By Taryn Newton-Gill
Mental health isn’t an easy thing to talk about. In fact, it may be right up there with money and politics when it comes to topics that make people uncomfortable. And yet, according to a presentation given to RAW Artists by clinical psychologist Dr. Rosy Benedicto, Ph.D, there are approximately 43.8 million adults living with some form of mental illness in the United States, with half of all chronic mental illness beginning by the age of 14. Even more disheartening is the fact that “90% of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness,” and “suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.”
So isn’t it about time we get comfortable talking about mental health?
The good news is that we are starting to, if slowly. This past month, one of our country’s biggest health conglomerates, Kaiser Permanente, was in the news when its behavioral health employees went on strike to express their dissatisfaction with the resources and staffing available to their patients in need of mental health services. Kaiser heeded the call and has already opened up new positions in their behavioral health department. They have also implemented a survey that current patients must fill out about their mental and emotional state, which includes direct questions about if they’ve ever had any thoughts of suicide. If the patient’s answers register as high-risk, Kaiser is immediately alerted to give the patient added attention.
While these are definitely steps in the right direction, we can’t just leave it to our health practitioners to do the heavy lifting. With the rates of mental illness so high, chances are the majority of us have a family member, friend, co-worker, or acquaintance that is struggling, and therefore have it in our power to be of help. More often than not, those who suffer do so silently, as such intense feelings tend to be buried in layers of shame. But Dr. Benedicto’s presentation shares warning signs in both the form of actions and words that we can look out for.
Some actions that serve as warning signs to pay attention to are: ideation (aka, paranoia - threatened or communicated); substance abuse (excessive or increased); purposelessness (no reasons for living); anxiety, agitation or insomnia; trapped (feeling no way out); hopelessness (nothing will ever change); withdrawal from friends, family, and society; anger (uncontrolled rage / seeking revenge); and dramatic mood changes. Reckless behavior, increased impulsivity, giving away possessions, and self-injury make the list as well.
It’s important to note that those in pain may try to communicate their struggle in ways they can, sometimes clearly with statements like, “I wish I were dead,” “I’m going to end it all,” or “I’m going to kill myself.” But more subtle hints are a little tougher to spot: “Life’s just too hard,” “You’d be better off without me,” “What’s the point,” and “I can’t do anything right,” are some indirect clues that someone is contemplating taking their own life.
So how do we start the conversation?
It can be intimidating, for sure, especially since we might be worried about upsetting the person we are concerned about even more. But there’s an easy way to think about your approach (again, based on Dr. Bendicto’s presentation): GIVE. Be Gentle, nice and respectful. Act Interested and listen.Validate with words and actions. And use an Easy manner.
With this in mind, know that coming from a place of love and genuine caring is the most effective approach of all. Saying things like, “I’m concerned about you…about how you feel,” or “I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately,” are both good openers. And don’t be afraid to be direct: “Are you thinking about suicide?” and “How can I best support you right now?” can also be helpful to someone who perhaps hasn’t said their most private thoughts aloud. You can also nudge them towards seeking treatment, provide crisis information, or even make the call yourself if you think they are in immediate danger.
If you yourself are having thoughts of suicide – or are wondering if you are depressed – the first thing to do is acknowledge your feelings without judgment. Remember, you are not alone, and the statistics prove that. There are people who care about you and would be devastated to lose you. Seek out their support. Also make sure to slow down, do one thing at a time, and make it a point to engage in self-care activities like taking care of your body, journaling, and finding a professional to talk to.
Everyone is susceptible to depression and thoughts of suicide. Artists in particular have a deep history of mental illness. Creative people are often highly intelligent, sensitive souls, and tend to feel the world with high saturation, sensing everything more intensely. Writer and vocal advocate of mental health issues, Elizabeth Gilbert, has spoken at great lengths about her personal struggles with depression and the connection between artists and mental health. She says, “We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope.”
This piece is in honor of our friend and RAW employee, Nic Lebya (9-18-18).