With the recent death of Chester Bennington (not to mention the death of his friend, Chris Cornell, just months prior) it seems as though everyone is sharing their opinions about suicide and what drove Chester, in particular, to end his life. Recently, I've heard more and more people condemn him, calling him a coward and a selfish person for taking the "easy way out" and leaving his family behind. It doesn't take much to conclude that these people have never had to deal with a mental illness or thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
The first thing people need to understand is how mental illness operates. When talking to a person in a severe state of mental anguish, a number of people will attempt to either 1. Throw out the phrase "It's going to be okay," over and over, or 2. Dish out some tough love. I will tell you this now: neither of these is the right option. For those of you wondering what I'm talking about, I'll tell you.
Let's tackle number one first. You can't deal with mental illness as you would a person who is having a bad day or a tough breakup. Mental illness is different because it is irrational by nature. When you tell a person to calm down because it will all be okay, he or she won't believe you 99.9 percent of the time. Why? Mental illness brings with it a permanent siren that tells its host "You aren't okay. Something is wrong." Combating this siren is just about as easy as swimming in Jell-O. The more you argue with the mental illness' warnings, the louder the siren becomes. "You will be okay," therefore makes the person feel like you don't understand how they think and don't care to, or are attempting to tell them how to feel. Telling someone it will be okay is a totally natural response, and it is backed by good intentions. Still, it probably won't get through to the person if they are having a particularly difficult time. The best thing to do is be an active listener. Let them tell you how they feel and explain their thought process, offering advice when it is necessary or asked for specifically. Not only will it help the person to talk about it, but it will also help you get a better idea of how their mind works. Reassure them that they can rely on you and that you will do the best you can to be there for them. This increases their sense of security and safety, even if by just a small amount, and lowers the siren.
Now for number two. Never, I repeat, never speak harshly or accusingly to someone in a precarious mental state. They most likely already feel like a burden on those around them, and this only increases those feelings. It can even lead to stronger thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Phrases like "You need to snap out of it," "You're acting crazy," or "Stop making it about you," are complete no-no's. The only thing you are doing by saying these things is piling on guilt. Guilt is one of the most dangerous antagonists a person with mental illness can face. But tough love works for some people, you might argue back. Sure, that's all well and good, but for someone with mental illness? No. It might shut them up, but at the cost of their self-worth and confidence. Especially for someone dealing with suicidal thoughts and self-harm tendencies, your words act as a catalyst. You know what your response sounds like to the person? It sounds like you are encouraging this same self-hatred and confirming that they are, in fact, a burden.
Mental illness is an epidemic because people without it assume that what works for them in difficult times works for someone with it. It will remain an epidemic until we make an effort to understand things from their point of view rather than our own. It may not stop the epidemic completely, but I can guarantee a positive change will follow.