News about suicide is heartbreaking for people who have no experience with depression, but if you have a mental illness or love someone who does, it can be incredibly triggering. So, what do you do if news about suicide is triggering for you or someone you love? It's always possible to turn off the television or log off Twitter, but the fact that this conversation will remain in the news cycle can spark feelings of hopelessness, or thoughts about suicide. If that is the case, it's critical to know that it is always OK to ask a friend or loved one for help, or to ask a friend or loved one if they need help — and doing so can make a crucial difference.
Melinda Paige, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, CPCS, an assistant professor in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Argosy University, Atlanta, tells Bustle that it's common for media coverage to be difficult for people who have lost someone to suicide or experienced suicidal thoughts themselves. "It can bring back those feelings, the grief they're experiencing. It also seems to trigger anger for many people. To help with the anger, it's important to know that suicide is an act of desperation," she says. "It’s somebody in a great deal of pain psychologically who feels like they’re taking themselves out of a situation where there’s causing more pain."
Dr. Soroya Bacchus, M.D., tells Bustle that copycat suicides are a concern for professionals — although not for the reasons we may suspect. People aren't simply mimicking the behavior they see on the news, she says. Instead, coverage of suicide often reminds people of their own loneliness or depression. If you're thinking about suicide, she says, you should tell someone — whether it's a help line, a psychiatrist or a trusted loved one. Dr. Bacchus also emphasizes the importance of treatment and recovery. "Suicide and depression are treatable! People go around and this is normal. It is not the way people are supposed to be. It's treatable," she tells Bustle via email.
If you're feeling upset, it's OK — more than OK — to log off. Paige says to take time off from work or other obligations if you need to. "Depression is a serious mental illness. If someone suffered from it and if there’s a trigger like the media, its important to pull out," she says. But on top of disengaging with media, being engaged through in-person connections is helpful. "Anything you can do to reach out and verbalize your suffering and be heard" is critical, she says. She suggests reaching out to friends, family, or loved ones, or through your faith community, or signing up for counseling, even if it's only for a few sessions. "Increased self-care," in her words, can also be incredibly helpful — "doing those things you find soothing and taking care of yourself."
It can be a relief to have someone acknowledge their suffering.
If you love someone who lives with depression, a news cycle centered on suicide can hit too close to home. But Paige says it's important to be there for the people you love, especially if you suspect they may be struggling. "What we do when someone tells us about our pain, we get uncomfortable. We talk about ourselves, we distance ourselves. Empathy means to be with," she says. "Though it’s natural to make it about something in your life, to say 'I understand' or 'I've experienced that pain,' it isn't the same as true empathy." Paige suggests using the phrase, "I'm just so glad you told me," as a means of showing your friend that they're seen.
Unless you're a mental health professional, you won't be able to fully counsel someone through a depressive episode — but you can help them get the support they need. "Typically people think if I ask, 'Are you OK'?, it can be triggering, but it's not," Paige says. "It's OK to ask, if this is a discussion that's come up before, 'Are you considering suicide or ending your life'?. That doesn’t cause someone to do it. It can be a relief to have someone acknowledge their suffering." It's also critical, if you think a loved one may need support, to reach out — social withdrawal is a major warning sign of suicidality, and someone who is struggling may not feel capable of reaching out for help.
It's OK to not have an answer, or a solution, to their pain. "I'm amazed at how people say, 'Maybe go to church' or 'Maybe there's something you did last week that's causing these feelings.' Just listen. Don't offer any advice, or minimize it. I see a lot of patients who come in and their loved ones are trying to trivialize it because they're uncomfortable," Dr. Bacchus says.
Mental illness isn't easy, and if you're feeling unwell because of a news cycle filled with discussion about suicide, you aren't alone.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Melinda Paige, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, CPCS
Dr. Soroya Bacchus, M.D.