About “Talk to Someone” and Crisis

On July 20th, 2017, Chester Bennington died by suicide. I was never much of a fan of Linkin Park. They had a couple of okay songs and, a long time ago, I owned one of their CD’s (that’s a Compact Disc for you youngin’s). I didn’t even know his name before the headline started crashing across social media. Even still, it hurts to see another person lose their war. You know that there will be pain and suffering left behind in the people that he loved and that loved him. And, as a mentally ill person, you wonder if that will be your end as well. You may not want it to be, but you can’t really know how the culmination of your past with the grinding of the present and future will wear you down. It’s a stark reminder of a reality that many of us live with twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Every time there is a high profile suicide social media is overran with grief and anger. People are constantly sharing articles about warning signs, retweeting crisis services, and posturing about how much they care and claim to want to help. As you may have guessed by my tone, I have a problem with this.

My problem is that I feel it may prevent at-risk people from getting meaningful help that they need while instilling a false confidence in the general public of how much they can legitimately help a person who is in crisis. I want to call specific attention to the words “in crisis,” because there are plenty of people who may be in a dark space that just need someone to be present with them for a little while.

I am not talking about that. I am specifically talking about people who are at or near their limit.

About Target Audiences and Demographics

As a writer and a marketer, understanding one’s target audience is of the utmost importance when constructing a Call to Action (CtA) or message. The method you choose in trying to gain a conversion is often more important than the message. A conversion can be anything from convincing another person to accept a new idea, buy a product or service, sign up for a newsletter, or take some kind of action. A CtA is the content or statement that you are using to try to get the viewer to take an action.

Let’s deconstruct a common Call to Action. “Talk to someone if you are having a hard time.”

Who is the target audience of this CtA? It’s people that are struggling, unstable, depressed, possibly suicidal, and emotionally compromised – people that may not be in the best mental space for making sound decisions. Still, it’s an audience that needs to be reached.

What action are we trying to convince this audience to take? We want them to get the help and support that they need to get through whatever it is they may be dealing with. We want them to communicate. Again, nothing wrong with that. That is a valuable message.

My problem with this statement comes from “talk to” and “someone.” They are not the right words.

On “Talk to…”

All my life I’ve been told to talk about my problems, I’d feel better. I know I’m not the only one. That works well for people who are not mentally ill because they do not have traumatic experiences or physiological processes impeding the way their mind should function.

On the other hand, I have Bipolar Disorder and Major Depression. Talking about my problems never did much for me because talking about those problems did not change the physiological processes and physical problems associated with my mental illnesses. I stopped talking about my problems because talking about them just made them more complicated to deal with. In regards to friends and relationships, now I have to deal with what’s going on in my mind on top of trying to make you feel like you actually helped so you won’t feel bad, so I won’t feel bad for making you feel bad and like you couldn’t help me. What I really needed was medication to control the physiological processes and therapy to fix the way I perceived and interpreted the world through my mental illness.

You have social attitudes about talking about your problems to cut through. The way I combat this perception is to frame that kind of statement in a way that is solution oriented. I don’t want a person to just talk about their problem, I want them to talk to a certified professional that can help them find a way to manage or solve that problem.

The statement “talk to” is too indirect, intangible. An important piece of an effective CtA is an action that spells out a direct reaction. Why? Because people will not figure it out on their own. They just don’t. You have to lead people directly from Point A to Point B. You can look at about any commercial or advertisement that is asking you to do something for confirmation. “Sign up for this newsletter and receive a free XYZ!” You must tell people exactly what you want from them and why or the chance of them taking action drops straight off.

Talk is technically a correct word, but it’s not a good choice because of the stigma and emotion people associate with it. Hell, “talk therapy” doesn’t necessarily indicate just talking about one’s problems. I found talk therapy to be incredibly helpful in learning to understand myself and my mental illness. What I did not do was talk just to talk or be heard. I talked because I had a specific goal in mind of understanding what was going on in my head and how to manage it. Talking about my problems? Useless. Talking about my problems to find a solution for them? That provides a course of action not influenced by my personal feelings or perceptions.

Why does this matter? Because of the word “someone”.

