Crisis Intervention is about encouraging individuals to take small steps towards a lighter, brighter future – to reach out to someone they love, make an appointment with a doctor, or simply take a walk. But what about problems that cannot be fixed? How do you solve a pandemic, or grief, or the new painful knowledge that life is fundamentally unpredictable?
This past Septmber was World Suicide Prevention Month. Talking about depression and suicide, we seek to take away the stigma of talking about suicide and to encourage people to reach out for help. But accessing this help is often an uphill battle. For some, therapy may be unaffordable, or not an option on insurance, or something they can only access after getting to the top of a six months’ waiting list.
Here is a conundrum: how to work with individuals to get the best from themselves, to reach forward and take a tiny step towards some kind of better future in a world where there may be little support, financial stability, or hope that things will get much better. We want to help people. People want to help themselves. We must seek to find the balance between helping people to feel better in their own lives with the resources they have available, and fighting against the poverty and discrimination that causes so much anguish and suffering in the first place.
No one is safe from depression, just like no one is safe from cancer or breaking a leg. But prolonged exposure to intense stress – the kind of stress that comes from worrying about whether you will have enough money to feed your kids and pay medical bills, the kind of stress that comes from trying to judge if you will be safe walking down the street when you can see a police car – increases the risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Individuals are more likely to thrive when they feel safe, connected to others, and hopeful about the future.
Without a bedrock of safety, mental health is under strain. According to statistics, LGBTQ+ teens are six times more likely to experience symptoms of depression than non LGBTQ+ identifying teens. According to the British organization Mental Health Foundation, the poorest children and adults (those in the lowest 20% income bracket) are two to three times more likely to develop health problems than those in the highest. The Washington Post reported early this year that anxiety and depression among Black Americans after George Floyd was killed by police officers.
It can feel overwhelming to think about just how much the world needs changing and how on Earth we can begin to do that. I still feel continuously flummoxed when I think about how unfair the world is. How are people supposed to get on with their lives when life keeps beating them down? What can they do about it? And what good is telling someone who’s lost everything to try and take better care of themselves?
These things are all true. Most of the time we can’t fix things. Perhaps we can take tiny steps to feel a little better. Cuddling your cat or taking a walk isn’t going to save the world, but it may make someone feel a little better – enough to get them through to tomorrow, and then hopefully the next day, and then the next. We can look for ways to be kind to ourselves, and to be kind to others. We can nurture what gives us meaning: friendships, relationships, hobbies, anything that makes us sparkle. But ultimately, for individuals to flourish, we need a society where we have a support net. Where getting sick doesn’t mean bankruptcy. Where individuals don’t face discrimination and hate crime. To make people feel better, we need to make the world better. And, perhaps, the opposite is also true – to give people the strength to fight for the world we want, we have to look for small ways we can feel better. However, focusing on individual resilience is not enough. We also need to understand depression and suicide as a symptom of discrimination, poverty or the extreme day-to-day stress that come with worrying about survival as whole. Mental health is an individual, societal, and ultimately, a global endeavor. Let’s start now.