Suicide Prevention 2020
When I think of suicide prevention, I automatically think of people sharing statistics, warning signs, and hotlines. I picture people making posts saying things like, “Check in on your friends and check in on yourself” (which I have done more times than I can count as well). While, knowing the warning signs, understanding vulnerability, and promoting community are important factors in suicide prevention, I don’t think they are the core of it. I think, in order to truly engage in suicide prevention, we have to learn how to tolerate our own and other people’s emotions.
Emotions are neither “good” nor “bad.” They’re neutral messengers that let us know what’s going on in our bodies at any given time. They are also temporary. We experience a range of emotions throughout the day (and that’s normal). Now, there are emotions we would rather feel over others. I would rather feel happy than sad. I would rather feel joy than despair. But that doesn’t mean happiness and joy are good and sadness and despair are bad. Remember how important Sadness was in “Inside Out?” She saved the core memories.
It’s no surprise we view some emotions in such a negative light, however. We’re constantly being force fed the idea that if we aren’t happy with our lives at any given moment, always looking on the bright side, or finding gratitude in every misfortune that there’s something wrong with us- that we need to change our mindset. We have to be leery of “toxic positivity.” Toxic positivity is the idea that happiness and optimism belong in every life situation and if you aren’t able to “choose joy” and have “positive vibes only” then you’re the problem. This leads to minimization and invalidation of completely normal human emotions like sadness, anger, and grief, which leads people who aren’t able to find a blessing in disguise to feel even more isolated than they already did, which can quickly lead to symptoms of depression and suicidality.
Emotion identification and regulation are critical skills we aren’t formally taught. Most adults I know don’t have a broad emotion words vocabulary. How many emotion words can you think of right now (and no, “good” and “fine” are not emotions)? The idea of checking in on our friends is great except checking in with others isn’t helpful if you’re looking for the automatic answer of “good” when you ask your friend how they’re doing. Emotion identification in yourself means looking inward and acknowledging and labeling how you’re feeling. Emotion identification in others means asking how they are feeling and making space for an honest answer. Emotion regulation for yourself means feeling your emotions in a way that does not put yourself or others in physical harm. Emotion regulation for others means creating space for them to do the same.
We have to normalize the idea that sometimes things just suck and that’s part of the human experience. It’s okay if you can’t find the positive in someone you love dying. It’s okay if you can’t find the positive in getting laid off or fired. Just because you can’t find the positive in a situation doesn’t mean you can’t move on from it and it doesn’t mean that moment has to stay with you forever. We have to go through the motions of all emotions. Talking about our experiences with despair, grief, and anger makes those experiences normal and acceptable and can allow people who may be feeling suicidal to step out of the darkness. Maybe if we normalize this enough, people will stop slipping into the darkness. So, while I think intervening when someone is in the throes of suicidality is very important, I also think it’s important to intervene before it ever gets that far. I think that’s where the core prevention is. I know that normalizing these experiences won’t stop suicide completely, but I think it has the potential to create a society in which people don’t have to feel so alone.