It started in fifth grade: the thoughts and feelings of wanting to die, to disappear. It took me decades to learn how to manage it, and I’m still learning every day. I say manage because that’s what I do: manage. It isn’t just going away for me.
In my late teens, I struggled with drug use. I didn’t care if I lived or died because I didn’t feel like my life was worth living in this world. I was able to come off the drugs through a six-week drug class I took to expunge an arrest. After getting through the program, I worked on seeing my own self-worth. Even after this work, I later had three episodes of serious suicidal ideation over the next 20 years.
Depression can be a lifelong rollercoaster that goes up, down, fast, slow — and sometimes it’s a smooth, steady ride. I really want people to know that the negative thought cycle that accompanies depression often is not a “one and done” victory. Survival is something to celebrate but so is the journey.
I don’t want to focus on the whys — why people experience suicidal ideation — that’s for my therapy sessions (yes, I go to therapy, and I take medication). What I want to focus on is how to help yourself and others.
What Does Suicidal Ideation Feel Like?
To better understand thought process of someone who considers taking their own life, I want you to imagine a bike trail through the woods. Bike riders on this path all fall into the same groove in the ground. Bikers are not likely to veer off the trail to avoid the groove in the ground unless something else is blocking it — forcing a redirection. Also, the more this path is used, the deeper the groove gets in the ground, and it becomes easier and easier to fall into.
This is how our thoughts work, particularly negative thoughts. It takes real effort and attentiveness to create a new trail and avoid the old one. When the trail gets deep, a person’s reality might become distorted and thoughts may become irrational, but the person may not see that. Instead, they see and feel their reality. They may have uncontrollable dark fantasies of how to end their life.
It may help to know these patterns in others to increase understanding when supporting someone struggling with these difficult thoughts.
How To Help Others
Now that you know a little about what’s going on inside the mind of someone struggling with suicidal ideation, let’s go over what actions you can take for a person experiencing these thoughts.
If you just want to help, but aren’t sure if you know anyone that is struggling with suicidal thoughts; you can help be part of prevention:
- You are becoming part of the solution just by reading this. Thank you.
- In all conversations, try not to use negative or dismissive language about depression, mental health and suicidal ideation.
- Know that depression looks different on everyone, especially in public.
If you know someone struggling with suicidal thoughts:
- Recognize that this isn’t a choice, or something being said or done to hurt you.
- Listen and be there without advice, judgement or expectation.
- Don’t dismiss the subject or take it as a manipulative threat. Take it as a condition that needs treatment and care.
- Don’t just tell them to go to the ER or just send the cops. Rather, go to them, speak to them, and if needed — drive them to the ER with compassion.
- If you cannot go to them and feel they are in imminent and immediate danger — call a welfare check on them.
How To Help Yourself
If you have struggled with suicidal thoughts in the past:
- Make a mental note of two to three safe and supportive people that you can share these thoughts with.
- Don’t stop therapy or medications because you feel better. You may feel better because of therapy and medications. They are important.
- Take care of yourself in the best way you can. This includes surrounding yourself with supportive people and doing things that uplift you.
If you are struggling right now:
- Tell your safe, supportive friends. Talk about it. Don’t isolate yourself.
- Tell your therapist and/or psychiatrist. Set up appointments if you do not have them already set up.
- If you are in a crisis, call or text 988 or to the ER if needed.
It’s been six months since I’ve had any suicidal ideation. This wasn’t without work. I created a new trail in the woods, and I’m riding steadily on this path. I also take precautions in case I fall back into the old trail — I don’t own items that could be used for self-harm. I stay in touch with my friends, my support system. I take my medications and heed the advice of my therapist to the best of my ability. In retrospect, it’s hard to see how low I got — but I know I have to work to stay well and that I survived it. I can pat myself on the back every day for this.
“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do”-Brene Brown
Ginger Robertson is a Registered Nurse at a mental health clinic, and she is working toward becoming a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. She has come a long way in her mental health journey and wants others to know that they can too, no matter the circumstances. She wants readers to remember that their stories are valuable, and their experiences can be used to help others.