Written and contributed by Shantelle Avery
Fourteen times, something in my brain has snapped, and I have suddenly and painfully thought I could not go on. Each one of these times has added to the pain and trauma built up in my heart now, and yet, each one has been filled with life-saving miracles. Unfortunately, 9 of these 14 times have been in the last 10 months.
One of the most common questions people ask me when they find out that this has been my struggle is, “What can I do to help?” In an effort to answer this question and to aid others in their ministering efforts to those who similarly struggle with depression, I want to share this list of the most helpful things people have done for or said to me when I have felt suicidal that have helped me stay.
1. Check on their immediate safety.
First and foremost, when I have reached out for help (I almost always do this by text), people have responded quickly by checking on my immediate safety. They’ve done this by asking questions like: “Are you alone right now?” “Are you thinking of doing something?” “Can I call and talk to you?” These important questions can allow the person I have entrusted with my deepest darkness to evaluate what is going on and to decide if they need to intervene.
2. Make sure they are not alone.
If I am alone in these weak moments, family and friends have stepped in to make sure I am no longer alone, either by coming to my house to sit with me or by picking me up to be with them. This is so important, as being alone only causes the thoughts and feelings to get worse until they seem unbearable. I literally cannot get through these moments on my own.
3. Express love.
It’s difficult to emphasize enough how important this is. Do you know how the three simple words, “I love you” translate to my broken brain? They speak to me and say, “I need you and want you to stay. If you were gone, I would hurt, so please hold on.” These words give me strength and add to my ability to endure just a little longer.
4. Promise them that it will get better.
In my darkest moments, I am entirely blinded by the depression. It feels like I am forever stuck in that broken place, like my world will never see light again and my heart will never heal. Reminding me there is hope, that how I feel in the present moment is not how I will feel forever, gives me something to hold onto again. I can’t comprehend at the time that things can possibly get better, but I can trust in someone else’s hope for me.
5. Give warm hugs.
This kind of physical contact brings immediate comfort to my aching heart. The comfort doesn’t last, but while I am wrapped up in someone else’s arms, I feel safe. The overpowering sorrow and fear subside for a small moment.
6. Help meet their physical needs.
It seems so obvious when I feel well that eating, drinking, sleeping, etc. are necessary for mental stability, but when everything in my world is falling, these important needs are difficult to meet. My husband makes me food. He reminds me to drink water. He helps me do the things necessary for a good night’s sleep, including helping me have access to sleep aids when needed. These things are all so directly tied to mental health. It’s hard to have the strength to fight when my physical needs are being neglected, because I am too overwhelmed and tired to do these things on my own.
7. Repeat, “I won’t stop loving you. You are not burdening me.”
I have been paralyzed by the fear that I am going to lose everyone who has ever loved me by asking for help or telling them about this struggle. It is terrifying when this happens, because I desperately need love, but I am often so afraid of losing the love of those closest to me by sharing my burdens with them. I can’t ever hear enough in those hardest times that I am not going to lose everyone around me by asking for help.
8. Be available to listen and talk.
When I am surrounded by darkness, there are a million thoughts swirling around in my mind, and they continue swirling until I can tell someone about them. Sometimes just hearing myself say what is on my mind allows me to recognize that it is not rational. Other times, it is in the response the person makes where I can find clarity and peace.
9. Remind them they only need to take things day by day or minute by minute.
When I am severely depressed, I cannot stay in the present moment no matter how hard I try. Everything, and I mean everything, big or small that I have to do in the near or far future fills my mind all at once, and it is understandably overwhelming. Having someone remind me to let go of all of those things pressing on my mind relieves some of the stress until I feel better and can handle life again.
10. Have them promise you that they will stay and will continue reaching out.
Promises are powerful, even in my broken world. Saying out loud, “I promise I won’t do anything” brings incredible strength. It’s honestly very hard to say those words in the most difficult moments, because it doesn’t really feel like a promise I can keep, but once I say it, I know I have to hold on. I know I can’t break my promise. One of the best promises I have ever made is the promise to reach out to three people when I feel like my world has crashed. That promise has saved me, especially in this last difficult year.
11. Help them get the physical and emotional help they need, including seeing a doctor/counselor or going to the hospital, if necessary.
12. Share your confidence in their ability to stay.
Some of the most helpful things people have shared with me in my darkest moments have been their expressions of confidence in my ability to endure this heartbreaking pain without giving up. One time, someone said to me, “You have been to the lowest point multiple times before, and you got back up every one of those times. You can do that this time as well.” Another time, I was promising someone I would reach out before doing anything. They simply replied, “You won’t do anything. You’ve got this.” That confidence gives me strength. It helps me recognize that I am stronger than this depression, and I can win.
13. Remind them that you would be sad if they were gone.
I know that might be uncomfortable to say, but for me, it helps me think outside of myself for just a moment and to remember those I love the most and how hurt they would be if I were gone.
14. Help them recognize that healing is always possible.
Honestly, sometimes it feels like I have gone too far or I’ve struggled too much and can’t come back from this. One of the most comforting things someone has ever said to me was, “You haven’t gone too far. You can’t go too far if you’re still here.” I think of that often now, especially when the lies in my mind tell me I am too broken to heal.
Read Avery's personal story about her battle with mental illness.