As I read the news about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain last week, I was overcome with sadness. For the family and friends they left behind by their acts of suicide, for the world that will be deprived of their gifts, and for them. I know what it’s like to be in that pain. Just last year, I stood at the ledge, ready to test my powers of flight from my window.
The news sparked an increasingly common line of inquiry: Why didn’t they ask for help? Certainly, these two individuals — with their wealth, celebrity, and vast resources — could afford mental health care. They had friends who could help. Why didn’t they reach out?
Here’s the thing: it’s not that easy.
Here are some of the reasons why a person may not have reached out for help:
(1) Asking for help triggers feelings of shame, isolation, and self-judgment
There’s a lot of shame around asking for help and admitting struggle. Asking for help is uncomfortable. Our cultural conditioning prizes bootstrapping and figuring things out.
One of our unwritten “rules” as a society is that we appreciate the tale of the struggle only when it comes with a full resoltion. We want a happy ending, not the messy middle.
Scrolling social media and seeing how other people seem to have it all together makes us feel isolated and alone, like we are the only ones who struggle.
When I was in my deep pain, I believed that asking for help would mean that I wasn’t as smart, capable, and “together” as others believed me to be. I assumed others would judge me. And why wouldn’t they? I judged myself for that. It felt wrong to need help when others seemed to be doing everything well on their own.
My fears and shame around asking for help resulted from my experience of being judged and dismissed when I had previously sought help.
The dominant question in my mind was What’s wrong with me?
(2) Asking for help conflicts with one of the core beliefs behind suicidal ideation
When we’re at the point where we believe the only solution is to end it all, we are past the point of asking for help.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but one of my beliefs in my darkest moment was that by ending my life I would no longer be a burden or a source of disappointment to others. I wouldn’t have to put people out or
At the risk of hammering home the obvious here:
People who believe that killing themselves will alleviate others of the burden of their existence will not undertake to potentially burden others by asking for help.
(3) We don’t know how to receive help
Our culture doesn’t teach us how to ask for, or receive, support. We learn that giving is good, but we don’t learn about the merits of receiving.
A person who doesn’t know how to receive help won’t ask for help.
Again, I can speak only to my experience, and what I’ve confirmed with friends. What I’ve found is that among the more privileged segments of society, receiving is viewed as selfish and dishonorable. Nobody wants to be perceived as a “charity case.”
Receiving help can trigger feelings of inadequacy. We may attach a meaning that we aren’t capable or smart enough.
Receiving also raises issues of self-worth. To receive support you must believe you are worthy of receiving support. That’s a tall order for someone who hardly believes she is worthy of remaining alive.
In those darkest moments, my prevailing thought was often why waste time helping me? Help someone who can make better use of it.
(4) We don’t want to receive help
Sometimes, the truth is that the person struggling doesn’t want help.
Why wouldn’t we want help?
On some level, the intense despair or hopelessness serves us by meeting one of our core human needs. Tony Robbins adapts Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to identify 6 needs: certainty, variety/uncertainty, love/connection, significance, growth, and contribution.
Even as we feel isolated from others, wallowing in our despair offers us connection with ourselves. The belief that “my problems are so big that nobody can help me” fuels significance.
Receiving help requires releasing control over a situation — embracing uncertainty. When your life is spinning out of control to the point where you’re contemplating ending your life, the last thing you want to relinquish is control. In fact, the choice to commit suicide is the ultimate act of control: the person who kills himself is controlling his own ending.
The truth is that hitting the bottom and staying there briefly can be an important catalyst for growth. This assumes, of course, that the person struggling can stay off the ledge.
(5) We don’t believe people can help us
As a culture, we are uncomfortable with being in the presence of another person’s discomfort. We typically want to make things better and fix a situation. Our society doesn’t hold space well for the struggle; we want to hear about it once the person has cleared the obstacle. Everyone loves a success story and a comeback; nobody really appreciates the messy middle.
In our darkest moments, the thing we want the most is something nobody will be willing to do for us — and with good reason. I don’t think I would have had takers for a request of “can you hold the window open while I climb up and jump out?”
