So, I have both been avoiding this essay, and also chomping at the bit to publish it. This one is a difficult one, and I think suicide attempt survivors are united both in our visceral reaction to this story, and our opinion of what happened.
You have probably all heard about this, but if you haven’t, you need to look it up. A 20 year old woman named Michelle Carter was just found guilty of manslaughter for encouraging the suicide of her friend, Conrad Roy III, almost entirely through text messages and a single phone call. The suicide happened on July 12, 2014.
I have no desire to get into the legal talk about the case or the verdict. Frankly, I don’t care. I have an uneducated opinion that I won’t share here. But I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about how significant an influence a person’s words can be, and how important timing is in that scenario.
So here is a bit of background before I really dive into everything: These two people were 17 and 18 years old when they started talking a lot about suicide and depression. For several months, Michelle begged him to get help, with little success, and then for about the final week of his life, her words turned into encouragement to complete the suicide. Several dozen texts were sent during the attempt, and one phone call, all of which were very encouraging for him to complete the task.
Michelle’s doctor said that the change in her tone regarding all of this was directly associated with a change in her pharmacological treatment for her own depression. The medical world is not unified in the idea that medication can create ideation and all that kind of stuff. However, I will tell you from personal experience that a radical shift in your medication can trigger depression, and a massive sense of vulnerability. I believe it is possible that a medication shift caused a massive drop in her mood and she was dumping some of that onto a trusted friend, who happened to be in a worse situation than she.
That might sound like some kind of defense for her, but I’m really just trying to relate a state of mind that is possible. Depression, by its nature, doesn’t allow you to process a situation normally. And it is pretty common when depressed people sit and talk together about depression, the conversation gets pretty dark.
The day of the suicide was filled with Conrad doing a bunch of normal activities, including getting ice cream with his family. His mother talked about how odd this was to her, and this is a common refrain from people who have never experienced a suicidal state. I have said this a hundred times in this blog and I will say it again: when a person looks the most depressed, like can’t get out of bed depressed, they are a very low suicide risk. People planning to commit suicide often have a lot of energy, and very often like to do normal activities as a way of tying up some loose ends.
When you have planned out a suicide to the level of detail that Conrad did, which included researching methods, purchasing a generator, planning a location and day, etc, you want that final day to mean something; both to yourself and the people you are leaving.
Suicide prevention tip: If someone you know has been massively depressed for awhile, and then all of a sudden starts to talk about the good ole days, or has a strong motivation to do something meaningful from your past, that person is very likely planning suicide. Do that thing with them, and talk them back into reality.
Now this part is the really disturbing part. Conrad began the attempt after purchasing gear and setting up in his truck in a parking lot. He was going to die by Carbon Monoxide asphyxiation, which isn’t a fast process. And after he began, he was texting with Michelle. And instead of stopping him, or contacting anyone, or trying to help him herself, despite knowing exactly where he was, she helped him stay focused and complete.
At one point he got out of the truck because he began to feel sleepy and got scared about dying. He called Michelle, and she told him to get back into the truck and finish. The judge specifically cited this phone call when giving his verdict and this was the most disturbing part to me, and several people in the mental health world.
Trying to calm or soothe someone that is depressed, or even dying, is a messy situation. But like I said before, conversations amongst depressed people often get very dark and they do so because there is a comfort there in mutual commiseration.
But, when someone removes themselves from a suicide attempt, and is scared, I cannot really imagine any way that pressuring them back into that situation is anything but truly heinous.
And here is why: like I said earlier about poor judgment and a decreased ability to reason often accompany suicidal levels of depression. And therefore, you are incredibly susceptible to suggestion.
Suicide attempts that require time, so basically most things outside of guns and falls, also require a lot of thinking and introspection.
I can tell you personally that when hanging from a door jamb with a belt around your neck, your mind isn’t blank. It is racing between fear, pain, and devastating sadness. And don’t forget that your body doesn’t want to die. Your depression gets overridden by an intense survival instinct. All of this is why suicide rates for the ‘time process’ methods are incredibly low. An incredible amount of force of will is on display during one of these suicides.
And I can tell you that during any of the several times where suicide seemed imminent for me, had almost any person been encouraging me to finish, I would have. Notice I said any person. If a loved one was doing it, the suicide would probably become pretty easy to accomplish. But even if a complete stranger was there, it would be incredibly likely.
When you are suicidal, it is so easy to fall off the psychological cliff. It is so simple to feel that there is no bottom to the depths of pain you can experience, and no end to its length. Believing you don’t deserve life and have only ruined others’ lives is practically necessary to reach that state of mind.
Any words reinforcing those ideas will bear extreme weight.
You ever have a personal trainer, or watch a home workout DVD? Those words of encouragement make it so much easier to stay focused and motivated. Focus and motivation are often difficult to a suicidal person.
Adding some words of encouragement are obviously deadly.