On “Someone…”

Who exactly is “someone?” Now, you may be sitting there thinking, “Oh! A doctor! A crisis counselor! A therapist!” Fair and valid. What about a person who is suicidal or going through something horrible? Who are they are going to reach out to? Is their first thought going to be seeking professional help? Doubtful. They are more likely to reach out to people that they believe love them, care about them, or that they care about. That is a major problem.

It’s a problem because of mental health stigma and how many people are in dysfunctional families and relationships. I started on my advocacy path in 2010. I cannot tell you how many fucking times I’ve heard variations of, “I tried talking to my mom, but she didn’t think it was a big deal.” “I tried talking to my husband, but he doesn’t care.” “I tried talking to my sister, but all she said was, ‘This, again?’” “I tried talking to my best friend, but they were too busy and I didn’t want to bother them.” Over and over and over and over and over. And that’s not even touching on the number of abuse survivors who reached out for help in their worst times and were met with inaction.

Who is “someone?” Is someone the spouse that’s been gaslighting and tormenting them? Is someone a parent that doesn’t believe in mental illness? Is someone a person they think is their friend, who doesn’t actually give a damn about them? Is someone a member of a dysfunctional family? Is someone a person who has ground down that at-risk person’s mental and emotional health to control and manipulate them?

Or maybe someone is a person who cares, is a kind and loving soul, is gentle, considerate and warm. Someone who donates to charity and would offer you the shirt off their back. And maybe that someone, with all their warm thoughts and good intentions, doesn’t have an iota of knowledge or experience in being that close to something so delicate. Perhaps that someone believes that the fact they care is good enough to patch up the wounds of a difficult or traumatic life. It’s not. Caring isn’t good enough.

Many wounds just don’t heal all of the way. Look at Chester – sexually abused as a child, recovering from addiction, and long-term mental health challenges. For a lot of people, those scars do not fully heal. They can be brought under control, they can be managed, they can be worked on, but they still linger to some degree and need to be managed in the long-term. And to manage them in the long-term, mentally ill people need more than just people caring. They and their families need support, they need the clinical knowledge that professionals can provide, they need affordable and accessible services.

Crisis services are well, good, and important; but what about the rest of life? What about the times when we’re not in crisis but starting to slide? What is the long-term solution to that? I watched many people beat the drum on Chester’s “cries for help.” I don’t know how many of those people realize that he did reach out for help and support when he needed it from his friends and bandmates. But, after awhile, you just don’t want to anymore.

In Conclusion…

The posturing that happens every time there is a high profile suicide feels so phony. It’s bothersome how oblivious society is about the everyday struggle of dealing with and surviving long-term mental illness. And I dislike the phrase, “Talk to someone if you are having a hard time.” I feel that this statement puts at-risk people in a position to either be harmed or dissuaded from pursuing professional help more often than not.

I do not believe that encouraging suicidal or severely mentally ill people to talk to just anyone about their problems is a good idea. By all means, be supportive, try to be understanding, thank them for opening up…but encourage them to talk to someone who is trained to meaningfully help them. Yes, support from friends and family is important. As a supporter, there is definitely a line where help from a qualified, certified mental health professional is necessary.

It’s a tricky thing because people need different things. There are plenty of us out there who do see and talk to our medical professionals, who still do sometimes just need someone to be present with us in a difficult moment. On the other hand, a lot of the messages being pumped out after high profile suicides are related to suicidal people.

It all just depends on the person and the specific situation; which isn’t a good combination with the general, generic nature of social media posturing.

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5 Responses to About “Talk to Someone” and Crisis

  1. Joanne says:

    I want to punch people in the face when they tell me I need to talk to someone. No, no I don’t need to talk to anyone.

    Talking will not change anything. It won’t stop my mind from going off in a million different directions. It won’t change the crushing disappointment I feel when “the talk” is over. It won’t change the aloneness of no one understanding how apart I feel from the rest of the world.

    I’ve probably had more than a thousand therapy sessions. Before each one, I almost feel some sense of hope; that someone will understand, will help me to understand; that something will change, that someone will help me understand how to change.

    I always leave feeling crushed. It’s difficult to stand up and walk out. Nothing is different, nothing has changed, there is no hope. And my mind shuts down so I don’t have to deal with the disappointment. I crawl into bed and sleep for however long it takes to stop the pain, until my mind wakes up and takes me in a million different directions again to distract me from reality.

