No One is Ever Beyond Help
How to end myths, misconceptions and negative attitudes towards mental health and suicide
In response to an essay published on xoJane Thursday entitled, “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” two mental health activists who have lived the struggle discuss the power and potential of language and attitudes to harm and to heal.
Dese’Rae L. Stage is an artist and the creator of Live Through This, a series of portraits and true stories of suicide attempt survivors across the U.S. Leah Harris is a writer and advocate for holistic and creative arts approaches to healing from trauma, addiction, and emotional distress.
Des: Leah, why do you do the work you do?
Leah: It’s because of my own direct experiences, as well as a long family history of such experiences. I first remember feeling suicidal at the age of seven, and attempted suicide several times in adolescence. I was given a ton of psychiatric diagnoses and lots of prescriptions, but no one taught me how to cope with the things that happened to me when I was very young. So I continued to use drugs and do self-destructive stuff to soothe myself. I was one of those people who was written off as “beyond help.” At 18 years old, I ended up in a disgusting, squalid “board and care” home. My treatment team told me that I would likely need to be there for life. It was a miracle that I got out of that place. But that was just the beginning. The shame and self-hatred were harder to get rid of. It would take years for me to believe that I could have the kind of life that others take for granted. Eventually, I proved everyone wrong about my prognosis. This is not because I am some super special person; it’s because I finally got the non-judgmental support I needed. I was able to connect with other people who understood what I was going through and believed in my capacity to heal. They created the space for me to begin to trust myself. It was all pure luck that I was able to reverse that horrible downward spiral, but it shouldn’t be a matter of luck. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I experienced.
Leah: Let me ask you the same question?
Des: It’s personal for me, too. It’s everywhere I look. I’ve been fighting self-injury, depression, and suicidal thoughts since I was 14 years old. I attempted suicide twice — once at 17 (an experience I have no recollection of, but documented in a journal), and again at 23. I’ve lost friends to suicide. Members of my family have faced addiction, trauma, interpersonal violence, emotional distress and, yes, suicidal thoughts and actions.
I spent years listening to people tell me I was too crazy, too intense, too emotional. Clinicians diagnosed and misdiagnosed me, threw med upon med at me, hoping for something to stick. They told me I would require medication for the rest of my life, that I would never be free of the label, the symptoms, the “disease.” The goal was symptom management — putting a band-aid on it and hoping for the best — rather than teaching me strategies for coping and digging deep, getting to the heart of my pain, my trauma.
When I was 16, I decided that, because I felt so alone and scared, I wanted to follow a career path that would allow me to help kids like me. That didn’t work out as planned, and I dropped the dream for years. But after my suicide attempt at 23, I felt a shame and a silence that seemed so unfair and such a heavy burden. There were few people to talk to, and there was certainly no one else who felt comfortable enough to openly share that they’d been there, too.
After that, it made sense to me to go back and take a stand, to give survivors their voices back, to show the world that suicide doesn’t discriminate, to open minds, and to educate. Doing this work has helped to heal me in innumerable ways: It’s provided me with a community. I’ve learned to advocate for myself in dealings with clinicians. I’ve learned what I need, when I need it, and how to ask for help.
Des: Tell me more about the whole issue of trauma.
Leah: I’ve learned from personal experience and from the research that the vast majority of people who live with addictions, eating disorders, mental health issues, and people who self-injure, attempt suicide, or otherwise behave in ways that “get them into trouble,” are survivors of childhood and/or adult trauma. This trauma might be the things we typically think of, such as child abuse, rape, experiencing or witnessing violence, or bullying. But it also might be things we don’t immediately think of as trauma. Living with racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia on a daily basis can overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope. Ongoing poverty and financial stress are deeply traumatic. Trauma can also be the sudden loss of a loved one, or the end of a romantic relationship. Any or all of these things can push someone to the breaking point. And trauma is much more common than any of us realize or talk about.
I know that in my deepest distress, I often behaved in ways that scared, irritated, and confused the people around me. I alternated between being numb and checked out, being overly clinging, and being rageful and pushing folks away. My friends, loved ones, and even the professionals didn’t know what to do with me. We tend to fear or condemn that which we don’t understand. But things like having the cops called on me when I was self-injuring, or being locked in a sterile mental hospital as a kid only made it all so much worse. It’s very hard to recover from feeling like a broken thing.
