World Mental Health Day: Connecting Through 40 Seconds of Action

Written by Gaby Buentello

Today marks the 27th observation of World Mental Health Day, first established in 1992 by the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH). The initiative aims to bring attention to mental illness and its impact on people’s lives. This year, the focus is on suicide prevention.

Some key statistics about suicide:

  • Globally, the yearly death toll due to suicide is 800,000, and is the 2nd leading cause of death among youth 15-29 years old.
  • In the United States, nearly 50,000 people die by suicide every year, making it the 10th leading cause of death.
  • In 2015, suicide and self-injury cost the US an estimated $69 billion.
  • For each death by suicide, there are over 20 suicide attempts.
  • The past decade has seen average rates of suicide creep upward.

These data depict an epidemic of psychological suffering. But suicide is preventable, and studies have identified several effective preventative measures that communities can take—among these are improving access to effective mental health care, empowering people to seek out information about a mental health problem and ask for help from others, and identifying and assisting people who might be at risk.

At this point, the average reader has spent about 40 seconds reading this post.

The starkest statistic is that every 40 seconds, someone is lost to suicide. That’s how big this problem is. What can we, in our everyday lives, do to help?

40 Seconds of Action

To highlight the scale of suicide around the world, WFMH is promoting “40 seconds of action” and encouraging people to take 40 seconds to reach out to each other. Whether you want to be supportive for someone else or you yourself are struggling, below are some tips for starting the conversation.

Reaching Out for Help

Remember that reaching out shows bravery, and is ultimately an important step to take on the path to feeling better. There are people out there who want to be there for you, without judgment, when you’re going through an awful, difficult time. Consider the following to make that first step a little easier:

  1. Choose someone you trust. Think about what kind of relationship you have with this person and how they might react. If you’re not sure, you can try to get a better sense of their perspective by mentioning mental illness or suicide in a context that doesn’t relate to you, such as in a book or TV show.
  2. Set up a time to talk. Letting someone know you want to have an important or serious conversation in advance can be helpful. That way, they can be better prepared to support you and won’t be caught off-guard. If someone you were hoping to talk with isn’t free right away but you’re really struggling or facing a suicidal crisis, don’t wait—24/7 help is available (see the end of this article for links and phone numbers).
  3. Share what you’re experiencing. You can talk about changes in your thoughts, energy levels, habits, and moods. You don’t have to share anything beyond what you’re comfortable with, but being direct about suicidal thoughts can help someone better understand your experience. Remember also that there are many, many people out there who have struggled with thoughts about killing themselves, and your listener may be one of them. You’re not alone.
  4. Be prepared for different reactions. Hearing that someone they care about is having thoughts of suicide can leave a listener feeling shocked or very emotional. They might also feel nervous about handling things the right way. Bear in mind that people can still care deeply even if they have a hard time processing, and continuing to talk can help both of you get through any stumbling blocks.
  5. Express gratitude. It’s common to struggle with guilt or feeling burdensome. Instead of apologizing, though, you can thank someone for taking the time to listen, especially considering that people really do want to help and don’t think of it as a burden to do so. Contact them after your conversation to let them know how important it was to you and how much you appreciate their support.

Opening up about mental health and suicide is scary, but it can make all the difference.

Reaching Out to Someone in Need

If you suspect that a friend or loved one is going through a hard time or having thoughts of suicide, there are some straightforward things you can do to support them. To talk with someone you think might need help:

  1. Signal safety. Lean into sharing your own experience with your mental health if the opportunity arises naturally in conversation. Making a casual reference to mental health problems can help others feel safe reaching out to you about their struggles. Speak in private. If your instinct tells you someone is having trouble or doesn’t seem themselves, find an opportunity to bring it up privately. Offer an expression of care and share whatever changes you’ve observed. If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, see examples here of different things you might say.
  2. Ask directly about suicide. Again, trust your gut if you think someone might be contemplating killing themselves. Research has shown asking about suicide doesn’t put the idea into people’s heads or push them to act. Rather, getting it out in the open can help them feel seen. Examples of ways to straightforwardly ask: “Are things sometimes so hard that you think about suicide?”; “Do you ever think about ending your own life?”
  3. Stay calm, nonjudgmental, and attentive. If someone does share with you that they’ve thought about killing themselves, it can be really scary and you might feel a lot of pressure. However, that they’ve opened up and trusted you about something so difficult is a real opportunity to help. Keep listening and showing you care by affirming their struggles and emotions; be careful not to frame things negatively (e.g. “You’re not going to do anything stupid, right?”) or guilt-trip them (e.g. “What would it do to your family?”)
  4. Assess for risk. Even if they’ve shared that they’re thinking of suicide, it doesn’t mean they necessarily plan on taking action. You can figure out if they’re in danger by asking questions about means (e.g. “Did you have in mind a specific way you would kill yourself?”), access to means (e.g. if they confirm they own a gun or have pills), and a timeline (e.g. “Do you know when you would do this?”). If they answer yes to these questions, it’s an emergency that requires immediate professional medical attention. If they don’t have a specific plan (and most people won’t), just keep talking—sharing their problems at length can help them feel relief from the acute loneliness of depression and suicidal thoughts.
  5. Offer to help connect them to resources. Thoughts of suicide are a definite warning sign that a person should seek help from a mental health professional. But for someone who’s already feeling extremely overwhelmed, making that effort can seem impossibly daunting. Some things you can do are to help them call their insurance, sit with them while they search for a therapist online, or accompany them to an appointment.

When you proactively reach out to someone in pain, you’re doing an amazing thing. At the same time, it can be hard to process the emotions that come up when that person shares their experience with you. The text and phone helplines at the bottom aren’t just for people in crisis; they can also give you advice on how to support someone else and space to debrief on your own thoughts and feelings. Don’t forget to take care of yourself during difficult moments.

Making a Difference

Connection is the lifeblood of relationships, families, and even humanity as a whole. By taking 40 seconds to create an opportunity for genuine connection, you can show you care, and that can be enough to save a life.

If you’re facing a suicidal crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to Crisis Text Line at 741741; or call 911. For those outside the US, a helpline for your country can be found here.

Title photo credit: Duong Huu on Unsplash

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About the Author
Gaby is UpLift’s Content & Social Media Intern. She has a B.A. in Asian Studies and her background spans education consulting, digital marketing, and copywriting. She’s an avid language learner (having studied four so far) and enjoys playing piano in her free time.