Content warning: This article mentions suicide
Every May 17 since 2018, my hometown, Okemos, Michigan, partakes in an initiative called #SockOutSuicide. On this day, everyone wears silly socks around school and town and posts pictures of the spectacle on social media. This initiative is meant to bring awareness to mental health and break the stigma behind reaching out for support.
#SockOutSuicide came about when a teacher in our community lost her husband to suicide in May of 2017. Her husband was known for often wearing silly socks, no surprise given his brilliant sense of humor and outgoing personality, so we do the same to commemorate his life. By doing so, we also shed light on heavy topics like suicide awareness.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only incident of suicide in our community. In January earlier that year, my friend lost her boyfriend, a former Okemos High School student, in the same manner. In December later that year, an Okemos High School senior student took his own life. In April of the following year, a student from my graduating class committed suicide. And as recently as this past April, a friend of a friend did the same just outside of his childhood home.
Although I didn’t know these individuals personally, hearing grievous news like this brings a dark cloud of guilt over my head.
Is there something I could have done? Is there something I could have said? I didn’t know them, but should I have gone out of my way to get to know them? Did they have someone to talk to? Were there signs? They didn’t seem like they were in need of any help, they always seemed so put together.
Thanks to my family, friends, gurus and counselors, I’m lucky to have a reliable support system. Especially during difficult times, I am able to vomit out my feelings and receive words of encouragement, which remind me that everything’s going to be okay. Not everyone is able to receive those words though. In fact, 24% of adults diagnosed with a mental illness do not get treatment. Even before the pandemic last year, 19% of adults experienced a mental illness, which equated to an increase in over 1.5 million adults. Suicide ideation among adults increased .15% from 2016-2017’s data set to 2017-2018 data set, which equated to over 460,000 more adults.
It wasn’t until high school when I realized how great of an impact mental health had on myself and others around me. From my personal experience, my hometown has always been extremely competitive. I would constantly hear things like, “Oh you’re taking only seven APs? I’m taking ten.” It never felt like we, as a graduating class, were there for each other. Rather than collaborating, we were constantly competing with each other: Who’s going to get into the University of Michigan or an Ivy League school? Who’s going to have the highest SAT Score? Who’s going to qualify as a National Merit Scholar? It felt cutthroat to me and sure, that could be because of the people I chose to surround myself with. But I’m willing to bet money that I was not the only person with these experiences.
So how did my community go about addressing these issues? In some aspects, they did a great job. Starting initiatives like #SockOutSuicide and propelling the conversation of mental health to the forefront is, in my opinion, a great way to address the issue. It allows us to take a step back and think about how we can better advocate for our own mental health as well as others. On the flip side, there are some things which could have been done better. I remember watching videos in class about how we can “check in on each other” and “be kind to one another.”
But what does it mean to “check in” on someone? I’ve had my fair share of texting people and telling them that I’m not in the best place mentally and all I get is “Damn, that sucks,” “Aww, feel better” and my personal favorite, “Nooo, don’t be sad!” Some days, it feels so much easier to suppress my true feelings by just replying, “I’m good,” when someone asks “How are you?” — even though I’m not actually doing well. It’s difficult navigating how to actually “check in” on someone in a meaningful way, but I firmly believe that once we learn this skill, “checking in” can have actual meaning behind it. Some examples include being an active listener and not scrolling on a phone or multitasking when someone is opening up; they deserve undivided attention. Showing empathy towards whomever is speaking and following up with words of encouragement and reminding them that they are so loved and appreciated, and that their feelings are valid. Little things like this can go a long way for someone. Asking how someone is doing doesn’t have to be a serious, heavy conversation; it’s completely okay to keep things light-hearted as long as there’s honesty and active listening involved from the respective parties. I can assure you it’s more effective than “Damn, feel better.”
The fact of the matter is that there really is nothing I could have done for those individuals in my community. However, there are things we can do now, starting with ourselves. Taking care of our own mental health can help us help each other. We can be listening ears for others that need it, share and advocate for mental health resources and complete more research on how mental health can affect various communities. Fittingly enough, May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and after everything this pandemic has and continues to put us through, we all could use a mental break.
This pandemic has served as a reminder to many that mental health is something that cannot be ignored. And frankly speaking, there is no clear cut solution for the current mental health crisis. But I believe that taking the first step in reaching out when you need to and keeping in touch with your own needs can go a long way. In turn, this helps you become a better resource for others and guide others to find strength within themselves.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)