Confession: I once called a suicide hotline.
It was an experiment, really.
After all, I’ve posted countless blogs and articles that end with this reassuring directive: “If you are having suicidal thoughts, call this suicide hotline number…”
I wanted to see what actually happened when the call connected.
I was put on hold, and in the moments I waited to talk to a live human trained to listen as I bared my soul, I lost my nerve and hung up.
But it got me thinking.
Before my husband, Bill, completed suicide in 2012, did he consider calling a suicide hotline? Did the thought of talking to a perfect—albeit professional—stranger about the demons in his head even cross his mind?
My guess is no.
The last few months of his life are a blur for me, but I do remember the darkness that clung to Bill like a thick fog. It was as if he was running but couldn’t escape. Now, I understand why; he was running from himself.
Although he’d changed greatly by the time he died, the Bill I knew would never have dialed that 1-800 number. He was proud. He was stubborn. Calling a hotline would have been an admission of weakness; he would have finally accepted that there was something wrong he couldn’t fix.
In short, he would have felt like a loser.
The last line of defense
Don’t get me wrong—as a nation, we have a need for suicide hotlines.
Today, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The high-profile suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade earlier this year caused a surge in hotline calls, and there’s no doubt that callers have received help and hope from the caring professionals on the other end of the line.
But suicide hotlines should be the last resort, the last line of defense in a united effort to remove the stigma from mental illness and prevent suicide.
Bill’s reasons for not calling the hotline were the same reasons that caused me to hang up so quickly. There’s something so mechanical and impersonal about it, like calling the operator or the receptionist at a utility company. The professional on the other end might be credentialed and trained, and there’s no doubt he or she can offer sound advice—but the problem is that, when people are suffering in the kind of darkness Bill was, only love can penetrate it. If it’s not too late already.
Prevention starts with us
When I reflect on what I could have done differently to save my husband—something I do far more often than is healthy—I realize prevention is never a last-minute endeavor. It starts long before there’s a bottle of pills on the table or a gun in our loved one’s hand.
Today, my life’s mission is to make sure no one I love is ever desperate enough to call a hotline number. This is an ambitious goal—but it’s one the nation desperately needs to work toward.
Suicide prevention starts with education and acceptance.
I’ve found that the most effective way to talk to someone suffering from mental illness is to make sure they know that depression is a disease—just like diabetes or cancer. It’s not a weakness, and it’s not something to hide from your friends and loved ones due to shame or embarrassment.
There is hope in this simple statement because, as with other diseases, there are treatments available that can provide relief for depression and other mental illnesses.
While education is essential in preventing suicide, love is also absolutely critical. Sometimes, what we say doesn’t matter nearly as much as the love and concern we convey. If we’re concerned about a friend or a loved one, the best thing to do is talk to them. Look them in the eyes, give them hugs, invite them for coffee, or stop by to check in—just let them know you’re there. Don’t ask how you can help—just help. When they need a professional, take them to that first appointment. Wait for them there. Then do it all over again. And again and again.
Prevention doesn’t start with a stranger on the line of an 1-800 number.
It starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with us.
And it starts today.