Consider consequences of talking

We’ve just had the World Suicide Prevention Day. As ever, the hashtag devoted to the event, #wspd2020 is full of suicide prevention messages. This year, however, one of the dominant motifs in the messages has been that of ‘reaching out’. In this post, I want to look at those messages and comment.

Let me start by showing you the messages I’m referring to. Below are three screenshots of such tweets: one is from an organisation, one is from an activist, one is from an eminent suicidologist. The tweets are typical, they are literally hundreds of such tweets. Also, I’m showing only the content, who wrote them is immaterial, although I appreciate that they can be traced. That’s not the point though. Here are the tweets:

Such messages are underscored by simple tweets urging people to reach out or to always ask.

It is fair to say, I think, that they describe a recommended or needed communication situation. Basically, ‘we’, people who are not suicidal, are urged to ‘reach out’ to people we suspect might be suicidal. In other words, the situation which is urged is one in which I open a channel of communication and start talking to a person whom I suspect is in some difficulty, distress, pain. So, let’s consider it.

The first thing that has struck me about those messages is that they never consider the response. The messages urging me to open the channel of communication assume that when I open it, it will remain open, that is to say, the person will respond and a conversation will ensue. All it takes is to speak to someone and you will be helpful and if a person is really thinking about suicide, you will save a life. I must admit that, as well-meaning as those messages are, this is the most simplistic view of communication I have encountered. In other words, communication doesn’t really work like this. Like it really doesn’t.

The messages in question tell me that I should open a channel of communication, almost ‘just like that’. As if talking to a person about one of the most intimate, painful, difficult experiences was like asking the time. Let’s be very clear here: it’s really not. It would require me to put aside the doubt, the embarrassment and fear of asking such questions, it also would require the same from the person I talk to. Except for them, it’s considerably more difficult. After all, they really don’t know how I will react. I am just a random person, perhaps a random friend, in no obligation to empathise or support. Indeed, when I talked to men in depression, consistently they regretted opening up to their friends, male and female. Such conversation and absence of any understanding consistently made things worse.

And so, I really do wish that all those positive messages to reach out told me that I could get insulted, scorned, laughed, all for precisely ‘reaching out’. And it may well be worth it, but let’s at least not pretend that it can’t happen.

And then, there is the small issue of what happens when you do get in touch with the person’s pain. Indeed, one message advocating ‘stepping closer’ suggests that it can mean ‘sitting in their pain’. Bloody hell, I started wondering, are people really prepared to sit in others’ pain? Really?! Just like that?

Some time ago, I wrote a post on the burden of taking on someone’s pain. In it, I described conducting three interviews with men in depression. It was all good, until very quickly I realised that they had offloaded all their sadness, misery, unhappiness on me and I was crumbling. My mood was going down, headlong. I needed to talk to someone and fast, as I really wanted to find a tree and hang myself (I am not exaggerating here). All this sadness was crushing me. Does anyone writing about ‘sitting in someone’s pain’ consider such a possibility? Just asking. Because if you don’t, it’s just irresponsible!

And so, when I read those messages urging me to talk, I would like them to at least try to construct a realistic communicative situation. Reach out, but you will need to overcome quite a lot of social anxiety, reach out, but you might not be answered, reach out, for pity’s sake, but the person might still kill themselves. Are you prepared to live with this?

Now, some of the ‘reach out’ messages contained instructions how to talk. Below you will find a few of them.

Let’s consider these guides (they are quite typical). Once again, their most fascinating aspect is the assumption that if you ask the right question, the conversation will go like a dream. Note, for example, that second guide suggests that if you ask a question, it WILL open the space. This is nonsense, complete and utter nonsense. Yes, it might, possibly. But certainty with which this guide is written, suggests complete ignorance of how communication works. There can never be a guarantee that if you say something, what you thought would happen, will happen. The third guide’s assumption that you will have the opportunity to ‘let them express their feelings’ is as silly. No, you can’t assume that the person will be talking and talking, so please don’t interrupt them.

There is more of this in the third guide. What does it mean to ‘give support’? What does it mean to ‘build the connection’? These are meaningless instructions that clinicians train for years to understand and implement. It’s really not that easy to ‘build the connection’, it takes time, it takes skill, it takes trust. The idea that you simply will build the connection because you open your mouth and the person will open for you to read like a book, is just unbelievably simplistic. And no, please do not even give ‘open questions’ another thought (first guide). This incessant advice about open questions is just another utter and complete nonsense.

When the eminent suicidologist tweeted his reach-out message, I replied and asked him about the burden of asking. He thought it was a fair question (I was surprised to get an answer, after all, he’s eminent and I am not). So, then I asked where it leaves the reach-out messages. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a response to that question. Frankly, I didn’t expect one.

The reach-out messages are unbelievably presumptuous. It amazes me that so many people think they have the right to tell others to offer help. They do it without giving (at least explicitly) another thought to the fact that potentially they ask people to put themselves in harm’s way. I find it extremely problematic.

Let me end with a story. A few years ago, I was preparing to write the book on suicide notes. I was reading the notes for about 3-4 months, it was the hardest thing I had ever read. One day, I was talking to a colleague who, all of a sudden, asked me whether I needed psychological help. I looked at them in utter bewilderment and asked what they were on about. They told me I had become more sombre, withdrawn, less chatty. I thanked for the concern and said I was reading suicide notes for my next book and I think about them a lot. On that I ended the conversation.

I really didn’t like the question. I thought the colleague was intruding on my privacy. Not only did I not appreciate the concern, but I immediately thought that I needed to be more careful at work. This is because I had actually noticed that the suicide notes were having an effect on me, but I really didn’t want this to be seen. And I thought I had been found out. My colleague discovered a very personal experience of mine, something that was only mine to have, and if someone else should know about this, it would be only my decision to share it. And so, I did become more careful and showed much less. No one asked me such a question again. Job well done!

I end with this true story because I want to end with another problem. The reach-out messages consistently assume that asking a question means getting a fulsome answer. As I said above, this is nonsense. So, I’d like to finish this post with a number of questions. How many people who had been asked, started hiding even better? How many thought that the question brought them shame? How many lost their self-esteem?

And….how many more contexts do I need come up with before those who urge people to ‘reach out’ take a realistic view of how people communicate? But you know better, don’t you?



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