The Black Dog: How to Talk about Suicide
I definitely did not expect to start things out on such a somber note...
When I started this Substack, I did not imagine this would be the first piece I would publish. I had several ideas in the hopper like “The Slap™ as Performance Art” to talk about how Will Smith’s slapping of Chris Rock became a meta performance art piece wherein Smith was the artist, but so were all of us—the casual observers with our performative (and somewhat bewildering) takes in this crowded digital salon we call “t h e I n t e r n e t.” After all, that’s what this Substack is supposed to be about—art, design, and its weird intersection with history, politics, and public opinion.
Perhaps I’ll write that soon. But for now, I wanted to republish this post from my personal—now defunct—blog from a few years ago. I came across a few stories of people who lost loved ones (several of whom were beloved children) to suicide. I want you to know there is hope.
By way of a disclaimer, I want to say that healing and working on your mental health issues is a process. It’s not just a one-and-done thing that sets you up for the rest of your life. Upon re-reading this, I have changed my view on a few things and made some updates to the text—most notably:
Updates to give better chronological context and improve readability.
My perspective of trauma is different. When I wrote this, I believed like external factors had more control over our lives than I now do.
I’ve been seeing a new therapist for the last year, and he has been excellent at helping me see my own personal accountability in my healing process regardless of my external circumstances. That has colored my perspective on depression a little differently.
I’m no longer one for trigger warnings. If you were one of the people who read the first iteration of this post, you’ll notice my trigger warning is gone. This is due to a change in my core beliefs: there are no shortcuts to healing; not all pain can be accommodated, and we do have a responsibility in how we react to the messages that surround us.
I did change some of the text below to reflect my current beliefs, but the content remains the same. And I do still believe in responsible content creation. Rest assured there is nothing in here that gives instructions on how to attempt suicide or would be unadvisable for an emotionally unstable person to read.
But I digress…
I attempted suicide when I was 17.
This isn’t a fact I share readily about myself. I kept as silent as the grave until I was 27 when I wrote the first edition of this piece, and I still don't usually share this because I don't want people to view this as an exploitable weakness. Nevertheless, in recent weeks, I’ve seen many news stories about teenage suicide; stories of people feeling incredibly isolated; and, of course, a string of high-profile suicides.
Before I go on, I want to assure you that I am absolutely fine now. I'm happy with my life, and I have the emotional skills to handle anxiety, depression, and trauma. I have a supportive family. I have friends. I have a deep well of emotional and spiritual resources to draw from whenever I need it.
I realize that talking about this sensitive issue is something that could potentially save lives and ease the suffering of those who have been affected by suicide. If we don't talk about it, we don't know what to do when this plague affects our life. By breaking my own silence, I can give others a resource they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I have struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life. It usually comes in episodes that last a few months, and in some cases, over a year. I've gotten to a point where I can manage it comfortably, but that hasn't always been the case. My most intense episode of depression started when I was 16 and lasted an entire year, ending with me being hospitalized in an emergency psychiatric unit for adolescents.
Throughout that year, I went through some painful relationship struggles. My aunt had died. I had started dating for the first time, and the first boy I had dated had been emotionally abusive and isolated me from my family and friends. I started dating someone immediately after that relationship ended, and it fell apart. I had been so emotionally damaged from the first relationship that I did not have the emotional skills to deal with the second. On top of that, the friends of the boys I had previously dated began to harass me. Soon after, my own friends and acquaintances started to bully me.
One morning, it all came crashing down. Someone said something unkind, and it was the straw that broke the camel's back.
I was sick of not sleeping. I was sick of feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I was sick of crying every day until I had a headache. I was sick of feeling like I didn't deserve to live. I was sick of being so angry all the time. I was sick of begging God to take away my feelings of worthlessness. Finally, I was just done, and I hit rock bottom.
There is a benefit to being at rock bottom: You have nowhere to go but up.
By some sort of miracle, some true friends found me and called an ambulance. They saved my life and showed me it was valuable. In all honesty, this experience was the best thing that ever happened to me. I would not trade it for anything.
