Why Suicidal People Don’t Ask for Help

By Paul Thomas Zenki

It’s not because they don’t want it…

“Why didn’t he ask for help first? If we had only known, we would have done anything. Anything!”

Nobody wants to be the one to say those words. And when we say them, we mean them. We mean them with all our heart and all our soul.

But as sincere as they may be, most of the time they’re not true. Because we wouldn’t have. Not then. Not really.

That is painful to say. And it’s painful to hear. But there’s nothing about depression and suicide that is not painful. And a great deal of that pain comes from not being honest before it’s too late.

A failure to communicate

There’s a scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke when the prison camp guards finally break Luke Jackson. They do it by having one guard order him to dig a pit. When he’s done, another guard asks what all that dirt is doing in his yard, and orders Luke to fill it back in. When he’s done with that, the first guard comes back around and asks why the pit isn’t dug, and orders him to dig it again.

They do this until he is broken and has no will left of his own. His only desire is to stop shoveling dirt.

One of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard of depression is that it’s not the opposite of happiness, but of motivation. Depression makes every task in life feel like digging that pit and filling it back in. Getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, holding a job, eating, making love, planning for the future, putting one foot in front of the other — all of it seems as pointless as digging a trench in a yard. And no amount of “Just buckle down and do it” will ever make any of it seem worthwhile.

It is an insidious and, if left untreated, often deadly condition.

Paul Newman as Luke Jackson shoveling dirt in the movie Cool Hand Luke
Cool Hand Luke promotional still, Warner Bros./Seven Arts, 1967 (fair use)

The feeling of clinical depression can be especially acute when one’s life is going relatively well. There is tremendous guilt that comes from knowing you have family and friends who love you, a good job, three squares a day, all the things so many people in this world would do anything to get. And yet it means nothing to you, sharpening the sense of your own worthlessness.

Now we need to distinguish here between situational depression and clinical depression. Unfortunately, the English language uses one term for two very different afflictions. Situational depression, while it is sometimes acute enough to be fatal, is usually temporary (although it can sometimes trigger clinical depression). It’s what we feel when we lose a job, or a loved one, or accidentally cause harm to others. Clinical depression, on the other hand, has no immediate external reason.

For someone with this type of depression, asking “What are you depressed about?” makes as much sense as asking someone with diabetes “What are you diabetic about?” Sadly, just asking the question tends to reinforce the person’s view that nobody understands (or can understand) what’s going on with them and that trying to explain is an exercise in futility. So they withdraw even farther, and the few rays of hope they have left grow even dimmer.

This situation is not anyone’s fault. It arises because if you haven’t been there, it is almost impossible to comprehend how a person can feel so devoid of a will to live, which for most of us is the background hum of our daily existence. The will to go about our lives from moment to moment is so deeply embedded that we don’t even notice it’s there. And if it’s never been absent, it’s easy to believe that it doesn’t exist, that the motivation to simply be isn’t motivation at all. It’s only when the rug is pulled out from under you that you truly understand how fundamentally necessary motivation is to our very existence.

It is easy to be angry at a person who is clinically depressed. They can appear to be lazy, self-absorbed, thoughtless, and moping over nothing. And if they seek support or try to explain themselves, they can come across as whiny and melodramatic. Or worse, attention-seeking and manipulative. Again, this is not anyone’s fault. It’s just one of the many tragically cruel facets of the condition.

What not to say

When dealing with this perplexing syndrome in someone we are close to, we naturally come at it from our own frame of reference. And in doing so, we can inadvertently say and do things that drive our loved one deeper into the clutches of the disease.

“Look, we all get down from time to time. It’s part of life. We just have to deal with it and get on with things anyway.”

“Hey, it’s not that bad. Think about all the good things in your life. Stop focusing on what’s wrong all the time.”

“You probably need to exercise. Maybe eat better. It’s no wonder you’re feeling lousy, you’re not taking care of yourself. Have you thought about joining a gym?”

“You should get out more. Maybe join a club, or go to church. Be around people. Stop isolating yourself so much.”

“You think you got it tough? There’s plenty of people worse off than you. Stop being a baby and snap out of it! Look at your cousin Alex, he’s in a wheelchair and you don’t see him complaining.”

All of these bits of advice, even the “tough love”, are well intended. We say them because we believe them. And from our perspective, they make sense.

What the depressed person hears is very different. They hear: No one understands, and I can’t explain it. It’s hopeless. I should shut up, I’m only making people angry at me. I’m a burden on everyone. I have to deal with this by myself. Why am I so worthless? Why can’t I deal with life? God help me.

And so, they stop asking for help. They withdraw even farther. And they begin using what little energy they have left to try to pretend things are OK. That’s why suicide can seem to come out of the blue. How many people were shocked at the suicide of Robin Williams? Or Kurt Cobain? They had it all going for them. They didn’t seem depressed. It just makes no sense….

But in the looking-glass landscape of depression, it makes all the sense in the world.

Comedian Robin Williams gestures while onstage in front of a USO banner at the USO World Gala in Washington, DC
Robin Williams in 2008 (US Dept. of Defense, public domain)

A different tack

I wish I could say that I have the magic words, the proper formula to draw a person out of depression. But I don’t.

What I can say is that there are ways to connect with someone who has fallen into the pit. But it requires us to abandon our intuitive ways of thinking, to accept that we are dealing with something upside-down, where the normal rules don’t apply. It requires profound levels of compassion, and patience.

And it’s not easy. Don’t think for a minute that helping someone with depression is easy. You will get frustrated. You will get angry. You will want to stop hearing about it. You will want it all to go away. And from time to time you will wonder if you’re simply enabling them to be weak, lazy, and irresponsible.

It’s OK to feel that way. Comes with the territory. And to be frank, you might end up needing therapy yourself to deal with it all.

And here is the hardest thing: It may not work.

There is no surefire cure for depression, any more than there is a surefire cure for cancer. Just keep in mind that you have to fight anyhow. Even when the person you love, for reasons you can’t really comprehend, seems unwilling to fight for themselves. Especially then.

While there is no script for this situation, if someone I love were to come to me tomorrow and say they felt they couldn’t go on, and I had not been through it myself, I might say something like this:

I know I don’t understand what’s going on with you. And maybe I can’t. But I love you, and I want you to know that. I’m here to help, even if I don’t understand. And hey, the fact that you’re here and you’re talking to me means there’s some spark left. It may not feel like it right now, but there must be something there. Let me help you find someone who does understand. Other people have made it out of this. I believe you can, too. Please let me help you try.

Possibly the most important words I ever heard in my life were these: “I love you. And I will never let you go.”

While there is no guarantee, there is hope, even if it’s impossible for a person with depression to see it, or believe in it. If your friend breaks a leg, you let them lean on you, so you can be their leg. You don’t pressure them to walk on their own. You walk with them, until the leg can be set and they can learn to walk by themselves again.

When a friend’s hope is gone, sometimes it’s up to you to have hope for them. At least until they can find someone who is trained in repairing hopelessness.

Depression is not a situation that people can just tough out. It requires professional assistance. And it requires understanding. Even if you don’t really understand.

Header Image by Wokandapix

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.