Leah: Why is language so important when we talk about issues relating to mental health and suicide?
Des: Language is the basis for how we process our thoughts and emotions. It colors our perspective on our experiences. In the case of mental health, the language we use often fails to accurately describe the situations of those who experience emotional distress; further, the language we use perpetuates discriminatory and dangerous ideas about folks who live with mental health struggles that are widely accepted in our society.
We’re inundated with scenarios in the media where people kill themselves violently onscreen for our rubbernecking pleasure, where we report on their deaths by simplifying and sensationalizing, where the message is that people who attempt or die from suicide do so “for attention,” where people who die from suicide “gave up” or “were selfish” — like their pain was a choice. We forget that suicide doesn’t discriminate, that trauma can damage our minds, and that any of these things can happen to any one of us.
If we’re constantly told that we’re crazy, that we should stuff our experiences deep down inside of ourselves and be silent because suicide isn’t the sort of thing you talk about in mixed company, that we’ll never be normal, that we can never heal, there’s a good chance that, eventually, we’ll accept and internalize those untruths. And it’s those ideas that are killer (pun intended).
Research shows that the most subtle changes in language can literally change our perceptions of the world around us. It follows that using objective, person-centered, compassionate, empathetic language is the first step toward doing away with damaging perspectives on mental health and suicide, and every single one of us has the power to change the culture around behavioral health struggles simply by changing the way we speak.
Some examples: People don’t “commit” suicide, they die from suicide. We don’t have “failed” or “successful” suicide attempts, we simply have suicide attempts. We are not “frequent flyers” if we’re hospitalized more than once, or use behavioral health services regularly.
No matter what my grandmother says about sticks and stones and broken bones, words carry weight, and they can hurt us.
Des: What kinds of things should writers who choose to cover mental health and/or suicide consider?
Leah: It’s not about censoring people, but like you said, language matters. Anyone who is publicly writing about or publishing work on these topics has a responsibility to consider the implications of their words. There are already enough damaging myths, messages and stereotypes out there. Let’s have some humility and not add to them. xoJane received a huge negative response for publishing that piece. But the reality is that we are inundated with these messages from every angle. As a society, there are folks who really still believe that some people are “beyond help.” We can shift away from this hopeless mindset by making more space for the voices of the people who have lived these realities and are discovering ways to survive, cope and heal. We don’t need to whitewash or sanitize the very real pain that people experience, but we must take care to humanize — not sensationalize or demonize — the struggle. Researcher Patrick Corrigan has shown that the number one way to decrease myths and misconceptions about what it means to live with a mental health issue is to center the first-person perspectives of those folks as everyday people we can relate to. And if you’re writing publicly about suicide, please link to resources that readers can turn to for support.
Leah: How can we help people in our lives who may be in distress for whatever reason, or behaving in ways that we don’t understand?
Des: The best thing we can do is not to respond from a place of, “What’s wrong with you?” but instead to adopt an attitude of, “What happened?” We can put aside our judgments and assumptions and get respectfully curious about what the other person is going through. We can practice listening and learn how to hold space for someone else. (Watch the Brene Brown video below for a quick primer on how to be an awesome support person.) Most of all, we can hold the hope that this person is capable of getting to the other side of whatever struggle they are going through, even if they are in crisis. Speaking of crisis, here is another great resource: Navigating Crisis by The Icarus Project.
You don’t have to be a therapist to be therapeutic. In fact, I’m starting to believe that we, as friends and loved ones of people affected by mental health struggles, have more power than clinicians (especially given that, let’s be real, mental health care is a luxury). We’re there in times of distress — between 9am and 5pm, and beyond. Learning to make that space and to be a solid support person can be the difference between life and death. That being said, if you feel it’s beyond your capacity to support the person, or if your relationship is strained, educate yourself about the resources in your community, or help connect the person with others who are in a position to support them. This is just good information to know, period. You never know when you might need it.
No one is beyond help. We all have something to live for. Sometimes we get lost and don’t know what that is, but it’s there if we wait another minute, hour, day. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, but we need to keep the awareness going all year long, and then we need to build on it, moving from awareness to action that will promote compassion and healing, action that could save lives.
If you’re feeling suicidal, please talk to somebody. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 or Trans Lifeline at 1–877–565–8860. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you don’t like the phone, check out Lifeline Crisis Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you’re not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.