I don't want you to believe that you must go through this to heal. None of this should have ever happened, and I would never wish it on anyone else. Nevertheless, it did happen, and I was able to learn from it.
Of course, there were some bright spots throughout this whole experience. I had a great Spanish teacher, math teacher, and seminary teacher, who all reached out to me, and they called my parents to tell them I showed up to class in tears every day. By nothing short of a miracle, two friends found me and called the ambulance. Additionally, I am so fortunate to have a family who loved and cared about me enough to be involved in my life.
After this episode, I was able to get the help I needed. The hospital I went to had people who validated my feelings. Without the feeling of judgment, I could unload everything bothering me throughout that year in just one week. I had incredible therapists, and I learned coping skills that I still use to this day.
This experience made me into a person whom I now love.
I want to point out that people do not kill themselves because of their circumstances. They kill themselves because they don't have the emotional, mental, and social resources and support to deal with those circumstances. This was very much the case for me—or at least it would have been if I had succeeded.
I didn't have the emotional maturity to deal with the relationships that exploded in my face. My mind was in such a fog from the depression and anxiety I suffered, and my poor parents and teachers (who must have felt so helpless) didn't know what to do with me. As an adult, I realize how overwhelmed the adults in my life must have felt, and I am so sorry they didn't have the information on what to do. I'm hoping this post can help point people in the right direction to get help.
What to do about depression
I am only an expert in my own experience. If you are someone who struggles with suicidal thoughts—I am not a doctor, therapist, or researcher, and I have no authority to give such high-level advice. What I can do is share what helped me and provide you with the hope that things get better with time.
I've also included a section for people who've been affected by suicide if you are having a hard time grappling with it. I recognize my suggestions are not the silver bullet to these problems, but it's a start.
First off, to those who have struggled with depression, suicidal thoughts, or anything related to it:
#1 Your life has meaning
You are not the first person to go through this.
You will not be the last person to go through this.
You do not have to go through this alone.
Whether or not you can see it right now, there are people who love you. Whether or not you see it, your life has immeasurable value. You are wanted—and needed—even if you can't see it.
I might not know some of you who are reading this right now. Still, I have an unshakable knowledge that you are valuable, and you have worth regardless of the good or bad you have done in your life.
And I write this just as much for you as I write this for those who have never dealt with the feeling of wishing they had never existed: Everyone is capable of change. No one’s life is defined by the worst thing they have ever done. Period.
Your life can change, and it can get better.
Keep holding out until it does.
#2 Ask for help
I admit, throughout my struggles with anxiety and depression, not all the advice and help I got was helpful. I had a lot of well-meaning friends and family members who would try and help but sometimes ended up making things worse. However, not asking and never getting help is worse than getting the hit-or-miss help.
It's hard to see how the people around you feel about it when struggling with your mental health. I remember spending so much time wondering why people didn't reach out to me or didn't understand how I felt until I emerged from an episode of depression. It was only then I realized that my symptoms weren't as evident to others as they were to me, and I had to learn how to communicate what I was feeling.
I understand that asking for help and talking about your feelings is easier said than done. Nonetheless, you are worth helping. The people who love you are responsible for listening to you and validating how you feel. But you need to ask first.
#3 Find a therapist that works for you
Talking to someone who is trained to know what to do about depression works miracles. There are no off-limits conversations with a therapist—you can talk about anything without fear of judgment. If you’re afraid of not connecting with a therapist, it's okay to try out multiple therapists.
If you find that one just isn't working out, or you don't connect, you can find one who does. Do try and stick it out as much as you can if you do find one a little challenging, though. That can be a good sign that you’ll have a productive relationship with your therapist.
Through my bout of depression as a teenager, I remember how often people would give me advice but zero instructions on how to do just that. Therapy was a complete 180 for me. Suddenly, instead of people telling me to “just be happy," I had a therapist who listened to what was bothering me but didn't judge me for how I felt. Instead, that same therapist would help me break down my thoughts and feelings into bite-sized, manageable pieces, and then work through each one. Therapy had given me tangible instructions for dealing with my emotions.