    I don’t talk anymore. I haven’t had a talk with anyone for years, and I feel better. The highs are lower and the lows are higher. I’m flattened. I don’t laugh or cry. I don’t feel the need. I know hope doesn’t exist, so I don’t feel its false highs and lows. I pretty much feel nothing.

    I’m isolated, but that’s ok. This is just the way it is..

    So when I see the ads or posts or memes telling people to talk to someone, the only thought I have as I move on to the next ad or post or meme, is that some poor person is going to try to talk to someone and will end up broken.

  2. Nancy Love says:

    Long time Dennis,
    I follow you still though. I appreciate your work. I have been working toward dispelling the stigma of mental illness among “church folks.” Listen, I am more convinced than ever that Jesus is the True healer. That being said though, many sincere people, as you said, have no idea how to deal with someone with a mental illness. They want to treat it as a spiritual weakness. By those standards, so is kidney disease, diabetes, etc., I want to help people in Christian circles to realize it is a maintenance thing, and not a weakness thing. So, that being said, I wanted to ask if you would mind giving me permission to use some of your writings to help educate folks from an experienced writer. If not, I understand, but my other request would be if you would mind sharing some of your reference literature or authors that could point me in the right direction for educating folks. Many people do seek help from the church and I feel a burden to educate just least to the point of recognizing those that need specialized treatment. It only takes a moment of instability to be pushed into a sadly permanent solution. Not to say that they aren’t considering it, just that one unhealthy decision can change everything. Anything you’d be willing to share would be greatly appreciated. I am, for the most part, doing well. I have better recognition and coping skills, and my family is finally trying to educate themselves and be more supportive.
    Dennis, thank you for your work and God bless you.

  3. AlexaFaie says:

    This is fantastically written and I agree with so much of it.

    When I attempted suicide, talk was honestly the last thing on my mind. Not because I didn’t have a supportive network or anything like that, but because in that moment, I had made my decision, I’d found my solution to the problem. It wasn’t a situation with shades of grey to it, it wasn’t even a black or white situation. There was literally just the one option present in my head and a total coolness/calmness and false-logic knowledge that that was the only possible solution at that time. I didn’t WANT to talk to anyone, I didn’t want someone to try and talk me out of it.

    That’s why this sort of thing doesn’t really work.

    I didn’t need to talk at that moment, I needed the ability to talk to someone and come up with solutions months to years prior to that point. But my experience with trying to reach out preventively has been rather negative. I’ve even had mental health professionals state that I didn’t look “ill enough” to require the kind of help I was requesting access to. So I got pushed to the side. I got signed off from the mental health team I saw after attending their Bipolar Support Group, but at the group they were surprised that with my history and current situation that I didn’t have a care coordinator and had stated that they’d help me get one sorted. After the group finished it turned out that I’d been signed off by the mental health nurse when he referred me to the group, so they couldn’t then assign me one. So have to go back through the referral process of going to my GP and getting them to make the referral for an assessment and then have to wait months before I even get to see anyone.

    That’s absolutely no good if you are anywhere near close to a crisis. Waiting months to even get the chance at access to help makes it sometimes just too much to cope with when you’re in a bad place mentally.

    The whole “reach out to people” message is misplaced. We need to instead put pressure on our respective countries governments to improve access to treatment. We need more funding for mental health teams so that when someone goes to them early – prior to being deep in crisis, there is someone there who can actually see them and help to keep them from descending into said crisis. At least where I am, the current system is set up so that you get lots of help if you are considered already in a crisis (you turn up at the hospital) but not a lot if you are trying as hard as you possibly can to prevent yourself from getting to that point. You get labelled “not at risk” and ignored. And so when things start getting bad again? You don’t really feel like reaching out to them because you are worried that you aren’t “ill enough” for them to want to help.

    The support has to be good enough for people to maintain their condition rather than only dip in now and then when things are particularly bad. Being dropped when deemed “well enough” when you have a chronic life long mental health condition which cycles in such a way as bipolar disorder does is really bad.

    • Dennis says:

      Hello, Alexa. It’s funny that you mention your suicide attempt that way, mine was exactly the same. There was just…nothing. It was like all my emotions just turned off and I went onto autopilot mode. Problem, solution, action.

      I’d like to thank you for sharing part of your story and perspective. I agree with you wholeheartedly, pretty much across the board. Really nothing to add past that.

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