Here is a preview to a talk I will be giving very soon:
My name is Timothy Lawson. I’m a student here at American University, a Marine Corps veteran and a survivor of my own suicide attempt.
I first pondered suicide as a teenager. I daydreamed of taking my own life and how the people around me would respond, but I didn’t attempt.
Early in my military career I took leave to go back home and visit friends. At the time, I was already struggling with emotional health. One night, while I was home, I was feeling guilt, shame, and lack of hope about several things in my life. I was depressed. I panicked. I went to the medicine cabinet and grabbed the first prescription bottle I could find and chased it with a bottle of beer. I didn’t even bother to look at the label. I just downed the pills and went to my room. I laid there on my bed not knowing if I’d wake up. Fortunately, the next morning, I extremely sick. But sick was better than dead, and I knew I how fortunate I was to still have a heart beat.
A couple years later, I started to experience those same deadly emotions. This scenario is much more dangerous. It was one in the morning. I was standing post in an embassy overseas. I was alone with three loaded firearms. This time, a phone call home to mom saved my life. I spent hours telling her about my emotional issues. She just listened and did what she would always does. She simply said, “this too shall pass.”
She was right. All of those times passed and I’m standing here today.
But after 15 years of depression and suicidal behavior, I want to understand it. I want to know how to prevent it.
I want to talk to you about suicide prevention.
Let’s first think about how we approach prevention in general.
If I went to my doctor and said, “Doc, I want to prevent heart disease,” he or she would probably tell me to focus on nutrition, fitness, and overall care of my cardiovascular system. These are preventative measures that a doctor would give me before I’m even at risk for heart disease. I do not need to be showing symptoms for a doctor to be proactive about my physical health.
The culture around suicide prevention is currently reactive. When we see the warning signs, then we act. Is this person giving their belongings away? Do they seem to talk about death often? Are they distant and detached?
I’m here to challenge you to be proactive about suicide prevention.
I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of conversations with people about suicide, often times their own suicide attempt. I’ve learned what got them there and what stopped them. I believe I’ve discovered four great starting points. These are emotional services that we can provide each other and things we can seek out if we know we need it.
The first is empathy. You can apply the golden rule or even the platinum rule here, but this is about basic, simple empathy. Show interest in each other. Attempt to understand each other’s hardships. Listen before you speak and ask questions when you’ve run out of things to say. My teenage years never saw a suicide attempt because my youth pastor showed general interest in my life before AND after I talked to him about suicide. He was empathetic from the start.
The second is purpose. I noticed this especially in the veteran community but its something we all relate to. We want a purpose. We want opportunity. A great example is this talk right here. A good friend of mine saw the call for speakers for this TED event, and he passed it along to me because he believed I was a good candidate. This gesture reminded me that I have a purpose.
The third is mentorship. Plenty of businessmen will tell you they have had coaches and mentors throughout their success. We should apply this to our own lives. Many people want to be a mentor. We enjoy guiding and influencing others to prosperity. Simply ask someone to be your mentor or find someone you care about and take them under your wing. The benefits from mentorship goes both ways. Mentors can live that feeling of purpose and mentees can experience empathy from that person. Active mentorships can save two lives.
I’ve delivered these ideas dozens of times professionally and personally. After a while I realized there is a fourth point. It took me a while to figure this one out and I’m still not quite sure what to call it, but its knowing that you matter. I had to look deep inside of my own suicidal tendencies and figure out what was keeping me alive. I’ve only attempted suicide once because I know that I matter. My mother will tell you all the ways she wishes she was a better parent, but the one amazing thing she did throughout my life, was reiterate how much I matter to her. It wasn’t just about how much she loves me, but how much my existence matters to hers.
Think of the first three ideas surface level. This goes beyond that. This goes beyond showing interest in someone, providing them with a role in society, and providing them guidance. This is communicating to someone that they absolutely matter, even when the rest if crumbles around them.
Try it. It’s surprisingly difficult get this message across.
Somehow, our society has managed to make it uncomfortable. It’s one thing to tell your friend that you like having them around. It’s another to dig out your vulnerabilities, show them to another person, and tell them, “I feel protected and safe in our relationship. Parts of our interactions fulfill me mentally and emotionally, and I would feel considerable amounts of pain and grief if you didn’t hold this position in my life.”
This may sound overdramatic but life is invaluable, so it’s worth putting extra effort into saving it – whether it’s your own or someone else’s.
While most of my experience has been in the veteran space, I can promise you that these ideas transcend demographics.
Empathy. Purpose. Mentorship. Knowing that you matter.
You can take these ideas apply them in your community now. If you’re someone that suffers from depression or other emotional health issues, seek these things out. Go to the people that you know fulfill you and get these from them. Tell them you need it.
If we can manage to take these four starting points, build off them, and effectively deliver them to those around us, then we may have the privilege of never even seeing the suicidal behavior we are trying to prevent.