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”.
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.
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.