Sometimes therapy is challenging. Many years ago, I had a friend who suffered from severe childhood trauma, and I encouraged her to seek treatment. She'd periodically come back to me to tell me how it was going, but she said she didn't realize how much trauma she had on lockdown. Talking about it sent it spewing out like a pressure cooker that hadn’t been properly depressurized, and I suspect that was very painful for her.
I've had similar situations where a therapist challenged me, and it brought up a lot of things I never dealt with. In the end, it has been so good for me to have that challenge—and you can’t heal without a good challenge.
Keeping things hidden doesn't mean they are taken care of. Learning how to talk through them will help you when you are faced with similar situations in the future. Also, remember: It's a process. It takes time to work through these things.
#4 Talk to a doctor
Depression (and other mental health issues) can be just as much a medical problem as other diseases. Depression is no more an "attitude problem" than diabetes or cancer. While positive thinking and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps are excellent (which I 10/10 recommend), an attitude change won't fix a disease.
I'm not an expert on the science behind the issue, but taking medical or physiological intervention can really help, and it can come in many forms. When I've been depressed or anxious, medication has made my mind a lot less foggy. It freed up my mental energy so I could work through my problems—although it might take a while to find one that works.
My doctors have also recommended exercise and getting to bed earlier to relieve my anxiety and improve my overall health.
Medication is not the silver bullet to solve all your problems. But research has shown that medicine paired with therapy has the best results. As always, speak to your therapist and doctor for the best course of action.
One last note about therapy: One of the most important skills I've learned to help me avoid feelings of crisis and manage my mood long-term is self-care. In therapy, you'll learn techniques to help you move through a moment of crisis, but one of my therapists also taught me that self-care is a way to reduce your crisis moments and make them more manageable.
A misconception about self-care is that it's not just treating yourself to artisan chocolates and luxurious bubble baths (again, I 10/10 recommend this). Self-care means actually taking care of yourself—exercising, meditating, being kind to yourself, getting enough sleep, etc. That way, you have the emotional reserves to handle your mental health.
#5 Spirituality is key
My journey through depression has been a profoundly spiritual one. I was raised in a family that taught me to believe in Jesus Christ, and I am so grateful for that constant belief I could hold to, although, I can't ever say that I fully understood what it meant to me until just after my suicide attempt.
Growing up in my religious community, I always heard things like "God loves you," and "Jesus Christ died for your sins," and "trust in the Savior's atonement."
(In Christian theology, “atonement” is a word to describe the sacrifice Christ made on the cross, making it possible for all of us to be forgiven of our mistakes and be resurrected after death. In my faith, we also believe that it was intended to help heal and relieve us from the pain we suffer in this life).
As I started to go through depression as a teenager, I resented when people would tell me these things. I remember regularly getting on my knees and begging God to remove my depression. I remember praying, "If you really loved me, you would not let me suffer like this. What did I do to deserve this?" I was angry at God and began questioning his existence.
After my hospitalization, my relationship with God changed significantly. I began to receive answers. Still, it didn't happen all at once. Slowly, I started to understand what people meant by "Trust in the atonement."
My therapists had been telling me that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. After my suicide attempt, it clicked that my Savior suffered my pains so I would not have to. I would always have setbacks and trials in my life, but I could choose how I would react to them.
But an even bigger answer came to me years after my suicide attempt. I was serving a mission for my church, and I was struggling with crippling anxiety. I came across this story in the New Testament:
"And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." John 9:1-3
I spent so much of my life thinking I was defective because of my depression and anxiety. I thought I brought it on myself because of my mistakes. I believed that I was defined by these mistakes and my condition.
These verses made me realize that I was the vessel for a glorious miracle. My depression doesn't define me, but the miracle of my healing does.
The Lord has blessed me immeasurably by allowing me to live in an age and position where I can receive medical and emotional help. I feel blessed that we have a good relationship with each other. I realize this is not the case for everyone. I feel indebted to Him, and I want to provide others with these opportunities. I hope this post serves as a source of knowledge for those who don't know where to go.
I realize not everyone reading this shares the same spiritual or religious beliefs as me—we're all on different journeys after all—but seeking truth, cultivating hope, and leading with love is something we can all get behind. I want to stress the importance of nurturing your spirit in the face of grief.
