As an elected official, I tend to get captured by big ideas. That’s not a bad thing, obviously. Personally, I think this world needs more big ideas and big plans to tackle big problems, and I wish we had more energy to move in these directions.
That being said, sometimes, big ideas come with little problems. When you hear a big plan to tackle an issue like mental illness or suicide, you think that these are the ONLY things that can tackle depression or suicide. That leads to even more dangerous thoughts: You can’t do anything about it. That’s not true. That’s not true at all.
There is no question that grand gestures and big plans often work, and work well, preventing us from getting into trouble in the first place. But, on an interpersonal level, it is the little things that matter. In fact, more often than not, I’d put money down that it’s the little things that you remember. And, in the long wrong, “little things” is a misnomer. Little things can make a big blessing.
This leads to the obvious question: What are the little things that you can do – that all of us can do – that can save a life or help someone who is struggling feel better?
The Shortest Note: I always got a kick out of this study. In the 1970s, two doctors sent follow up letters to a group of patients who had just been released from the hospital, checking in, expressing concern, and saying that they wanted to stay in touch. Another group didn’t get such letters. The results? Of the group who did get the letters, which came on a regular basis, 1.8% died by suicide within two years. In the group that didn’t? 3.52%.
The conclusion? If the study’s findings are accurate, the smallest thing – the smallest little thing – can help to keep someone alive. This remarkable finding shows that people just want to know someone cares, someone values them, and someone is there if they reach out. Does this mean you can stop a suicide? Not necessarily. But it does mean that regularly checking on someone – letting them know that you value them – can help ease their pain. And yeah, maybe keep them alive.
Call Them By Their Name: The rates of suicide or suicide attempts among the transgender community are hellaciously high: Greater than 50% of transgender male teenagers reported a suicide attempt, with nearly 30% for transgender females. These rates of mental illness and suicide are tied to a few factors, including family rejection, bullying, harassment, or perceived danger. However, there is nothing inherent to being transgender that leads to higher risk of suicide, as transgener individuals who do get the support and acceptance they deserve do not have a higher risk of suicide.
So, what does that support look like? Well, accepting these people for who they are. Puberty blockers reduce the risk of suicide. So does the most simple thing: Calling a person by their chosen name and gender. Calling someone by the name they want reduces their risk of suicide and depression.
Again – it’s the little things.
Ask: There is a misnomer out there – that talking about suicide can implant the idea of suicide in someone’s head. To be clear, this isn’t true. In fact, the opposite is true: Bringing up the subject can save a life. This is because discussing the subject and asking specific questions, such as, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Have you been thinking about ending your life? Do you have any plans on it?” can actually check on someone. If done in a caring, compassionate matter, you can tell someone that you are concerned about them, and thus make it clear: You’re here to help. Asking someone if they are in pain or considering suicide will NOT make them more likely to make an attempt. In fact, the opposite may be true.
I need to be clear about something: Not stopping someone from dying by suicide is never someone’s fault. Suicide is a complex, complicated process that almost always involves multiple factors. It’s never just one thing, and it’s virtually impossible for it to be your fault. However, while stopping suicide may not be our fault, it is something we should all take responsibility for. Thankfully, you don’t have to be a doctor. You don’t need formal training. The smallest measures of kindness and compassion can save a life.