I was reading an article on Medium recently entitled Please Don’t Email Me About Suicide. The author was saying that when she has written before about suicide, she got emails from readers who were suicidal. I agreed with some, but not all, of what she said, so I thought I would unpack it a bit.
First off, I was a bit surprised—I’ve never gotten any kind of direct contact like that. Anyway, the author explains that “In the past, I’ve written thousands of words in response, I’ve had conversations lasting months, I’ve stayed up all night trying to support people on the phone.” Huh.
I guess we all make our choices around the boundaries we want to establish, in regular life and online. There was one instance last year where I was looser than I meant to be around boundaries with someone who was regularly emailing me asking for help about some things. It ended up snowballing way out of control, and I was getting bombarded with an email storm. I ended up breaking off contact, and it was definitely a lesson learned. It’s hard when it’s a sensitive subject matter, but I think establishing boundaries early on works better than waiting until something has grown into a shitstorm.
In terms of the author’s basic point, I agree that it’s not the best idea to contact a random stranger and tell them you’re suicidal at that specific moment. To borrow from Seinfeld, that’s a big matzo ball to be lobbing into a stranger’s court.
The author of this article took on that issue like this: “When you contact a stranger about your problems, big or small, you are asking them to carry out emotional labour for them. You are asking them to do work you can’t or won’t do. You are externalizing your emotions and shirking responsibility for them.”
Starting from “won’t do” is where the wheels start to fall off for me. Things get pretty desperate when it comes to suicidal ideation, and I don’t think reaching out is a question of not doing emotional labour. As for externalizing emotions, I’m not sure that’s the best way to describe expressing to someone else how you’re feeling. I don’t agree with the part about shirking responsibility for emotions. It may be very much misdirected, but that’s more likely to be a product of the poor judgement associated with the suicidal mindset than a shirking of responsibility.
Who should be helping?
The author continues that “I believe that people who email strangers about their mental health are doing themselves a disservice by distracting themselves from what they need to do: get professional help. Plus: take control of their own lives.” I agree that contacting strangers when suicidal does people a disservice because it distracts them from avenues that are most likely to be helpful. Professional help is important, but for people who’ve been traumatized by past experiences with the mental health system, that’s not always going to look like a very good choice. Still, there are other services available that are still likely to be a better choice than contacting a stranger. As to taking control of their own life, I think anyone who’s reaching out about their suicidal ideation is taking some form of control.
Then we’ve got the kicker where the author really lost me. “Ultimately, we have to save ourselves. We cannot be so entitled that we expect other people to do it for us.” Ouch. To step back from that specific statement and off in a bit of a different direction, I think there was a sense of entitlement in the person who was emailing me a gazillion times a day about their problems. But do I think that was malicious entitlement? Absolutely not. It was borne out of desperation and being so wrapped up in their own difficulties, and that’s a very different kind of motivator.
Getting back to the idea that we can’t expect other people to save us, that doesn’t take into account that mental illness recovery is complex and isn’t a solo journey. Yes, we need to be selective about who we ask to join us on that journey; however, cutting ourselves off from others is unlikely to swing the compass in the direction of healing.
The Straight Talk on Suicide page covers a variety of topics related to suicide, including getting help and safety planning, from the perspective of someone who’s been there.