The act of being spiritual is learning to connect with yourself, others, and the universe around you. It's connecting to things bigger and grander than yourself and allowing them to shape you (as opposed to the other way around.)
When I reflect on my episodes of depression and anxiety, I realize how foolish I was to think I could do everything myself and that everything depended on me. I caused myself so much anxiety and pain, thinking I had to do everything perfectly, and I hated myself every time I failed at those things. I thought my mistakes sent the universe out of balance and that I was a broken vessel that could never be repaired.
The day I realized that all of this just wasn't about me changed my life. I depended more on God and the people who loved me. I recognized not everything was my fault. I learned to forgive myself for the things that were.
I still had trials at the end of it all, but nurturing my spirit gave me the strength and hope to ride the wave instead of fight against it.
Nurturing your spirit can look like many things: praying, meditating, serving others, scripture study, going to church/mosque/synagogue, getting out in nature, reading good books, seeking truth, engaging in your community, participating in art and music—the list goes on. When you're hurting, it feels like you're so tightly focused on all that is wrong in your life, but nurturing your spirit helps relieve that grip. And as you focus and connect with the people and universe around you, the context of your own life becomes clear, and you find meaning and purpose.
#6 Learn to forgive unconditionally
This is very much related to the last point. Nurturing your spirit means letting go of the things that hurt you.
And there are no exceptions of who you need to forgive.
There's a misconception about forgiveness. It in no way implies that the mistreatment, violations of trust, and mistakes you have suffered at the hands of others are in any way right or good. It simply means you have chosen not to suffer for other people's mistakes.
You do not always need to have a relationship with people you have forgiven—having boundaries is okay. It takes time to forgive, so be patient with yourself in that process.
Someone once explained forgiveness to me, saying, "Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die." Holding onto your anger hurts you the most. Your anger will define your life and your actions, it'll seize control of your thoughts, and it will make you miserable. The reality is the person who harmed you may never care to apologize to you. You cannot control their life, but you have the power to determine your own path. Forgiveness will empower you.
Since I originally published this, I thought I understood this point. But life has a way of humbling you. A friend of mine died in a car accident in December of 2021, and we had a falling out about three years prior. I felt an incredible amount of grief and regret for never fully forgiving him (even though he earnestly extended an olive branch to me). In my pride, I assumed that I should just accept the apology, hold that boundary, and move on. It wasn’t until I learned of his death that I discovered that just isn’t the formula to happiness. Sometimes we need a strong back, but sometimes we need vulnerability and a soft belly.
Forgiving while withholding part of your heart will always lead to that kind of heartbreak. Forgiving with your whole heart will set you free. Nurturing your soul is the only way to get an answer on how much of a boundary to set.
Sometimes forgiveness is not just about forgiving others but also forgiving yourself. We all make mistakes and want to be forgiven. Our mistakes do not define us. Learn to love yourself. To quote someone I worked with years ago, "Be kind and know you are loved."
What to do about someone you love who is depressed
I've been on both sides of this struggle, and I know how hard it can be. This is difficult to understand for those of you who love someone who is struggling—especially if you've never struggled with depression or anxiety yourself. This section aims to help you understand the people you are trying to help and give some ideas on how you can be most helpful to them. I also recognize loving people with mental health problems can be difficult, so I added some points to help you take care of yourself.
#1 It's not your fault
I have learned from my experience with depression that there are so many things that are out of your control.
You can’t control other people.
You can’t make people do the right thing.
You can’t take away your loved one's suffering—you can only walk with them and help shoulder the load.
It's not your fault.
As good of a friend or family member as you may be, the responsibility to work through their problems is theirs alone. It is only your responsibility that they do not go through it alone. You will make mistakes—just be there for them, and realize that this is their journey.
#2 But that's not to say your words and actions don't matter
What you say and do does matter. Learn as much as you can about depression and what the afflicted person is going through. That will give you a good starting point for knowing how to talk to them.
