By Michelle Keep
CW: This article is intended for friends and loved ones of people who may be suicidal and should be read with caution if you are feeling susceptible to thoughts of suicide. I’m not a mental health care professional, and any advice is given from my lived experience of someone with depression and who has been periodically suicidal.
Since the budget was released last week, there’s been a lot of push back from the province. People have been sharing their fears and worries on social media and in the press, and there was a large protest on Saturday against this anti-austerity budget. Services are being cut, taxes are being raised on the poor, and the wealthy are still not paying their fair share for all the prosperity they’ve had over the past ten years.
I won’t deny that the situation is dire, and I highly encourage you to make noise about this – protest, organize a general strike, write and call your local MHA. Make your voice heard. Austerity kills people. This is not an abstract idea. When the UK passed its austerity budget, there was an estimated additional 30-40,000 suicide attempts as a direct result in the years following it. That’s not including poverty related deaths, such as a weak heart due to lack of food, or an ill body due to the cold weather.
These budget cuts are terrifying, and I want everyone to understand how dire this situation is so that we can unite to protect those hit hardest by these changes. I want you to understand more about why your loved one might be considering dying by suicide, and how serious this situation is.I want you to pay attention to what the people around you are saying, and look out for the warning signs for someone who is suicidal. These cut backs and job losses are of an exceptional concern to marginalized people, impoverished people, and people with mental illnesses. Take the time to talk to them and try to ensure that they’re okay and safe.
If someone is talking about being a burden to others, a feeling of being trapped, or saying they have no reason to live, these are highly concerning warning signs. If they begin to look for ways to kill themselves, begin acting recklessly and increasing their use of alcohol or drugs, or begin to withdraw from friends, reach out to them.
One of the most important things to do is to listen. To be present, and to understand their concerns. Validate them when they’re correct in a simple manner. Saying something as simple as “I understand, it is very upsetting, you are not alone in these feelings,” can help the potentially suicidal person become more grounded and less isolated. Mental illness is a notorious liar, and sometimes we need to know we’re not being irrational in being upset, while still having hope restored to us.
Another way to help is to include the person in cheap or free events. If they’re able, a walk downtown, around Quidi Vidi, in the park or up Signal Hill might be nice. Getting out in the sunshine can be an enormous mood booster. The Rooms has free evenings on Wednesdays. Or a picnic or a free concert/movie, or offering to go for a short road trip at no cost to them can give them something to look forward to without adding to their financial stress.
Avoid bringing up potentially upsetting things, such as money. If they want to discuss it, listen more than you talk, and try not to ‘solve’ their problems. They have lived experiences that are different than your own, and people who are struggling have already considered their options. It also gives the impression that you simply want them to stop complaining, rather than that you want to help. Avoid telling them to look on the bright side, or trying to guilt them into staying alive. Just listen, and offer your friendship.
Don’t talk about the budget, or bring up how it will hurt them, or compare their situation to others (i.e. Mary has it worse than you and she’s coping). Be aware that talk about the budget could be a very dangerous trigger, especially for those who have been struggling with poverty for a while.
Don’t tell them to suck it up or minimize their suffering, while at the same time, be supportive and encouraging of them to continue holding on. The truth is that people, especially when they feel suicidal, don’t tend to remember what you said, but how you make them feel about themselves. Aim to make them feel loved, cared about, and valued.
While those of us able to are protesting and rallying, who are eager to push back against this austerity budget on behalf of the people who can’t fight, we also need to support our most vulnerable citizens. We need to be here now, more than anything, for our communities, especially those who will be hardest hit by these cuts – people of colour, immigrants, first nations individuals, seniors, students, people with mental or physical disabilities, rural residents, women. Anyone who already faces prejudice or barriers in finding employment or housing, anyone who already has to turn their heat off in the winter to save money or go hungry so their kids can eat.These are real people who are going to be hurting because of this budget, because they can’t afford an extra tax on their income, or their gas, or their clothing.
The reason this is important to me is because when I was 15, I decided to kill myself. I planned out a few ways, but in the end, I told myself that I could guilt-free kill myself if my life still sucked at 25. That birthday was an important milestone for me, because even though I was still often depressed, and still frequently thought of dying, I didn’t want to die anymore. I held onto that milestone, and got through the second, the minute, the hour, the day, the week… Anything that just kept me holding onto life. I just needed a reason to live. And by the time I was 25, my life was going really well, and I was, in essence, very happy.
I now, at 31, have my dream job — I’m a full time romance novelist. I have an absolutely amazing partner, I’m a photographer in my spare time, I have so many wonderful friends and even fans. I wouldn’t have this if I’d killed myself.
However, at the time, and at several points over the years as poverty dragged me down, I still felt suicidal. What kept me going was the friendships and the love I had in my life, so you should try to be that person that your friend or loved one can hold onto, and know they’re loved even as someone who is suicidal. Their illness may look or feel different, but it’s just like any other potentially terminal illness. They need support and treatment.
Poverty made my depression and my suicidal thoughts worse. Restricted access to outpatient mental health facilities made my depression and suicidal thoughts worse. This austerity budget will make things worse, but we can help our friends and relieve some of the burden from their shoulders. We can be inclusive and open, we can stop shaming people for being poor, and offer our unconditional love and support. We need to make sure our loved ones know that they’re worth more than what they have in the bank, or how much credit card debt they have.
Many people are struggling, and we need solidarity. Be there for your friends and loved ones, and if your friends can’t participate in the activism or protesting around the budget because it’s too overwhelming or triggering, make sure to respect, protect and support them.
People who are suicidal need to know they’re not a burden on society, or on their loved ones, and during times of economic turmoil and upheaval, they need our help more than ever. Don’t be afraid to encourage them to seek out professional help, and don’t be afraid if you feel like you need professional help and guidance in dealing with someone who is suicidal. Self care remains ever important in being able to help others.
Suicide Prevention from the Canadian Mental Health Association
Suicide Prevention for Friends/Family
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention
Questions to ask someone who may be suicidal
Thrive Resources List – includes Newfoundland resources for employment, health, housing, justice, learning & recreation
Newfoundland Crisis Hotlines (Mental Health Crisis Line, 24 Hours/day, Toll Free: 1-888-737-4668)
Michelle Keep is an eternal optimist and Marxist feminist. A Jill-of-all-trades, she runs a small publishing empire with her husband, has sold hundreds of thousands of her fictional books, and takes beautiful photos in her spare time. On twitter: @jmkeep