Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about the failings of feminism. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
On Saturday, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson posted a message to his Instagram account suggesting he was suicidal. “I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore,” he wrote. The troubling message prompted a “wellness check” from the New York Police Department, who met with Davidson in person.
Davidson’s Instagram account has since been deleted, but it wasn’t the first time the 25-year-old comic has used social media to comment about having depressing thoughts. Davidson, who has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, has spoken openly about his struggles with mental health and with bullying, especially as it related to his short-lived relationship with pop star Ariana Grande.
Being in the spotlight likely exacerbates Davidson’s sadness and anxiety, as there is more pressure to meet particular expectations or behave in a certain way. At the same time, though, when he does cry out for help – as his Instagram post did – fans will immediately take notice and respond.
But it’s not just celebrities using social media to ask for help – regular folks are, too. So what happens if someone you know issues a call for help, or something that sounds like it?
First and foremost, reach out, even if you’re not entirely sure of their message’s intent. A simple, “Are you okay? I’m around to talk if you need” can let the person know they are not alone – and invite them to call on you as a resource if needed. Many suicidal people won’t reach out on their own.
But while you’re here to help, don’t make it sound as if you’re here to fix their problems. You can’t. You can, however, let them know you’re thinking of them and that you take their struggles seriously. Above all, most suicidal people want someone to trust and someone to care.
If the person responds and says that they’re not okay, don’t be afraid to ask explicitly and without judgement or panic, “are you feeling suicidal?” If they say yes, try to be with them in person – and if you can’t be, contact a family member or friend who can. You can also encourage them to contact their therapist, if they have one, or a suicide prevention hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. (Facebook also offers a help page specifically geared toward helping people who encounter threats of suicide on the platform.)
Critically, when talking with a friend who may be suicidal, listen more than you talk. Don’t interrogate them or, even more tempting, try to make them feel better by sharing struggles of your own. This risks making the conversation seem all about you. Plus, even if you’ve had suicidal thoughts of your own, you may not know how they feel in this moment.
Instead, let them know you’re not here to offer opinions or objections, but rather to provide a safe space for them to share those thoughts. Listen to the feelings behind the facts and then offer to help them explore ways they might deal with their problems. More often than not, suicidal people do not want advice or to be told that “everything will be okay.” But you can offer reassurance that you understand their struggles and will be available for them as needed.
And, lastly, especially in the holiday season, realize that not all warnings may be as blatant as Davidson’s. Frequent social media posts that are dark in nature or extremely revealing about a traumatic life event can also be a red flag. And there’s no such thing as “just” a cry for help.
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Any message expressing suicidal thoughts or curiosities is a legitimate request for assistance, and in many cases can be a matter of life or death.
How will you know if they really mean it? There’s only one way to find out: Give them a call, shoot them a text, reach out however you can. Right now.