A harbor in the tempest
There is no manual on how to stop someone from leaving, no foolproof formula to keep a loved one by your side for the rest of your days. If only it were that easy to prevent suicide.
But we, the living, are given no 1-2-3 procedure to follow. Instead, we are left grappling with a sudden grief, and left with the mission to embrace and pull back to safety those who are on the verge of succumbing next. We are supposed to be a harbor in their tempest—but we ourselves are scared and cowering and have little idea of what we are supposed to do.
I know this because I am that way, too. As I write this piece, I keep hesitating, erasing whole paragraphs, considering abandoning the subject altogether. I am daunted by it. It is difficult to discuss suicide and its prevention, especially in a culture where these topics are still largely sidestepped.
But that is exactly the first challenge we have to take on: to talk about it. We do not talk about suicide as much as we need to. We dismiss signs of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. We perpetuate the stigma around them.
What’s more regrettable is that the institutions that are supposed to provide the nearest refuge—family, Church and counselors—are sometimes the ones that seem closed off.
Among Filipinos, it can often be futile to open up to a family member about one’s desperate thoughts. Not only is it hard for many of us to comprehend the gravity of suicide contemplation, it’s also hard for us to believe that it can occur in the first place.
Fortunate are those who have sought help and found it first right at home—those whose parents or partners listened to them and recognized their need for intervention. (And to those compassionate parents and partners: You deserve so much praise and gratitude.) The rest, however, are met with denials of varying shades: “Just be happy.” “Just try harder.” “Just have faith.”
This last one—to have faith—is a particularly hit-or-miss piece of advice. No doubt that for many Filipinos, religious faith has been a source of hope, enough to help them push through each day and wake up the next. But intangible concepts, such as faith and hope are, may not reach someone who cannot even muster the most basic drive to live. Reminders of faith to a despondent person can be like music being played for someone who is struggling completely underwater: It is a beautiful gesture, but it has little chance of clearing the murk.
Sadly, “Have faith” is about the only advice we hear from the Church on subjects such as depression and suicide. Worse, various religions today still respond to suicidal thoughts with warnings of damnation instead of much-needed compassion. This is enough to add duress to anyone experiencing an internal conflict, and enough to deter anyone from seeking solace among the faithful.
In times when no one else might pay kind attention, a sufferer should be able to find refuge in a professional listener. Counselors play a crucial role for those who need help, especially adolescents and young adults, the age group found to have higher suicide attempts and mortality. This crucial role is often wasted, though, as many young persons find that they cannot even begin to talk to their guidance counselors.
At the university I attended, students were required to have regular counseling sessions every semester. This would have been ideal were the students not exasperated by or even terrified of their counselors. By the time a semester was closing, there would be grumbles among the student populace about counselors being absent from scheduled sessions or being too intimidating. Counseling sessions thus turned from being a sanctuary to being a chore.
To think that we had it easy, with the university putting an emphasis on counseling and ensuring that students regularly had the opportunity to find guidance. Not all schools are as involved in their students’ mental and emotional wellbeing. In public high schools, for instance, guidance counseling may be keen on various functions—helping to adjust students’ undesirable behavior, educating them on career options—but it can be massively overlooked as a means for students to cope with desperation.
Family, Church, counselors—we are the ones who should be the first and most reliable source of support for those who are struggling. Ours is a sensitive role, perched on a delicate balance between caring and patronizing, attentive and smothering. It is a role that can test our patience, our resourcefulness, and our own strength. But we must fulfill it anyway—out of love, out of faith, out of our human sense of urgency to pull someone away from the brink.
So let’s begin to talk. And to listen. And to acknowledge. Let’s be more open about suicide prevention, and not hesitate about professional help. This is how we try. Despite our longstanding reluctance, our ingrained denials, and our urge to remain deaf and blind, let’s try.
There is no manual on how to stop someone from leaving. But with the people around us who might need our help, we do not have to—and definitely should not—stay petrified when confronted with their tempest. We are their harbor, and we can help them stay.
* * *
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.