depression and suicide

On Depression and Suicide.

On Depression and Suicide.

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus famously wrote — a statement that has only grown in significance half a century since. But outside of philosophy, in daily life, when the will to live or die plays out in the individual, it creates a vortex of pain and hopelessness — not only for the severely depressed person contemplating suicide, but for those who love them, notwithstanding the social contagion of suicide.

Pulitzer-winning poet Galway Kinnell (February 1, 1927–October 28, 2014) addressed this fundamental question of existence with tender compassion and spiritual grace in a poem Wait. He wrote the poem for a student of his who was contemplating suicide after the abrupt end of a romance. In this recording courtesy of the Academy of American Poets, Kinnell brings his life-changing words to life:


Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.

Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

So how do we, when desperate not to fall down, fall down and get back up?  Such is the magnificent resilience of the human spirit. Our culture is terrified by the phantom of severe depression, that claws into our humanity and takes our will to live, only for us to often then be self-righteously and un-compassionately judged by others. How, then, do we help those on the brink of self-destruction “get up and say OK?” And what does that act of help reveal about our own trials and triumphs as we learn to be OK?

That’s precisely what Diane Ackerman explores in the essay “A Slender Thread” which recounts her time working as a volunteer crisis counsellor at a suicide prevention hotline.

We use only a voice and a set of ears, somehow tied to the heart and brain, but it feels like mountaineering with someone who has fallen, a dangling person whose hands you are gripping in your own.

Ackerman recalls one particularly poignant call, with Louise — a frequent caller with many talents and a lively mind — whom she had pulled back from the brink of suicide many times before. Louise’s despair, like that of many on the downward spiral of the psyche, stems from feeling, as Ackerman puts it, void of choices. Ackerman reflects on this uniquely human possibility:

Choice is a signature of our species. We choose to live, sometimes we choose our own death, but most of the time we make choices just to prove choice is possible. Above all else, we value the right to choose one’s destiny. The very young and some lucky few may find their days opening one onto another like a set of ornate doors, but most people make an unconscious vow each morning to get through the day’s stresses and labors intact, without becoming overwhelmed or wishing to escape into death. Everybody has thought about suicide, or knows somebody who committed suicide, and then felt “pushed another inch, and it could have been me.” As Emile Zola once said, some mornings you first have to swallow your toad of disgust before you can get on with the day. We choose to live. But suicidal people have tunnel vision—no other choice seems possible. A counselor’s job is to put windows and doors in that tunnel.

depression and suicide

Artist Credit: Ernesto Romano

Talking to Louise, Ackerman contemplates the sometimes terrifying responsibility of the crisis counsellor as a torchbearer of illuminating choice amid the black mist of the tunnel:

Every call with Louise has seemed this dire, a last call for help, and she has survived. But suppose tonight is the exception, suppose this is the last of last times? What is different tonight? I’m not sure. Then it dawns on me. Something small. I’m frightened by how often she has been using the word “only,” a word tight as a noose.

Assuring Louise that she would stay with her, Ackerman reflects on the other meaning of “only” — that of the lonesome one, gripped by our cultural anxiety of being alone.

So often loneliness comes from being out of touch with parts of oneself. We go searching for those parts in other people, but there’s a difference between feeling separate from others and separate from oneself.

When Louise laments her own weakness, Ackerman reminds her of her acts of strength, shared during previous sessions — like volunteering during the flood. “Broaden the perspective,”Ackerman writes. “The hardest job when someone is depressed.”

Because something feels different about the call — Ackerman alerts the police while on the line with Louise, who had made her promise not to bring in the authorities. When they arrive — faster than expected — Louise is enraged by a sense of betrayal, screams at Ackerman, calls her a liar, hangs up. Ackerman loses the call, holding the grim possibility of losing the life. She writes: Knowing and not knowing about callers, that’s what gets to me”

A few weeks after that fateful call with Louise, the Crisis Centre received a postcard from her, thanking the counsellor — always anonymous, as was Ackerman to her caller — for illuminating her tunnel. After the police had taken her to hospital, she had checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania for three weeks. Upon returning home, she had found a new job to replace the one she had lost and begun volunteering again, reporting that she was finally “in a good place.”

Ackerman’s closing words emanate from the immeasurable beauty of asking for and receiving help. Beholding that postcard in disbelief, she writes:

She blesses the soul who “took my life in her hands that night,” thanks us all for our good work, is just writing “to let you know what happened — I bet you don’t hear that very often.” We don’t.

We will often find our lives taken into the hands of others — parents, mentors, lovers, teachers. How often do they hear from us?

Gallway Kinnels Wait, is Originally published in Kinnell’s1980 collection Mortal Acts, Mortal Words,

Dianne Ackerman’s essay “A Slender Thread” in the anthology The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times, is adapted from her sublime 1998 book A Slender Thread: Rediscovering Hope at the Heart of Crisis

With thanks to BrainPickings for its phenomenal resources.


