Mental Health: Truth and Gratitude Time
May is Mental Health Month but what about the other 334 days of the year? For most of us in this line of work every month is mental health month and we are all too intimately familiar with the anguish and despair we hear from those who are struggling. For many who reach out to us “mental health” is elusive and full of negative experiences with others who don’t understand what depression or anxiety or having thoughts of suicide really feels like. Well-intentioned but not helpful comments like, “you just need to get some fresh air” or “pull yourself up” only reinforce stigma and shame. People reach out to us to be heard and not forgotten. What follows is how I experience listening and remembering.
Truth Time: Honestly, sometimes it is a challenge for me to embrace that the people who call us and share their pain are not defined solely by a history or a diagnosis. My world view is restricted by the lens of working at a suicide hotline. I know “Bob” because he is depressed and feeling suicidal. I don’t know “Bob” who is married with 3 children and the good neighbor who helps others shovel the walk in the winter. I need to consciously remind myself that everyone brings value to this world and each of us has talent and gifts to share. Success is measured in myriad ways for all of us – whether we are the one calling or the one listening. Success means a graduate student at MIT made a commitment to give four hours of precious time every week to listen to others without judgment, to validate someone’s feelings and to be fully present in the face of another’s pain. Success means calling the suicide hotline because you know that people there will care about you. Several years ago when we moved our office location I came across handwritten log books from the 70’s. As I leafed through the logs I recognized a name. That same person has been calling Samaritans for over 30 years now. The calls are sporadic, usually short and peppered with the updates of daily life. Sometimes success is about getting up tomorrow to face another day.
Gratitude Time: It takes an immense amount of courage to pick up a phone, open a chat or send a text and tell a stranger your deepest and darkest thoughts about taking your own life. I am grateful to the people who trust us so much. I believe that what we do comes from a place of compassion and hope for a better world and being able to be a part of shaping that world is a gift. I am grateful to my colleagues in the field who have found the courage and strength to talk about their own lived experience because they help me understand what it was like, what helped and most importantly what didn’t help. I’m also thankful for the literally hundreds of volunteers I have met over the years – they restore faith in humanity.
Let’s celebrate #MentalHealthMonth every month!
Ron White is the Chief Program Officer of Samaritans, Inc. with operational responsibilities for the Helpline Services, Grief Support Services, and Community Education. Ron is responsible for the more than 500 people who volunteer at Samaritans in a direct service capacity. Ron has spent much of his professional career managing service centers both in the U.S. and abroad. Ron has also served as a member of the Massachusetts Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Youth Commission under appointment from the Massachusetts Suicide Prevention Coalition. He is also a member of the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention Executive Committee and Co-Chair of the Greater Boston Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention. He currently serves on the board of the National Association of Crisis Organization Directors (NASCOD).