I “came out” with bipolar disorder a year ago this week — during National Suicide Prevention Week. It was the most important thing I’ve ever done.
Over the last year, I’ve had to lie less. I’ve had to hide less. When I was hospitalized in June, I was able to tell my boss, friends, and family what was happening. One of my coworkers visited me in the hospital. I’ve received more support, and more meaningfully, I’ve been able to offer more support.
I’ve used the terms and said the words that once felt unspeakable.
Psychiatrist. Rapid cycling. Lithium levels. Mania. Psychiatric hospital.
I forced my mouth to form the words, no matter how softly. Croaking, pushing against shame with all my strength, summoning courage, and feigning courage when I had none. The more I spoke, the easier it became. My voice got louder and steadier.
But even as I’ve become more comfortable, there is still one word I’ve avoided. There is still one word that gets caught in my throat. Suicide. Suicidal.
I whispered it to the doctor.
“I’m suicidal. I need help.”
Suicide is the piece of mental illness that necessitates the most transparency, but we continue to hold it in darkness. Suicide is the part we fear the most and the part we are least willing to discuss. We want to prevent suicide in the abstract. We want to stop something we cannot name, lift a burden we cannot admit. In the fight to destigmatize mental illness, “suicide” is the most important word we can say.
The prospect of suicide is terrifying. Somehow, paradoxically, this terror has kept us from speaking about it, from asking about it. I know people who suspected their loved one was suicidal but couldn’t bear to ask. They were scared. And tragically, their worst fears were realized.
I know people who wrote about suicidal ideation for months, wrestled with it, didn’t truly want to die, but couldn’t bear to articulate their pain. They were scared. And tragically, their worst fears were realized. The stigma attached to suicide has paralyzed us and cost us. We have to overcome the pain of speech to avoid the profound agony of loss.
Asking whether someone is suicidal does not increase the likelihood of an attempt or exacerbate suicidal thoughts or feelings. It does not put the idea in someone’s head. It is not a life-threatening question. Quite the opposite. It’s lifesaving.
We need to be able to ask our loved ones, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
We need to be able to say, without shame, “Yes.”
The bravest and most important words you can say are, “I’m suicidal. I need help.”
If we can name it, we can address it. We can save others and save ourselves.
This summer, sitting around a table in the hospital’s art room, quiet and bright, I marveled at how clearly people articulated what brought them here. Their voices didn’t tremble when they said “suicide.” Some said they were glad to have survived. Some cried, still suicidal, waiting it out. Some spoke of the thoughts that terrorized them and the images they held in the front of their mind, what kept them alive. They felt safe speaking, and the relief, the solace, was palpable. I could almost see the pieces of them — of us — coming back together. We were reassembling ourselves by speaking. We were gathering strength by vocalizing weakness.
We can post the number for the suicide lifeline. We can donate to suicide prevention organizations and profess our commitment to transparency. We can hashtag #NationalSuicidePreventionWeek and #StigmaFree. But until we can say it, ask about it, admit it, we can’t stop it. We can’t be stigma free until we bring our most profound shame into the light and let it evaporate.
We must force ourselves to say “suicide” out loud. If you have to whisper, whisper. But say it. Say it. Say “suicide.”