Suicidal Ideation & Chronic Illness
**This post may be triggering to those who have experienced suicidal ideation, depression, have lost someone to suicide, or suffer with a mental illness of any kind. This post is not intended to substitute professional health. If you are experiencing suicidal ideation please reach out to a trusted loved one and seek professional advice. This post is only intended to shine light on an important issue and share what has personally helped me.**
If you are currently suicidal and are in the U.S. please call: 1-800-273-8255 or text 741741 (from anywhere in the US) to talk with a trained Crisis Counselor. If you are currently suicidal and are in Canada you can find crisis numbers and services in your province at this link:
This has been a frequently requested blog post ever since I revealed how God delivered me from a lifetime of suicidal ideation. My intention with this post series is to destigmatize suicidal ideation, open up the conversation about it, and provide some hope on the topic.
As a future counselor who does not suffer with any diagnosed mental illness (besides medically-induced PTSD that is currently under control) I come from the perspective that mental health is equally important to physical health and equally as complex. I believe that both physical and mental health are on a spectrum. If you have a headache more than the average person, it doesn't mean that you're sick but it does mean that your body's trying to tell you that something isn't right. In the same way, I believe that situational depression or experiencing depressive symptoms that are just below diagnostic criteria doesn't mean you have a lifelong illness but that your body is indicating that something isn't right. In fact,
80% of people will meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness at some point in their life.
If it's so common then why aren't we talking about it? I want to change that. We've lost too many people in the POTS community to suicide already. I can't help but wonder if those we lost to suicide would still be around if we were able to talk about it in a shame-free way. So let's talk about it.
You may or may not relate to my situation whatsoever, but I think the first point I need to make is:
You are not alone with your suicidal thoughts.
Whether you've suffered with depression long before your chronic illness or your suicidal ideation is brought on by wanting to escape the physical pain brought on by your chronic illness, you are welcome here without judgment. Whether you've attempted before, whether it's a fleeting thought, or whether it's your brain's go-to way of thinking, you are welcome here without judgment. And most of all, you are not alone.
Growing up I was a little girl with overwhelmingly big emotions, so suicidal ideation crossed my mind whenever I didn't know how to deal with them. I don't think I was suffering with depression but was modeled extremely unhealthy coping mechanisms while my brain was still developing. Over the years the thoughts became more intense and habitual. When I became bedridden I'd go from intense hope to complete hopelessness, lying on the bathroom floor, begging God for relief. Most of the time my suicidal ideation was wanting to escape the pain (whether situational and emotional or physical). However, there were times I was so close to doing it that I was afraid of myself. It never got to the point where I needed to be hospitalized but I think the inability to openly talk about these thoughts is what kept me experiencing them for longer than I had to.
Suicidal ideation is one of the most isolating experiences. Nobody knows how to react to suicidal ideation and this pushes us into a deeper pit of depression.
When I've brought up suicidal ideation in the past I've been met with mind-numbing pity, fear, a look that indicates they most likely think I'm crazy and don't relate whatsoever, or shallow pieces of advice like "be strong," "but what about the people you leave behind," and "why would you want to kill yourself?" (What a dumb question) I feel like I could write a novel on how NOT to react to someone who brings up suicidal ideation. But instead I'll just write out a couple points:
1. Don't tell them they're selfish.
2. Don't use a condescending and pitiful tone. 3. Don't make them feel "crazy". 4. DO suggest that they go see someone. 5. Don't make the decision for them to go see someone for them unless absolutely necessary. My friend who worked at an abuse shelter said they were trained to ask "do you need to go to the hospital?" instead of calling 911 on them (unless they were about to injure themselves right then and there). 6. DO ask them if they have a plan. 7. DO check in on them and send them encouragement and love. 9. Don't take on their life as your responsibility. That lack of boundaries will only hurt you! 10. Don't be afraid to ask the hard questions.
My favourite professor was a child psychopathologist who really changed my perspective about a lot of important psychological issues. You could tell that he was absolutely amazing at his job as a counselor and super passionate about what he does. A couple things he said really stuck with me especially his insistence on speaking the word "suicide" to his clients: "they're already thinking about it," he said, "and saying the 'S word' isn't going to put a thought in their mind that they haven't already thought about." Also,
instead of asking the suicidal child what they like about their life that keeps them alive, he emphasized the importance of asking them what they wanted to kill about their life. He explained how there's certain things a suicidal person wants to kill about their life: anxiety, the pain, their situation, but there's some things about their life they don't want to kill. Then the treatment plan can be focused around that.
I went home and decided to write out all the things about my own life that I wanted to kill. I had a long, long list. I then prayed through each thing and ripped up the list. Something about this change of perspective was quite powerful in my own life. In the past I chose to stay alive for my mom and brothers most specifically. Again and again I did not want to cause them any pain and so that kept me alive. This was a helpful perspective to keep me alive and I am not against using this perspective to get you through the hard times. However, I think it could also be a double-edged sword when you try to use it to convince others not to commit suicide. Chances are that's already one of the main reasons they're still alive now, despite unimaginable suffering, so you don't need to guilt-trip them into living. Love them into living. Care for them into living. Invest in their healing (with healthy boundaries in place!!) into living. Don't shame them into living.
If you look online for support you'll quickly find quotes about how suicide is selfish. My goodness, if only we created a safe, destigmatized place to talk about suicide without judgment or fear maybe some people who have committed suicide would still be alive.
Although I understand not wanting to go through with it because you don't want to hurt your loved ones, guilt-tripping your desperation and mistaking it for selfishness is toxic.
You deserve to choose life for yourself, you deserve relief, and I want you to stay alive because relief, one day, is possible.
I know it may not seem like it. I know it doesn't seem like it.
I suffered with intense suicidal ideation since I was 7 years old before being free from it myself. And I thank God every day that I didn't kill myself. I look around at my life and I'm not just surviving anymore, I'm living. Despite chronic illness, despite limited abilities and quality of life, I truly experience joy. My hope is that you will too, that you'll continue to hold onto the tiniest strand of hope believing, with me, that one day maybe you won't have to hold on anymore. Maybe, just maybe, you'll be free.
One last thing that same professor often says to his suicidal clients is,
suicide will always be there as an option. It's not going anywhere. You can choose to pick it up and revisit it at any time. So let's just put that option on the shelf for now and completely invest in your healing for 6 months. Working on your own healing is something that can only happen now, while you're alive.
Thank you for reading. Please don't lose hope and please seek professional attention if needed. You are not alone. I have just touched the surface of this complex issue but next week I will be continuing this conversation. Stay tuned for a new blog post every Wednesday. We WILL get through this together!