Learn about the things you might say and do that are and aren't helpful to them—there are just some conversations that will leave you spinning your wheels. Learn not to judge their character. Learn why they might be more sensitive to some things than others. Be gentle and understand that you don't know everything going on with them. (And they might not know what's going on with themselves either.) Be firm when you know they need stability—sometimes boundaries help in the healing process because they build trust.
In high school, I went to my guidance counselor to tell her what was going on. I spoke with her before, but I hadn't had much luck—I couldn't ever seem to talk to her without being interrupted—but this was a particularly negative experience. As I was trying to explain how I felt, she stopped me and said: "If you want to know what real problems are, you should go and volunteer in a rape crisis center."
This shattered what little trust I had left in her. I came to her at a vulnerable moment, and her words and actions told me, "Your feelings don't matter. You don't matter. I don't have time for you." The only time I went back into her office after that was for 5 minutes to clear my name for graduation.
#3 Stop. Giving. Advice.
Seriously. Stop it.
Before I get to the meat of this point, I need to clarify one thing. Unless you are a therapist, doctor, or spiritual leader, you are not qualified to give a mentally ill person qualified “advice.” If you are one of those people, you should ONLY give advice on the subject you ARE qualified in.
For example, if you are a priest or rabbi and someone comes to you for help, you are qualified to give spiritual advice. Acting as a therapist or doctor when you have no training can have serious consequences—please refer them to (or better—team up with!) someone who can adequately treat the medical and emotional side of the disorder. Likewise, if you’re a therapist, leave their religious beliefs to their church leader. If you’re a primary care physician, make recommendations, give referrals, get them tested, but please don’t just start someone on a course of Adderall if you don’t know what’s wrong with them yet.
Also, a lot of the advice—however well-meaning it might be—usually misses the mark. When I was going through my worst bout of depression, I couldn't even count the number of times people told me to "Just be happy!" or "Don't take things so seriously!" If it were that simple, I would absolutely have chosen that route, but depression is so much more complicated than just "being happy."
When you are depressed, it seems like you live in a world of unsolicited advice, judgment, and shame. I remember the distinct feeling that I could never properly verbalize what was going on because it somehow got deflected by someone telling me to "just be happy" or someone saying, "It's not that bad. You're being too sensitive!" Or someone insinuating that the reason I felt the way I did was that I did something wrong. I always felt like some painful, invisible object was lodged deep inside my chest, but I couldn’t pull it out.
I remember the first time I felt validated was with the crisis worker in the ER after my suicide attempt. This was after a full year of being depressed. I remember this older lady with bright red hair holding my hand as I sobbed. She said such soothing things like "I'm so sorry that happened to you," "That really must have felt bad," and "I'm sorry that you're so sad." Everything she said led me to believe that she understood how I felt.
It was the first time I remember where I didn't feel like someone was interrupting me or minimizing how I felt. It's like that invisible object that I couldn't seem to get out of my body just vanished.
#4 Learn how to listen and serve the person who is suffering
One of the best things you can do is learn how to be an active listener. Learn how not to interrupt. Learn how to ask good questions. Learn how to show compassion and empathy for their situation, even if you don't fully understand or condone it.
There's a unique element to this kind of listening: Validation. Learning how to validate people's emotions takes practice. It does not mean accepting, without question, everything they do and feeling as perfect and with no need for change. Instead, validation is being a non-judgmental listener and verbalizing that other people's feelings are valid.
I've heard plenty of people say that they can't validate someone's emotions because that other person is doing things "wrong."
This type of thinking thoroughly misses the point of validation.
Validating someone's feelings means, regardless of whether you like the other person's actions or how they live their life, that you acknowledge that the person's feelings are hurt. You do not, under any circumstance, must accept or like that person's behavior.
For example, if someone were to cause a car accident and gets a concussion, you wouldn't ignore their injury and instead lecture them on their driving habits. Instead, you would acknowledge that they were injured and call an ambulance. The same principle applies when you need to validate someone. You don't have to validate what they did, but you should validate how they feel. And you must validate EVERYONE. There are no exceptions.
You focus on the person's feelings, not the person's behavior. They will be more motivated to change and more open to talking and listening when you show you can listen.
