One day, years ago, I was present the moment someone was in the act of committing suicide. When I was 19 years old I worked the summer at a local psychiatric hospital as a mental health worker. In that job I spent my eight hours on the unit with the patients, talking to them, supervising activities, keeping them safe, and attending to the moment to moment issues that needed to be addressed. When someone is hospitalized in a psychiatric facility they spend very little time with their doctors; it’s mostly a stabilizing and medicating experience, and it’s the mental health workers and nurses that spend the lion’s share of time with them. Some of the patients came directly from the emergency room after an attempted suicide. One day, a young woman about 21 years old came in with fresh stitches on her wrist just hours after her attempt and she was put on suicide watch. I was at work that day and was charged with doing a safety check of her room. Remove anything from her person and room that could be used to harm herself; remove anything sharp – check, remove shoe laces – check, remove belts – check and so on. I was thorough and checked off everything on the list, and then double checked. I took this part of my job extremely seriously, she couldn’t hurt herself, or so I thought.
Every 15 minutes, per protocol, I checked on her to make sure she was safe. I’d ask her if she wanted to talk or for me to stay and just keep her company. She stared at the ceiling and just shook her head. It had just been hours before that she attempted to end her life and I did my best to be present and gentle. I checked off the chart at 11:30am and would be back at 11:45am as I attended to the other patients. At 11:35, a “code green emergency” was announced over the loud speaker with her room number. I was close and sprinted to her room. I saw blood spurting from her neck as she was stabbing herself in the jugular with the underwire of her bra. The underwire wasn’t on my list to check off, I was never trained to remove it. I didn’t even know what one was and nobody even considered that as a weapon. I rushed to her side and grabbed her arm that was covered in blood. With all the blood on her arm, she slipped out of my grip and stabbed herself again. She screamed at me, “let me die!” I gripped her arm tighter than I’ve ever held anything in my life. Blood shot out of her neck all over my face and clothes, nurses rushed in to attend to her, and she was stabilized and brought to the emergency room. For that day, she remained alive and didn’t return to our unit after that. I never knew what happened to her after that day.
Major depression is real; it’s a combination of deep sadness and hopelessness. The causes may be complex, but we know there are neurological issues, and of course, life can flood us with loss, despair and disappointment. At the onset, in these deep dark moments it’s not necessary to fix, soothe, distract or bury it. Just breathe, be with it, honor the emotion with authenticity, cry, scream, stay quiet, just stay safe. Breathe deeply. Because there is hope, there is life worth living, and depression can improve.
What can anyone with depression do? Here are some thoughts:
- Time is one variable that often helps because our intensity of mood usually reduces over time. I use the Rule of 5s – if nothing actually fixed the problem when do I think I’d feel better: 5 seconds, 5 minutes, 5 hours, 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months, 5 years. Once you pick one of those choices, hope takes root.
- Reaching out, connecting, embracing, and healing with others will help. Build your team of family, friends, professionals, clergy, and find the strength to seek help.
- Parallel Thinking. In the tragedy of 9/11, with death, despair and the worst of humanity present in New York, the very best of humanity rose up immediately. Men and women of selfless courage and love came to the rescue and aid of people that they never knew. I call this Parallel Thinking, or Train Track Thinking for children. It’s when we recognize that life can have both a good and a bad presence in the same moment.
- Websites and Hotlines. Here are two resources: Erika’s Lighthouse and Suicide.Org
One day, years ago, I had an experience that changed me. Later that day, I decided to pursue the helping profession and have had the privilege to take a few steps along side of many amazing people as they traverse life’s challenges.