Onus: Taking the Lead in Conversations with Your Mentally Ill Friends


Hotline Bling

This is a little personal, and hard to admit, but:

Last week, I had to call a suicide hotline.

I am doing much better this week, and things are looking up. But at the time, I felt hopeless.

The perky hotline operator answered, “Hi! Can I help you?”

How do you respond to that question when you’re depressed? How do you say, “Yes, hello, lovely weather we’re having, but I feel hopeless and I have a plan to end my life”?

I hung up the phone.

I had the same experience when I texted a crisis line. They asked what I needed, and I told them I was in danger of self-harming. The crisis line operator responded to say, “We are here for you.”

That’s… nice. I’m glad to hear that. But does it require a follow up? There was no prompting, no questions. I didn’t know how to just start pouring my heart and soul out to this person when they didn’t necessarily ask me to do that. What did they want me to say in that moment? What was I supposed to do?

So I ended the chat.

Onus: You lead, I’ll follow

Mo from TreatYoBrain.com recently posted an article about what not to say to a depressed friend, and I responded in kind with an article about what you should say to a depressed friend. I wanted to add the concept of onus to this conversation.

Onus means responsibility or duty. When a representative from my bank tells me, “Can I help you?”, they expect me to respond with what it is I need from them. I can casually tell them, “Yes, I would like to order more checks, please and thank you and have a nice day.” This is a situation where the expectations are clear.

When a hotline operator asks me, “Can I help you?”, how much information am I supposed to give? Do I immediately get dark with a stranger? Skip right to the “I don’t want to live anymore”?

This is not a situation that we are taught how to deal with. Maybe we should be, and incorporating mental health into our education system might help us be more bold in proclaiming the ways that we’ve thought about ending our lives. But I think that misses the point.

If that hotline operator had asked me, “Are you in danger?” I could have said “yes.”

If she said, “Do you have a plan?” I could have said “yes.”

If she asked me to tell her more about how I was feeling, I could have done that, too.

But she didn’t. She waited on me to lead the conversation, and when I am depressed and scared, I do not know how to do that.

So while we are talking about how to have conversations with our mentally ill loved ones, I wanted to add this:

Please, don’t put the onus on them. Lead the conversation. Ask them questions. Typing the letters “Y-E-S” is so much easier than typing, “I want to die, please help me, I am scared.”

What are your thoughts? Agree/disagree? If you’ve ever called a hotline and been asked “Can I help you?”, what did you say in response?

Originally published at valarieward.com on February 28, 2019.

Mental health writer with lived experience. Writes about the economic challenges of treating and managing mental illnesses in the United States.