By Dr. George Hu, PsyD
Credit: Melanie Ham
In 1997, while a university student at UC Berkeley, I stood on the edge of a cliff in the Berkeley Hills with the express desire to end my life. I asked myself a question that many have asked before—Why should I not jump and end my life right now? This self-directed question was not the result of Sisyphusian lament, or of Camus-esque existential conflict. I was a young man experience overwhelming emotions, and felt completely alone and unable to cope, despite the wealth of resources around me. For that moment, and for many moments before and after, I felt that death was the only way to stop the pain.
Nowadays, I am strangely grateful for that time in my life, as well as other experiences of pain and suffering, because it caused me to admit to myself that I am, in fact, not OK. I was a person that did not have the emotional resources and strength to cope with my pain, and I was desperately in need of help. The admission of my need was what started me on the journey to seek the help that I needed, and eventually to become the clinician I am today.
On the eve of World Suicide Prevention Day, suicide remains a major public health concern. Today, it is the 2nd leading cause of death of people aged 15-34 in the United States, and although recent data from China shows that the suicide rate has dropped, it remains a topic of significant concern, especially among adolescents and young adults. From the day I started my training as a mental health clinician, I have worked with individuals coping with suicide in some way—those trying to cope with the loss of a loved one to suicide, those thinking about attempting suicide, those experiencing the aftermath of a failed suicide attempt, and those who have gone on to die by suicide. I hope that some of the below learning can assist all of us in addressing the needs of our community in order to offer hope to those at-risk for suicide.
1. Prioritize emotional health. Many of us have a basic understanding of how to care for our physical health, but not for our emotions. The emotional realm can seem intimidating and scary. Make sure that you take the time to reflect and understand what brings you joy, fulfillment, and gratitude, and make time in your schedule for those things.
2. Invest in the emotional life of our children. It seems no one has provided us parents with a manual on how to raise children, and we as parents spend significant time and effort caring for the physical, academic, and even social lives of our children. However, it is vitally important to recognize that in this day and age, many things compete for our attention and attempt to take away from the time and effort it takes to invest in a healthy relationship with our children. Weak or unstable relationships with parents is a common contributing factor to suicidal ideation in children and teens, and we need to make it a priority to show our children that we love them, care for them, and are willing to spend time with them.
3. Make some concrete changes to your family life. Instead of eating dinner at different times and places, make it a point to eat together, and to talk to each other and about your day. Or, choose a different topic to discuss every day. For ideas on how to make dinner time a valuable bonding experience, go to https://thedinnertableproject.org/. Additionally, you may wish to consider and adjust the amount of time your children spend with household staff such as drivers and ayis, and consider making adjustments to your work schedule in order to increase the amount of time with your children.
4. Develop a habit of expressing your emotions, and encourage children to do the same. Real people experience real emotions, and many of these emotions may be unpleasant. We do not need to be ashamed or afraid of negative emotions, but instead can learn to express them in appropriate and constructive ways. If you are a parent, it is important to model for children and teens how healthy and mature adults are not afraid to experience their own emotions and express them. Many folks choose to use words to express their emotions, such as in conversation with a loved one, or through the use of a written journal. Spend time to find out what works for you, and encourage others around you to do the same.
5. Reinforce a culture of empathy. Many individuals, including children and teens, are reluctant to share and express their emotions because they are afraid they will be judged or labeled. Reinforce a culture of empathy around you, where you can hear and receive emotional expressions from those around you and respond with empathy. Try using statements such as “I understand how you feel”, “I can see that you’re feeling ___”, and “It’s OK to feel that way” can help people feel understood and less fearful.
6. Admitting the need for help and seeking it out is NOT weakness. This may be particularly difficult for men, as we are socialized to believe that needing help means that we are weak. Society also attempts to convince us of the lie that experiencing emotional difficulties means we’re “crazy”. It is not “crazy” to admit that we are having a difficult time and need help. In fact, it is a hallmark of a wise and strong person to be able to recognize when they need help, and to seek the appropriate resources.
7. You are not alone. Some of the many lies that suicide tries tell us include that you are completely alone in how you feel, you are weak because of how you feel, you and everyone around you are powerless to help, and that you would be better off or somehow less of a burden on people if you were dead. In fact, many people may have felt the exact same way you are feeling now. Reach out to trusted members of your community, or a qualified professional.
8. Watch for warning signs, particularly in children. Significant changes in appetite, sleep patterns, socialization, academic performance, community and school involvement, or the presence of self-injurious behavior may be cause for concern. Seek consultation with a qualified and experienced professional, such as a medical or mental health provider.
If someone you know approaches you with an emotional difficulty, help them feel heard, understood, and empathized with. Try not to convince them to feel better, look on the “bright side”, or convince them that they don’t have any reason to feel badly. Instead, send them the message that you understand how they feel, and can empathize with them.
In recognition of World Suicide Prevention Day, let’s commit to building care, empathy, and emotional well-being in all of our communities, every day.
Dr. George Hu is a licensed clinical psychologist from the United States. He is the Chief of Mental Health at Shanghai United Family Pudong Hospital and the President of the Shanghai International Mental Health Association.
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