Seeing Your Loved ones through Depression: The 10 point checklist

According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 350 million people all over the world with depression. It’s a staggering and sobering statistic, which should tell you that there is a strong likelihood that someone you know and love will be suffering from depression.

As psychologists, we understand it is crucial to bring awareness to one of the most devastating aspects of dealing with depression; the stigma and negative criticism that comes from others. Furthermore, people may not even know that their behaviors and comments are being negative or hurtful and sometimes even make the depression feel worse.

To help, we have put together a 10 point checklist of things we can remember when interacting with those that may be having a attle with depression. Any one of these points will not only help with the stigma surrounding depression, but may even help the individual dealing with depression.

1.  Don’t tell them to “Pull themselves together” or “Cheer up.”

  • Try not to blame the person for being depressed, or tell them to ‘pull themselves together’. They are probably already blaming themselves, and criticism is likely to make them feel even worse. Depression is not something anyone should feel guilty about.

2.  Don’t take it personally if they get irritable.

  • Someone with depression may get irritable and angry, and be more liable to misunderstand others, or feel misunderstood, than usual; they may need reassurance in some situations, and you may need to be patient with them.

3.  They may feel sad for no apparent reason, so just hang in there with them.

  • Moods can be volatile and depressive episodes can be unpredictable. If it was something that was easily controlled, it wouldn’t be such a big problem. Your loved ones are trying very, very hard to be happy, pleasant and engaging, and to facilitate this they need you to be there for them, present and accepting.

4.  Learn to spot their ‘triggers.’

  • Although depression can be unpredictable, if your loved one or relative has repeated episodes of depression you may be able to learn what their triggers are, or spot when an episode might be starting, and encourage them to take action before it gets any worse.

Download the Depression Toolkit!

Share this toolkit with someone you know who is dealing with depression.

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5.  They may not have as much energy as they would like to have.

  • One of the symptoms of depression is fatigue or lack of energy. One of the most helpful antidepressants that has been proven by research is exercise. It may seem counter-intuitive when you are feeling low on energy, but exercise will increase your energy levels and well-being. The type and duration of exercise can vary, but the minimum that could have an effect is to do fast walking at least three times a week for 30 minutes each time. That is the amount of exercise someone needs in order to feel an anti-depressive effect. So, if the sun is out and the breeze is whispering for you to come out and play, invite your loved one out for a walk or take an exercise class together! The body and mind of your loved one will soon synch up and they will begin to notice the benefits of exercise on their  mental health.

6.  They are Strong in Character.

  • In one of our favourite Tedx talks, psychiatrist and philosopher, Dr. Neel Burton explains that depression can represent a deeper search for meaning and significance in life. A person experiencing depression can be seen as working to make sense of life and trying to achieve more, fix more and improve more. Moreover, depression can be a way of preparing a better and even healthier future for ourselves and those around us. Dr. Burton goes on to mention that some of the most influential and inspirational people have dealt with depression. Their search for happiness and peace led their hearts and minds into the pit of depression, but they ended up changing the course of history.


7.  They do not want to burden anyone.

  • Only a depressed individual understands how hard it is to hide their feelings and thoughts from others to avoid being shamed. One characteristic of a person dealing with depression is that they are keenly aware of themselves, their thoughts, their feelings and the behavior of others towards them. Unfortunately, individuals fighting depression may push to be alone because they do not want to impact anyone negatively. Although this may not always be the case, depressed loved ones desire to manage their depression successfully and not allow it to impact on anyone. This can be a paradoxical situation because being alone can actually exacerbate the symptoms of depression. So it is important to understand how community and social interaction is a form of depession therapy. A person with depression will really appreciate you unexpectedly reaching out to them – it will feel as though if their calls are being answered.

8.  Encourage them to seek appropriate treatment.

  • Perhaps the most important thing that you can do is to encourage your friend or relative to seek appropriate treatment. You can reassure them that it is possible to do something to improve their situation, but you need to do so in a caring and sympathetic way.

9.  Beating depression is a process, not an event.

  • Remember that, even after someone has started treatment for depression, it still may be some time before they really start to feel better. Change doesn’t happen over night.

10.  Look after yourself.

  • Supporting a loved one or relative who is depressed can be hard work and frustrating, at times. Unless you pay attention to your own needs, it can make you feel depressed, too. View the experience as an opportunity to build a closer and more compassionate relationship. Helping someone you love through depression and to a happier place can be incredibly rewarding. It helps you to build up your own emotional resilience, making you feel more empowered in your own life and increasing your own sense of well-being and self esteem.

Access the Self-Esteem Booster Guide

Depression and low self esteem often go hand in hand. Learn about the 10 Tips to Increase Self-Esteem

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