Since any suicide by a major celebrity leads to an awful lot of public conversation on the topic, much of it I disagree with, I figure it won’t really make anything worse if I take the opportunity to share some of my actual experience with suicidality and the reasons why it’s actually hard to talk about.
Something I’ve never admitted publicly is that almost three years ago, while in my office working late at night, I attempted suicide by overdose. I had gone to work that day like normal and as far as I can tell no one necessarily knew anything was particularly wrong. In the evening, once everyone else was gone for the building, I made my attempt.
Going into work while being suicidal is a practiced skill. Something that I think most people with severe mental health issues have to learn at some point if they’re going to keep a job. If you mostly work hourly jobs, not coming in to work means losing valuable pay. If you have a salaried position, you generally have a fairly limited amount of “personal leave” you can use. It’s also rather difficult, at least in the U.S., to get on disability for mental disabilities. All this combined means that if you want to be able to afford to live, you’re going to be at work while being in really bad mental states or even while planning to kill yourself later.
Of course, no one wants to be around someone who “acts crazy” or seems depressed, withdrawn, etc. right? Showing that you’re in a bad place can get you fired for “culture fit” reasons. It happened to me once when I was a lot younger and less practiced at faking it. I’m sure it happens to many people. Even if you don’t lose your job, you can feel coworkers treating you differently. You get a reputation for being flaky, lazy, unreliable, or even just strange. This happens if you’re simply not good at pretending to be “normal”, god forbid if you were to actually say that you were suicidal.
Admitting you’re suicidal is something that most people, if they haven’t experienced it themselves, don’t really know how to handle. I’m not even really blaming them for that. It’s a frightening thing. It really is okay to be freaked out when someone tells you that they want to commit suicide. The true problem is that there’s no real space for people to actually take care of their mental health. Our entire concept of how “sick leave” works is designed to accommodate the common cold, not chronic mental health problems. I have my own strong feelings about how this can be fixed system-wide, but for now I want to focus on the individual.
Whenever the topic of suicide comes up on a national level, there’s lots of messages about “don’t stigmatize mental illness” and even more about how you should “seek help” and “talk to someone” but let’s be honest here: in general you can’t take the risk of talking to coworkers or a boss about this, especially because of how ideas about mandatory reporting can be used against mentally ill people. The problem is that people who don’t have experience with mental illness don’t understand the difference between feeling suicidal and having an immediate executable plan. I feel suicidal frequently, less frequently than the 24/7 way I used to a few years ago, but still frequently enough; however, the number of days that I have a serious plan are far fewer in number, and the times I’ve made an attempt are far fewer still. I’m not against mandatory reporting about suicidality per se, but with the understanding that someone talking about how they feel suicidal is very different from having evidence that someone is going to attempt imminently. If you don’t have a guarantee that your coworkers or supervisors understand this distinction, then you can’t safely talk about how you feel. If you can’t safely talk about how you feel, then you can’t ask for accomodation for your mental illness.
In my experience, the hardest part of being suicidal is pretending that I’m okay and forcing myself to get work done in spite of it. It’s hard to focus, to be creative, to do anything complicated. Hell, I can’t even effectively answer email in that state because spelling and grammar require too much CPU power. At the same time, since I have no ability to tell anyone I work with why I’m acting that way then and I get accused of laziness, of having no focus or motivation. At this point, I’ve even started to believe that’s what it means when I’m having trouble focusing because I’m suicidal: that I’m lazy, unmotivated, uncreative.
So I do want to remove the stigma around mental illness and suicidality, but in particular I want to remove it in the workplace. I want to remove the reason why we can’t take time off, we can’t take care of ourselves, and we can’t ask for help. I want it to be safe for workers to be honest about their experience without fearing reprisal and shame.