While a depressed person needs to talk and communicate to begin their healing process, you should never pressure or force people into talking to you. They need to be accountable and ready for their own healing process, and no shortcuts can be made for that. Just be available for them if they need someone and keep your line of communication open.
You cannot be everything for your loved one who is suffering, but you can serve them. I still have vivid memories of small kindnesses people showed me when I was depressed: People sending me cards, letting me play with their puppy after school, sending me kind text messages…
These people may never know how much those things meant to me.
By far, the best thing you can do to serve someone who is suffering from depression and anxiety is to express and show your love frequently. Always tell them how much you love them, and when you've done that, show them.
#5 Educate yourself about depression and mental illness in general
When I tell someone that I've struggled with depression, I get this response in return: "Really? But you're always so happy!"
I know that people say this as a compliment, but I always bristle at this reaction. This response tells me that, as a society, we don't know what depression or a suicidal person actually looks like.
Look at the person you see in the photos I included in this post. Each of these photos represents a time in my life when I struggled with anxiety, depression, and crippling self-hatred. Some of them, I wish I didn’t exist. Outward appearances do not give you an accurate picture of what is going on in someone's life.
You will have an increased ability to help people struggling with depression if you know more about it. Here are a few pointers:
Depression doesn't always look like someone who is sad and despondent. Depression can manifest in sudden bursts of anger, mania (excitement), and other ways. Sometimes depressed people seem happy and motivated on the outside. In fact, depression and suicidality look incredibly different for men than it does for women.
Mental illness is complicated, and you can’t boil it down to one cause. Too often, I hear people say that depressed people should "think more positively," "eat more holistically," or "be more righteous." If it were so simple, no one would be depressed.
Depression isn’t the consequence of a bad moral character. Indeed, bad decisions like lying or cheating can exacerbate symptoms of depression like salt on a wound, but they are not the primary cause.
This, of course, is not an exhaustive list. There are other places you can learn about depression and other mental disorders like the NIH, Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a therapist or clinician, or just asking someone who has dealt with it themselves.
#6 It's okay to have boundaries
I understand much of what you just read can feel overwhelming. We are all growing and learning at our own rate. You can make up in love for what you lack in perfection and expertise. Be kind to yourself.
Understand that it is okay to set boundaries, and it is okay to enforce those boundaries. You too are a human being with a limited emotional capacity. You do not have to sacrifice your own health, sanity, or safety to help someone if you cannot do so. You are not the only person capable of supporting them. It is okay to share that responsibility with other people.
A wise person once reminded me of something in airplane safety videos. There is a part where they demonstrate oxygen masks that might drop down in the middle of the flight if the cabin pressure changes. They make it very clear that you must secure your own mask before helping others.
I'm sure the many pure-hearted people are reading this who would instinctively go around putting a figurative oxygen mask on everyone who looked like they needed help, but you’re of no use to others if you’re passed out from a lack of oxygen. The same principle applies when helping loved ones with depression. Take care of yourself. Set appropriate boundaries. Put on your oxygen mask.
Clearing out the storm clouds…
This post was not easy for me to write. When I started it, I didn't realize how long it would be, how much emotional energy it would take out of me, and how much it would send me flashing back to my own episodes of depression.
As hard as this was to write, it was more important to talk about suicide rather than ignore it. When I told my sister that I would be writing this, she wisely mentioned that so many people do not know how to talk about depression—consequently, they do not know what to do when it affects them. They often feel awkward and ostracized when they talk about it. Mental illness is still a taboo subject that can only be spoken about in certain ways.
You can change this.
If you have read this far—thank you—and I want to leave you with the invitation for you to be more open. I want to invite you to share in appropriate ways, seek help, ask questions, listen, and—most importantly—learn to listen without judgment.
I also want you to know that you are loved, and you have worth.
Please don’t ever miss an opportunity to tell someone you love them, forgive them, or value them. It makes all the difference.
Finally, if you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, you can act. A great place to start is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). You can call or chat here.
The Charrette is a reader-supported publication. Receive new posts and support my work by becoming a subscriber. I promise to write funnier things next time.