This week, starting on Labor Day and running through Saturday, is National Suicide Prevention Week. The week culminates this weekend with a global initiative, World Suicide Prevention Day.
Only a couple of months ago, a report showed that suicides in the United States are at a 30-year high. The tragedy of someone taking his or her own life is multiplying. For those of us who believe God made people in his image, this is a crisis.
Jamie Tworkowski has spent the last decade trying to fight this crisis. He’s the founder of the global non-profit, To Write Love on Her Arms, and the best-selling author of If You Feel Too Much.
I talked with him earlier this week about both National Suicide Week and Global Suicide Day and why they’re critical.
We’re in the middle of National Suicide Prevention Week, and Global Suicide Prevention Day is this Saturday. Can you explain what these are?
It’s become a whole bunch of people trying to raise awareness, raise money, basically invite people into the conversation surrounding mental health and especially suicide prevention. We’ve learned that untreated depression is the leading cause of suicide, so obviously there’s a lot of overlap between mental health and suicide.
Basically, if you look at any organization that does something in the realm of mental health or suicide they all kind of come together this week.
As an organization that hears from people all over the world, we also get excited about focusing on World Suicide Prevention Day. Knowing that these are issues that do affect people all over the world. Our lives might look different depending where we live, but people all over can relate to pain, can relate to questions and struggle, the need for honesty, the need for community.
What will To Write Love on Her Arms be doing during these initiatives?
This has become probably the biggest week of our year over the last two years. Each year we build a campaign around a statement: Two years ago it was “no one else can play your part,” and last year it was “we’ll see you tomorrow.”
We just saw a tremendous response, not only in raising funds [that go to help people battling mental health issues] but also in seeing people share stories and participate.
It raised the bar for us to try and keep coming back year after year. This year our campaign is based on a statement that comes from a book called Reasons to Stay Alive by a writer named Matt Haig. The statement is, “and so I kept living.”
There’s a few different things we’re doing, but essentially we’re inviting people to finish the sentence, “I kept living because _____.” What are you sticking around for? What makes life worth living?
We’re trying to raise $85,000 for treatment and counseling because obviously people getting help plays a huge part in the whole process. But a lot of it is just trying to create a platform and invite people to share parts of their story and more than anything to know they’re not alone in their struggle and to know if they need help it’s okay to ask for help.
Everything has a day now. Like, National Donut Day and Siblings Day. So when it comes to something that isn’t essentially a hashtag opportunity, how do we make it standout?
We’re not trying to sell anyone on the day. But certainly for us who participate in this conversation and this work year round, we do really love that there’s a day and even a week where this conversation is given more of a microphone and more of a platform.
Our campaign is our best attempt to invite people into it.
As I touched on, it’s everything from raising funds that will go to treatment and counseling for people in need to wearing a t-shirt on Saturday and the hope is that that t-shirt starts conversations.
Year after year, and it’s true again this year, we use a hashtag and we see some really great stuff. Right now the primary hashtag is “#ikeptliving,” and we’re seeing so many folks from all over use that—not only to spread the word about what we’re doing but to share their own stories and even their own pain within that.
For me, I’ve been seeing really powerful and really beautiful stuff over the last few weeks. If you go to our website right now, it’s basically dedicated to answering this question of how people can get involved, how people can participate.
We sell these world suicide prevention day packs: There’s an element of sharing your story, there’s an element of fundraising, there’s an element of spreading the word.
You said a major cause of suicide is untreated depression. Can you unfold that a little more?
We’ve learned that two out of three people who struggle with depression don’t get help for it.
And so I think basically if someone is struggling and they’re struggling alone and they’re not connecting with professional help, if they don’t end up sitting with a counselor, if they never end up seeing a doctor or a psychiatrist who they could talk about medication.
I think a lot of that is there’s such a stigma and sense of shame, that many people who do struggle end up isolating themselves. They end up thinking they have to keep this stuff a secret or they have to keep their pain a secret. They end up believing they’re odd to feel this way, or they’re one of the only ones who feels this way.
Often times I think we’re afraid of the response we might be met with. We’re afraid of being judged. We’re afraid we might lose our jobs or be sent home. There are a lot of factors and I think it definitely comes back to the stigma.
Look at other things: There’s not a stigma with breaking your arm; there’s not a stigma with getting the flu, or even with something like dealing with cancer. But when it comes to mental health or thoughts of suicide, there very much is a stigma. We don’t approach it the same way; we don’t talk about it the same way.
How can we help de-stigmatize this conversation?
The first place to start is with relationships. We just want to encourage people to have honest conversations and to start with the people that you’re connected to. To start with our friends and family where we have the most influence, obviously.
I think a lot of times we wonder about this word “depression” and we think about it in a clinical way, which certainly makes sense. But there’s so much value in knowing or at least asking how the people around us are doing.
That might sound like a really simple place to start, but I think that really is a good place to start. Because so often you hear these stories after the fact where there’s a suicide and so many people say, “Oh my gosh I had no idea.”
We can’t control how someone answers the “how are you” question. We can’t control the response we’re met with, but we can control whether or not we keep showing up.
Certainly there’s warning signs. I think if you notice someone isolating, if you notice someone’s behavior changing, it’s ok to express concern.
What about the flipside—what about the person who is struggling with depression on some scale? What can that person do or what’s at least a first step?
We point to two things really above everything else.
We think everyone deserves a support system. And you could insert whatever word you’re comfortable with—”community,” “friends”—but the hope is that you can start by being honest with someone. And then, beyond that, this person needs to know there’s a time where we need more help than our friends can provide.
Just as you would see an expert for your car or when something breaks at your house, we think when it comes to mental health it makes sense to see an expert. and so we love to point to counseling.
We know that can be an intimidating phone call or an intimidating first appointment. But what we hear time and time again is what started out as a scary hour of the week somehow gets rewired and actually starts to feel like the most important hour of the week.
Not that it’s easy or super fun, but there’s a sense of progress and a sense of healing—and all of a sudden you’re talking about things that you really need to talk about.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury