You know when somebody says something and you feel your entire body agreeing?
The other day I had the pleasure of hearing a colleague describe their view on suicide prevention: that suicide is a community issue not an individual issue.
We were in a video chat and I felt like interrupting the entire meeting to give this amazing youth advocate the standing ovation they deserved.
Why did I respond so strongly to this simple statement?
Because I have been told to ‘reach out’ my entire life.
Everywhere I look. Every mental health campaign tells me to call a number. Every loved one tells me to message them if I am feeling unwell.
No one takes responsibility for reaching out to me. All of the pressure is put on us, the individuals who are struggling, to ask for help. But no one talks about how impossibly hard that can be sometimes.
When I am lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, hoping the bed will swallow me up and I will disappear…Calling a friend doesn’t even cross my mind. And when it does, I am so consumed by thoughts of being an unloved burden that I am unable to follow through. Reaching out is hard.
Even for someone like me who works in mental health advocacy, I still fear the judgement. I fear the strained looks and awkward pauses. I fear reaching my hand out into the darkness only to find that nobody catches me when I fall. Or even worse, that they catch me but never look at me the same way ever again.
This pressure to reach out placed on individuals with mental illness results in the community sitting back. They think telling us to reach out is enough. But it is not enough. We need the community to meet us half way.
If you insist that we reach out to you, provide an environment that encourages self-disclosure and reaching out. Make us feel safe. Like we are not derailing conversations by being truthful. Leave space for vulnerability.
But most of all ask the question. I recently noticed a friend was quite low. We got talking and I straight up asked the question ‘Have you thought about hurting yourself?’ They were taken a back at first, but thanked me for asking the question.
It is important to remember that just by asking the question you wont make someone worse. You can actually open a dialogue that they really need to have but weren’t able to start themselves.
Instead of these awareness campaigns focusing on encouraging people to reach out, they should redirect their energy to educating the community. Educating the community about how to ask the questions and how to respond if someone is not in a good way.
This is why I think we should redefine reaching out to be more of a reciprocal process. Where the community takes responsibility for checking in on each other. This relieves the pressure placed on the individuals. Whilst creating an environment that nurtures disclosure and encourage reaching out in both directions.
This may sound like a beautiful fancy. But there are things that you can do that can make a difference. Next time you think of telling someone ‘message me if you need anything’ accompany this with a ‘would it help you if I checked in during the week to see how you’re travelling?’ And make a note, mental and physical, to actually follow through with it.
Hopefully we can work towards a society where the community recognises its role in both contributing to and alleviating mental ill health. Where we don’t just tell people to ‘reach out’ but actually reach out to them.