(6) We may not know what help we need
A person who is struggling may not ask for help because we don’t know what help we need or how someone else can help.
Over the past few years, I occasionally mentioned to some people that I was struggling. Some even asked me “how can I help you?” I didn’t know what to tell them. I could hardly see through my state of despair to know what would serve me. And I didn’t know what skills they had or what they would be willing to do.
It’s worth noting that some people did not ask me “how can I help?” They simply showed up with a plan and helped me take micro steps forward.
Others showed up with a smile, an ear, or a shoulder. They held space and allowed me to cry. They listened without judgment or interruption. Just knowing that someone is “here when you’re ready to talk about it” was helpful.
(7) Requests for help don’t always sound the way you think they will
Every time I read a comment such as “why didn’t she reach out for help?” I think:
If it were me, I would want people to know that I did reach out for help. Many times.
Again, I can only speak to my experience, but I suspect I am not alone.
Here’s a hard truth: we often miss the signs. My intent in sharing this is not to place blame, but to raise awarenss.
Here’s how we miss signs:
We don’t notice subtleties
Rests for help often don’t look like the epic moments you see in the movies. Nobody is calling you to come over and hold the window open while they jump out.
The outreach happens in small moments for weeks, months, or years while hopelessness and despair build. They are hidden in the missed calls, the brief check-ins, the suggestions to meet for dinner or lunch. They are baked into simple text messages and seemlingly innocuous requests.
In some cases, a person who is going through a dark period may reach out with a request to help you. Meeting the need of contribution is one of the best ways to rise out of the depths of despair.
Sometimes the outreach is silently communicated through the subtleties of facial expressions, body language, or intonations of voice.
The requests show up in the small moments that we often miss in our trance of busyness. We miss the cues because we cannot perceive them through the glass of our screens or the wires of the web. To hear and see what is happening with those we love requires face-to-face interaction.
We get trapped by our biases and expectations
In many ways, I felt like a victim of my success and intelligence when I asked for help. I often felt that my requests were discounted because of what and who people expected me to be.
Time and again, my requests for help were met with responses that were well-meaning but that made me feel like there was something wrong with me if I asked for help.
You’re smart enough to do it on your own; you don’t need help.
You have two Ivy League degrees and a lot of talent. This should be easy for you.
Just journal on this. You just need an accountability buddy.
You know what you need to do; you just need to do it.
Although the intent was to boost my confidence, it had the opposite effect. These punts and platitudes left me feeling unseen, unheard, and unimportant.
When I see smart and successful people end their lives, and I read the comments asking “why didn’t he reach out?” I often wonder:
Was it that the person didn’t ask for help? Or were his requests ignored or unheard by people who didn’t have time, patience, or ability to listen?
Here’s the truth: Smart people struggle too. All of us need help in some area.
We can serve others much better if we trust that when they ask for help, they need what they are asking for, and if we respond with compassion instead of judgment.
To paraphrase the famous Maya Angelou quote:
When people ask for your help, believe them.
Summary & Takeaways
Here’s a brief summary of the main reasons why people in pain don’t reach out for support, and how we can improve our efforts to reach out to those in need.
Why we don’t reach out
- A person in the dire state of despair that precedes suicide is often unable to reach out and ask for help
- Stigmas around asking for help create shame and judgment that fuels isolation
- People going through tough times often don’t know what help they need, or what you can offer
- Many of us struggle with receiving, because we associate a negative meaning to it or resist giving up control
- Sometimes people don’t want help, or don’t believe anyone can help them
How we can be better at caring for each other:
- Don’t wait for someone to ask for help. Be proactive and reach out to them.
- Develop the sensory acuity to realize that a person is in pain and needs help.
- Suggest ways you might be able to help.
- If you can do nothing else, offer to listen, or simply hold space for someone to express her emotions.
- Look and listen for the subtle signs that someone needs support.
- When a person asks for your help, trust that she knows what she needs; don’t judge the request
What other guidance would you add to this? Please share in the comments.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 (TALK).