Recently I saw a young adult I’ve known a few years now. For privacy’s sake I’ll call them YA (for Young Adult), “Hey YA, how’s it goin’?”
YA looks down, kinda shuffles their feet a little, takes a breath and says, “Actually, I’ve been really depressed this week. It’s been super hard.”
“Oh shit, I’m sorry to hear that. Anything you wanna talk about?”
They lean against their body against the doorframe, then their head. “Nah, it happens, it used to happen a lot more. It’s just hard, you know? Like, it’s hard to get out of bed and shit when I feel like this.”
“Yeah, I once spent 6 months like that. It’s really fucking hard. Are there things that help you in times like this?”
This question seems to energize them a bit. They said up straight again, their body swaying side to side a bit while they answer. “I’ve tried everything – video games, movies, listening to music, reading. I can’t read right now. Well, except for a little Dale Carnegie. That helps a a little.”
“Fuck, that sucks, when nothing seems to help much. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, thanks. It’ll pass. It always does.”
They join up with a peer for a few minutes and then the two of them are heading for the door to go spend the evening together. Friendship helps, even during the times we can’t recognize it’s helping.
“Hey YA, I’m sorry things are so hard right now. Can I ask, are you safe? I mean, are you in danger of hurting yourself right now?”
The other young adult lets out a tiny gasp – in surprise, embarrassment or what I don’t know and I don’t ask, this conversation isn’t about them. I stay heart-focused on YA.
“No, I’m not in danger. I’m not gonna hurt myself.”
“Ok, I needed to ask because you’re awesome and I care about you and you matter.”
A few moments more of chit-chatting between the three of us and then they start heading out the door when YA pauses, leans back into the room, “Hey, thanks for asking me that. I really appreciate it.” I’ve never heard their be so soft before. I’d jump up and offer a hug if they didn’t have scents on that would cause my beleaguered body to hyper-react to.
“You’re welcome. I do care. You matter in my life.”
“Thanks.” and off they went, hopefully feeling a little less alone in this big, frightfully complicated world they grown up in.
Why do I share this interchange?
Because depression isn’t a communicable disease and you will not make someone suicidal if you ask if they are in danger of harming themselves. In fact, research shows that asking someone can sometimes be enough for them to not take steps to self-harm.
Because 3 years ago I almost died due to depression and ptsd and I’m grateful I didn’t because my life today is literally the best it’s ever been. My life today is better than I ever thought it could be – this while still living with chronic illness, depression, anxiety and ptsd. My life is so full of beauty and joy and connection and laughter and how can I not now speak up when someone like YA discloses they are struggling when I know how much better it can get?… I must speak up because all our voices speaking up are joining in a chorus and slowly, much, much too slowly, the shame around mental illness is being lifted. We must speak out.
And because we are all in this thing called life together and we need each other – especially when we feel it’s too hard to get out of bed, or read/study for school, or even just to find a fucking reason to authentically smile.
If you know someone whose living with depression, its ok to talk to them about it (unless they tell you otherwise!). If you are for any reason concerned they may be thinking of hurting themselves – ask them!
It isn’t going to be like, “Shit, I never thought of killing myself. That’s a great idea – thanks for telling me about it!” If they are in danger, they are already thinking about it.
But you’re asking might be the bridge that helps them get across, to get away from actually doing it. And regardless of whether they end up living or dying, they will know that you cared and were brave enough to ask.
If you’re not sure what to say I have a few basic suggestions:
Do express genuine care.
Do share that you are happy they are here.
Do ask sincere questions, and be silent for the answers.
Do NOT tell them to get over it, or that they are over-reacting.
Do NOT say it’s all in their heads.
Do NOT say other people have it worse.
Here are a few additional resources on how to show up for someone who is depressed: