Just 30 percent of conversations at the Crisis Text Line are related to suicide.
Rather, many people utilize the services when they’re experiencing a psychological health issue. For example, relationships, self-harm, depression or sadness, and anxiety are very common topics for people reaching out to the Crisis Text Line, according to the organization. This can certainly be helpful support.
“Talking about feelings can and does help people to feel better,” Moreno said. “Feeling better throughout the call can provide enough hope to try talking with a loved one or seeking professional help. On some occasions, the helper can provide resources the person calling may not have been aware of before that can add additional hope.”
“Talking about feelings can and does help people to feel better.”
And, when someone does call who is contemplating self-harm or death, the trained counselors on the other end are ready to take action when necessary.
Ultimately, though, the future of suicide prevention is a holistic approach, both in our own lives and in public policies. It thrives on a feeling of responsibility for each other ― one that exists beyond just posting a phone number and relying on the people on the other end to do the tough work.
If you or someone you know does need help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.