It was the Sicily episode of Parts Unknown. After a harrowing day of disappointment, floating amongst frozen octopi, Anthony Bourdain was in a full on existential crisis. His narration always hit home; a surlier, snarkier recording of my own inner monologue. The familiarity of his commentary on rigor mortis sinking seafood as a metaphor for the meaninglessness of life, however, was frankly soul-crushing.
The morning Anthony Bourdain died, I woke up groggy and fuzzy. Eyes itching from allergies and opening slowly, I absentmindedly reached for my phone. The news scrolled across my homescreen.
Breaking: Anthony Bourdain dies at 61.
My stomach turned. I clicked on the link but I already knew what it would say: suicide. I could feel it. The frozen octopus scene replayed in my head.
Predictably, my social feeds erupted in shock, despair, judgement, disbelief and my personal favorite: the tired, hollow calls to action by people who have never lifted a finger for those living with mental illness or struggling with substance use.
“Suicides are up 30% since the 90’s?? Why isn’t this a national emergency!!” they exclaimed.
“We need to do something about this immediately,” they demanded.
It’s true. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, over 40,000 people die from suicide each year. And at least 50% of those people have a known mental health condition.
Suicide is a national emergency and we do need to do something about it. Now.
But for people like me — people living with mental illness — receiving support only during times of crisis is devastating, inappropriate and unhelpful.
Suicide isn’t an event. Suicide doesn’t begin with someone stepping up to a ledge. Suicide is a system of pain and aloneness wrought into us over the course of our lives; a culmination of every hopeless thought, every barrier to adequate care and every culturally-defined failure we experience. No singular action — or call to action — will stem the tide of anguish that builds into suicide.
If we only hear from you when we’re suicidal, you’re not being a friend. If you’re only passionate about mental health following a celebrity death or a mass shooting, you’re not being an ally. In this horrific era of suicides in epidemic proportions, we need our friends and our allies to have our back 100% of the time.
We need you — our friends and allies — to demand a culture shift that accepts and values us. We need you to demand that we have equitable access to resources, care options and support networks. We need you to do more than share the suicide prevention hotline every time we lose a national icon. The tip of the iceberg catching your eye while it’s trending on Facebook does next to nothing for those who have been trapped under the glacial shelf for decades.
Yes, the suicide prevention hotline is an absolutely critical tool that saves lives. But it is also one of the most limited tools we can use. By the time someone calls, they are in crisis, suicidal, or possibly already making plans. To actually prevent suicides, we need to do preventative work. We need to address the surrounding circumstances and systemic deficiencies that lead to suicidal ideation in the first place.
While I haven’t made any suicide plans since my last attempt in 2009, I quite often experience suicidal ideation. It can be brought on by any number of things — from perceived abandonment to miscommunication at work. Even with the wide array of coping skills I’ve developed, the lack of available resources, the cost of care and the inconsistency of support make it excruciatingly difficult to maintain any type of preventative plan for myself.
Since February 2017, I have been actively seeking a therapist and have been declined by upwards of 50 providers in my area. Either they did not accept my insurance, their practice was full, or they did not feel comfortable taking me on due to my diagnoses. Most did not offer a referral elsewhere.
During that period of time, I went through two major manic episodes, a major depressive episode, one minor psychotic break, and at least five major periods of dissociation. No medication. No therapist. No hospital. Just me and my 13 personalities.
I’m not saying this because I’m proud of it. I’m saying this because it’s outrageous and unacceptable. I’m saying this so we can skip the suggestions: try x clinic, y therapy or z medication. Folks living with mental illness have been trying. We’re sick of trying. We need you to try. We need our allies to put the kind of effort into our care that we put in. Show up for us. Advocate with us. Fund us.
Look into low-barrier programs in your area and figure out how to get involved — either with your time or your money. Specifically look for programs that are local, low-cost or free, and accessible. Programs that run frequently, such as weekly support groups or courses offered several times per year, are even more ideal because the security of consistent connections is critical to suicide prevention.
Low-barrier programs — specifically NAMI Whatcom’s Peer-to-Peer course and Connections Recovery Support Group — were the only formal support I had access to during one of the most challenging growth periods of my life. Without them, I — like hundreds of thousands of other Americans — would have had no access to care.
If you truly value mental health and those in your life living with mental illness, embrace this national moment — not to share, post, retweet or follow — but to act, give, show up, step up.
If you do “share,” share what you’re doing to support mental health in your community.