How Not To Talk About Suicide

When we don’t pause to consider how traumatic experiences like suicide might trigger people on our timeline, we’re not only reactive we’re reckless.
Publish date:
August 28, 2013
mental health, suicide, how to talk about it

Note: I am not a mental health expert. This is my personal account as a survivor.

When I got news about Lee Thompson Young’s death, I literally froze. A tweet flashed across my screen and I simply sat there for a few seconds, my fingers hovering over my MacBook keys in disbelief. I hadn’t been following the child actor’s career closely, but I’d recognize that name anywhere. I finally willed myself to click the link and learned the 29-year-old was found dead in his home. His manager later confirmed he died by suicide. Just as quickly as my stomach tied in knots, I held my breath fearful of what comments would soon follow online.

With social media, it's easy to post our thoughts impulsively. In 140 characters or less, we get to vent or grieve as individuals or collectively as a community. But when we don’t pause to consider how traumatic experiences like suicide might trigger people on our timeline, we’re not only reactive we’re reckless.

There's no question that Young had a special place in a lot of our childhoods. If you were anything like me, you watched The Famous Jett Jackson religiously.

While most preteen girls in the nineties had crushes on the Disney star, I imagined myself as his kickass accomplice -- busting the bad guys together as super secret agents. I had my outfits and the action-packed plots all laid out in my head. No awkward prepubescent romance required. It’s no surprise that his sudden passing hits close to home -- we practically grew up with Lee in our living rooms.

When his death became public, I saw everything from "suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problem" to "people stop killing yourselves" come across my various timelines.

As someone who struggled with suicidal thoughts when I was a preteen and who has battled depression most of my life, I can tell you that I wasn’t drawing Venn diagrams or weighing the pros and cons of sticking it through. I’m not sure what to credit for making it past what felt like torturous years, but I know that seeking counseling in high school (and later college and post-grad) as well as speaking openly to supportive friends helped immensely. I found that when I made it safe for others to share their truth, they did.

But being able to help others and even being in a healthier place doesn’t mean that it’s easy. I still have hard days.

The sad reality is that most people know someone who has been directly affected by suicide in some way. This means we’ve got to share our thoughts without shaming those around us. For instance, don’t try to rationalize someone’s decision and make assumptions about why suicide was considered an option. So-called media outlets have been irresponsibly linking Young’s death to the Yoruba “religion” (read why there’s no such thing here).

Fans have also been quick to diagnose mental illness. Yes, an anonymous source has come forward saying Young suffered from depression. And yes, more than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have been diagnosed with mental illness. But without confirmed information about Young’s life and health before he died, can we please stop playing Web MD?

These status updates reek of assumptions about depression and its symptoms. It shames many of us into hiding. And it doesn't encourage people who are living their lives untreated to seek help. When suicide is labeled "crazy," "a copout" or "weak" by people who don't understand the magnitude of their public opinions, it only perpetuates stigma. People dealing with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness end up feeling embarrassed by association -- not empowered. We don't need your (mis)diagnoses or disclaimers that "suicide is not the answer."

Next time you think of posting on Facebook (or anywhere) that people who die by suicide “need prayer” or publicly ponder “what could possibly push someone to take their own life,” think about me. Think about Lee Thompson Young, the incredibly handsome and talented actor with a Colgate smile that could melt anyone’s heart. Think about the almost one million Americans that receive treatment for suicidal thoughts, behaviors or attempts each year. Then think about your followers, your friends, and your family.

Instead, be sympathetic. Post a resource or a personal story. If all else fails, just be quiet and listen when survivors or people with mental health hurdles do speak out.

I’m glad the conversation around suicide and mental wellness is happening, especially in the black community where stigma is often a silent killer. But if we aren’t having the conversation responsibly, we end up doing more harm than good.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Follow Kimberley on Twitter: @KimKMcLeod.