On Suicide Hotline Posts
A number of friends have, more than likely with good intentions, posted a viral social media message with a suicide hotline attached.
I won’t repost it. To me it’s representative of the detached engagement we have from our fellow humans in spite of our “connectedness.” Our generic ministrations only highlight the lack of an immediate, human touch in the lives of those distraught enough to take their own lives.
I’ve lost more friends to suicide than I can count on two hands, but only three haunt me: A squad leader in Alaska took his own life when his wife left him. Our buddy and comrade in arms shot himself in the face after a drunk driving accident. A young kid with so much promise, a kid that got kicked out of the Guard but then allowed me to be a reference for him, sucked on the end of a shotgun.
Why do these stick with me? The first because I was standing there, trying to talk him out of it when he squeezed the trigger. The second, because he was the last guy any of his friends believed would go there.
The third, because he marked the first time I had a paternal sense of responsibility for a soldier. He made a bad choice, got high in college, came up on a pre-mobilization urinalysis. The zero tolerance policy was what it was, but this kid was motivated. He <em>wanted</em> to be there, to serve his country overseas. My friend and I fought to keep him in, but we lost. But it meant something to him. The mistake with the Guard cost him college. He struggled with work, but things were looking up. He was so proud when he became a father. He asked me for advice, and then when things went south, he asked me for advice on custody. Just a few weeks before he killed himself, I gave him a reference for a new job, which he got, and it really seemed like things were finally falling into place.
I don’t blame myself in any of them, at least not specifically. Broadly, however, I believe there’s a friendship form of “white noise” we all fall into. We’re there, but we’re not there enough, at least not in a way that matters when the bottom drops out. We signal our concern without being specifically concerned. In the case of the young man, I truly loved him, and saw myself as a mentor. But I didn’t catch his melancholy, nor that the patterns of highs and lows should have been telling. Still, I would have been someone he reached out to had he been sober at the time. His suicide came at the end of an irregular binge. Sometimes, the variables just aren’t there even when you’re in the prevention mix.
After that, I resolved that as a leader in the military, I was going to make sure every subordinate, peer, and senior knows that I value them in our interactions. We’re human and it’s not always possible, but I try. I want my friendship and my commitment to them to be their suicide hotline. I want them to know from our interactions that I value them enough that I will always drop everything for them whether I post a viral message or not.
But that’s not who I’m really thinking about with this.
7 years ago, an emerging actress took her own like in Los Angeles. She and I weren’t close. We acted in some plays together in high school, and we were competitive in one social studies course in which we overlapped. We held a banner representing our high school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s 250th anniversary parade. I made a number of assumptions about her because she was black, had odd skin, and was outgoing to the point of abrasive. I’m not trying to speak ill of the dead, but I thought her idea of being “in character” was merely projecting her voice on stage and repeating a line. If she had ambitions to do more, we were definitely not close enough to share. It was the kind of acquaintance that would result in some hard thinking followed by “oh, yeah! that one!”
When we connected on Facebook, as did many of her high school friends when her film career started taking off, it was still, “oh, yeah,” but the awkward, odd kid I remembered bleached her skin, straightened her hair, and had professional bikini shots. The “is that…?” was briefly more compelling than her small, but growing, list of bit parts in TV or direct-to-video movies. But I was genuinely happy for her. She looked well, and little parts lead to big parts.
And then, we all heard that she took her own life. Many of us properly signalled our sadness in response to the terrible news, and I’m always sad for a life wasted in such a way. But who was I kidding? I was ambivalent about her in high school, and while I was happy to see another J.P. McCaskey graduate teasing greatness, I couldn’t do much more than recount how I knew her and that it was indeed sad.
Would posting a Facebook message about suicide have saved her life? I doubt it. In fact, given the nature of our relationship, I had no relevance to her life or her death.
There are some that might say “what’s the harm,” and “you never know.” Feh. To me, we’re just telling ourselves that our social media connections are nowhere near as superficial as they are in reality. When tragedy strikes, we will signal our guilt. We will signal our sympathy. And then, years later, when you’re looking at your list of “friends,” and you see her old account around their birthday, you might think about it, like I am now. I can’t even reasonably speculate about <strong>any</strong> of her possible motivations.
If we’re surprised by a suicide, it likely means we weren’t positioned to help prevent it. So instead of posting the suicide hotline, scroll through your list of connections. Read their posts. If they look glum, offer a word of encouragement. If you know them well enough that their suicide wouldn’t surprise you, you could well be that person that they reach out to when they stand on that precipice. Hold on to that number. Make that call <em>with them</em>.