It’s World Suicide Prevention Day. My Twitter timeline is again full of the “It’s OK to talk” slogan. And I, again, despair. As well-meaning, well-intentioned, well-everything it is, I find it only irritating. No, it’s not OK to talk!
I think “It’s OK to talk.” has a double meaning. On the one hand, it’s a statement. Yes, it’s OK to talk, I am informing you of the fact, thinking you need the information (or something along those lines, following Grice’s Principle of Cooperation). But consider it in the context.
Let me start with a story I told the first time I wrote about that it’s not OK to talk. The oldest men I interviewed was well into his 70s, and in psychiatric care since he was in his 20s. Do you know how many people knew about his depression (apart from his shrink and the medical staff, of course)? 1. Yes, ONE. His sister, who also covered for him when he was in a bad way. No one else. Not even his wife, his children. NO ONE!
Why? Because it’s not OK to talk. I asked him explicitly about it. He rejected the possibility of talking to anyone. He was afraid of being rejected, mocked, laughed at. Indeed, a common story I heard from men in depression I interviewed was that any attempts to talk about their problems resulted in their rejection. Do you really want to tell them: “It’s OK to talk.”. I mean – really? Isn’t it a bit insulting and patronising?
The second meaning of “It’s OK to talk” is conformation, I think. I know that you know it, but you may have some doubts, so let me deal with them. Yes, it’s OK to talk. I am saying this, as research on stigma burgeons, as we discover more and more ways in which people are rejected.
Incidentally, the message might also be a reassurance. But then, you do you really want to reassure me of this general, unqualified rule that you have no control over?
Before I offer a positive solution, here’s another story I heard in two versions, both here, in the UK, and in Poland. The story was told by two women who tried to take their lives. They were unsuccessful and were rescued in hospital. Both told a horrific story of how medical personnel treated them. I heard about insults, name-calling, poor care or even withdrawal of care. They both heard they they should have died. Oh, but it’s OK to talk, right?
So what do we do? Well, if the message is to be on the communication process (as the “OK to talk” is), then don’t say anything about me. For the reasons above and a number of others, just because your telling me it’s OK to talk doesn’t even even begin to persuade me to talk. And no, you will not have to live with the consequences. I will.
Instead, how about saying:
I will listen.