The list of people with ME who have taken their own lives is too long.
Fortunately, there is help available for anyone in crisis, and their loved ones. There are many issues to discuss about suicide and end of life, but I want to give you the tools and information you need to deal with a crisis right now.
Johanna Haban has been disabled by a number of chronic illnesses over the years, including ME. She currently volunteers with Crisis Text Line and has experience on phone lines as well. She shared her perspective with me, to pass on to you. Johanna’s opinions and suggestions are her own and do not represent those of Crisis Text Line, San Francisco Suicide Prevention, or any other organization. She is not writing as an official representative of any organization. If you are in crisis and seeking help, please see the list of resources below.
Who can I call if I am feeling emotionally overwhelmed, thinking about suicide, or am worried about someone I love?
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: text START to 741-741
- Warmlines (listing of peer-run hotlines all over the country)
- MDJunction (online support groups)
- HealingWell.com (forums and chat)
What happens when I call?
The goal of counselors on crisis lines is to help you cope with how you are feeling, and help you figure out what (if anything) you can do for help. Calls are confidential, and you decide how much information to share with the counselors. You do not have to be suicidal to call.
Will a crisis line report me to the authorities?
Many people are scared to contact a help line because they are worried about the police coming or being committed to a psych ward. These are very understandable fears and I hope I can ease them. Unlike the rest of the world, even including close friends and loved ones, hotlines are a completely safe space to talk about suicide and suicidal feelings. There is no judgment, there are no assumptions, you can say how you feel without anybody getting scared or worried.
Counselors may notify authorities if someone is in immediate risk of killing themselves and all other attempts to help the person have been exhausted. The signs of immediate danger are whether the caller has formulated a plan, whether they have the means or access to carry out that plan, and especially if they have a time frame in mind.
However, even if the signs are all there, on the two hotlines where I have worked, it’s still not any guarantee that authorities will be notified. Believe me, nobody wants to do that! It is a very last resort when a person in crisis is going ahead with their plan and there’s nothing else that can be done, and additionally supervisors and other people in charge need to be notified and informed first so that they can make the decision to send out the authorities.
In other words, you can express whatever feelings you need to express, no matter how bad or scary they are, without fear that someone will assume you need to go to the hospital. In fact, if you don’t feel like you’re in immediate (as in the next hour or so) danger of hurting yourself, and you just really need to talk to someone about these feelings, you can even let your counselor know that and be extra assured that you will be supported emotionally without any fear of negative consequences. This is just a suggestion, though; if you aren’t able to express that, it doesn’t mean you’re more likely to have the police come to your house. It just means that during your conversation, your counselor will still be making sure that you are able to stay safe.
Will a crisis line counselor understand what it’s like to have ME or other serious diseases?
Many of the people I’ve spoken or texted with as a counselor have at least one chronic physical illness, sometimes more and sometimes exacerbated by mental illnesses. It’s common for people coping with illness to feel emotionally overwhelmed, and that’s what counselors are trained to deal with.
When I was working on the hotline, I once took a call from a person who was suffering from chronic illness and a number of other exacerbating issues. They told me repeatedly, “I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to live like this.” But when I asked “Are you suicidal?”, the response was a shocked “No! I’d never do that!” This was the first time I encountered someone who sounded intent on suicide, but really just wanted someone to hear how much pain they were in. This is one of the most important lessons I can share with you.
When you’re experiencing a morass of such unutterably painful things, it’s entirely natural to want that to end, and if it can’t, then to think about ending your life to make it stop. Even if you never have the slightest intention of doing it, at times the notion can be powerfully comforting. And here’s the part nobody wants to tell you: that’s okay! You are allowed to feel that way. One of the worst things about having suicidal thoughts is the guilt that accompanies them. It’s good, in a way, to feel guilty about leaving people behind if you were to kill yourself, because that would indeed be devastating. But there’s no need to feel guilty just because you’re thinking about it. It’s okay to feel the way we feel, as long as we reach out if those feelings become more like plans and decisions.
My friend/loved one is saying things like “I want to die.” What should I do?
Say something like: “I hear you. I don’t blame you at all. I completely understand why you feel that way. Did something happen recently to make things worse? Tell me what’s the most unbearable thing for you right now.”
Don’t make threats, like “if you keep talking like that I’m going to call the police.” Don’t give them reasons to stay alive – talk to them about what their reasons to stay alive might be. Don’t pile on the guilt; suicidal people are already buried by it. If they ask you to keep the conversation private, do not break that trust unless you know for certain the person is going to end their life in the next 24 hours and intervention is literally the only hope. The idea is to make sure the person knows they can come to you with these scary thoughts and you won’t make things worse for them.
Don’t problem-solve unless the patient is open to it. In other words, don’t jump on how to solve a particular problem that’s mentioned, just listen to it and offer your sympathy and empathy. If, however, the patient is open to seeking solutions, by all means work with them to find what you can.
And if you are unsure what to do or feeling overwhelmed by your loved one’s pain, you are welcome to call a crisis line for help in sorting through it.
One last thought from Jennie: People with ME endure a great deal, and many feel abandoned or isolated. If you or a friend with ME feel overwhelmed, please reach out for help. We need to look out for each other!