What We Need To Know About Suicide When There Are No Warning Signs
In light of the tragic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, we are running this piece by Shannon Kaiser, who works with individuals to overcome depression and anxiety and has written four books on the psychology of getting unstuck and being true to yourself. If you’re feeling suicidal or know anyone who is, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States.
The world is trying to tell us that people are hurting. People are in pain, and there is an immense amount of suffering happening silently on our planet. What we are learning from celebrity suicides is accolades, money, power, and success are not all they are cracked up to be and that achieving more will not make us happier.
We can’t measure someone’s life by what we observe on the outside. When we see the glamorous lifestyle of celebrities like Anthony Bourdain traveling the world, building connections, and leading by example, or we see fashion designers like Kate Spade with millions of dollars and loyal fans, end their own lives, we are left wondering how, why. It can’t be true.
Naturally, we are left even more confused, as we wonder how someone with such a sensational appetite for life can choose to leave it. Now, we are left reflecting on our own lives as we reconstruct our beliefs about happiness and what it means to suffer alone.
What living with depression showed me about how to help others who are struggling quietly.
In 2009, my doctor diagnosed me with depression. At the time I was in a soul-suffocating career and felt disconnected from everything around me. There were moments I felt worthless and like my life didn’t matter. When you are depressed, life is unbearable to navigate. No matter how much you are loved, you feel like a burden to the world.
Thankfully, with support, a solid spiritual practice, and a personal growth path that led me to a career I am passionate about, I overcame that dark period of my life. When I emerged on the other side, people close to me started to say they had no idea I was suffering. "You should have told me. I could have helped," they told me. They seemed to take it personally that I hadn’t come to them. After all, there were no warning signs that something was internally sad about me—I was positive and easygoing on the outside.
The goal is giving people who suffer a voice and allowing them to be heard.
So what do we do when there are no signs? How can we ever really know if someone is suffering and contemplating ending their own life?
We do our best. We listen. We observe. We come together. We look for signs of hopelessness, exhaustion, extreme grief, or pain. Anyone who feels like life is too hard to carry on with could be at risk. Suicide is not just the direct result of depression but of not being able to find any hope through pain. Here are a few ways we can help recognize when someone is at risk and offer them support:
1. Recognize that everyone's journey is different. Just listen.
If you know someone who is suffering, simply being there for them will show that they are not such an outsider after all. And in that experience, they may learn that you don’t have to see the entire path; just take one step. One small step at a time. There are ways to get through in the moment, and moment by moment we can build a stronger foundation for advancement out of the pain.
With that being said: Please don’t take it personally if someone suffering can’t or doesn’t always open up. The best thing you can do is advocate for them and listen to whatever they are willing to share. Sometimes just knowing they are not alone will help them move out of the pain. The goal is giving people who suffer a voice and allowing them to be heard. This pulls them out of isolation and helps them feel less alone.
2. Spread love.
In my own personal recovery, I had to let love in. I had to allow myself to receive. This happened through prayer, meditation, opening up to close loved ones, writing, and ultimately dropping from my head into my heart. My heart led me out of depression because I allowed the baby steps to unfold to my bigger picture. I grasped for hope, and that hope kept me alive. Life can be lived again, and joy is possible. Our hopelessness turns to hope, then quickly to faith. And faith is seeing light in your heart even if your eyes still see darkness.
3. Remind them that darkness does not define them.
Jim Carrey said, "Depression is your avatar telling you it’s tired of being the character you're trying to play." The depression we feel does not have to define us. It is not the only story in our life. When I was suffering, it was my identity. Silently suffering alone, I was consumed by it. It dictated my every move.
But depression was ultimately my teacher. It had a message for me. It was in my life to guide me, help me see that who I was being in the world was not my authentic self. Who I was being was a character, a role I was trying so hard to fit into. But my true self wanted more, a different life, a different way of being. She wanted to be more of her real self. I believe that depression is a cry for authenticity, and it shows up to help us be more honest with ourselves. If we listen, if we allow it to be, instead of letting it overtake us, it can help pull us forward into a life that feels good from the inside out.
The one thing I'd say to anyone suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts is that there is hope. Fulfillment may feel like a foreign concept (I know it did for me), but it is part of your life plan.
With compassion, empathy, and kindness to one another, we can reverse this epidemic. We can save each other with sympathy, honesty, and love.
Now more than ever, we need to have honest, healthy conversations around mental illness. Read the story of how one woman coped after her husband's suicide.