The legend of the Erlkonig, or Earlking, is that a father and son are taking a frightening journey through a dark forest, in which the Earlking lives, visible only to the children whom he abducts and kills. Throughout the short opera, the Earlking lures and intoxicates the child, who tells his father repeatedly that the Earlking is after him.
The father, not believing in the Earlking, tells his son that he’s just imagining things or perhaps he has fallen ill. The Earlking continues to taunt and harm the boy, whose father will not notice or believe his child. At the end, the child is dead, having succumbed to the Earlking.
Any time we have a young suicide, there is always talk of “the people left behind” and the reminder that “help is available.” It’s true there is some help available to those who want to end their lives due to depression or hopelessness, but there are still just as many barriers to receiving that help.
Cost is the most obvious. Some people cannot afford psychiatric medications and therapy sessions, or may have insurance which covers, say, only a certain number of dollars or hours per month. An hour with a psychotherapist or psychiatrist can cost between $100-300 USD. Some people don’t have an extra couple of hundred dollars every month, let alone every week. I am unaware of many medication prices and know that a lot of generic drugs can be purchased for around $10-20 per month, but some drugs are too new for generics and will cost several hundred, and not all drugs work for all people. It can be an exhausting trial-and-error to find the drug(s) that work for you and don’t come with a mess of unwanted side effects that are even worse than your horrible life, or to find a drug that works on a long-term basis, or that is non-addictive (which usually means it doesn’t work).
There is also somewhat of a social stigma in seeking help, especially for men, and men of certain religious or cultural backgrounds may be more likely to be shamed for seeking outside help or agreeing to try drugs to relieve their symptoms.
And that’s all I’m going to devote to the subject of counseling and medication, because MOST PEOPLE WHO KILL THEMSELVES ARE NOT MENTALLY ILL. Did they need help? Perhaps. But that is not the same as being mentally ill. Mental illness implies a biologically-based brain disorder which manifests itself in psychological, social and sometimes physical symptoms. One can have a really horrible life without being mentally ill. Wanting to die and trying to die do not necessarily mean anything is wrong inside your brain, where the drugs will work.
One problem with trying to stop suicide is, first of all, the idea that it SHOULD be stopped. People die. Many die before we want them to. We give in when a person’s physical pain is too much for them to bear, and “allow” them to kill themselves with drugs (spoiler: it’s your body! You never needed permission!) but what of a person with severe emotional pain? The only drugs that work on a long-term basis are either illegal; extremely addictive; or alcohol. The cancer patient is told he’s “allowed” to kill himself because WE think his life sucks. The person whose life sucks for any number of other reasons is expected to live in pain in order to appease those who like having him around, or is told to get help without being given the resources which will allow him to seek that help.
We judge people’s pain and suffering and then decide whether or not their suicide was warranted or whether it could have been prevented, despite often not knowing these people. We didn’t know them; we didn’t live their lives. I am qualified to tell exactly no one that their loved one should not have killed himself.
Maybe he should have. Maybe he did the exact best thing he could have done with what he had.
And, maybe he knew things you didn’t. Things with which he could not live. Maybe he tried to tell you that the Earlking was after him and you told him it was all in his head.
Many who die of suicide will have hundreds of people at their funeral, people who were never around when they were alive. People who didn’t want to listen to them talk about the Earlking. Being friends with a depressed person is horrible. They never go anywhere or do anything, and sometimes they’re total jerks who drive everyone away either because it’s what feels comfortable to them, or because they don’t want to drag their friends down. And some of their problems just sound so stupid; they may be things you have dealt with effortlessly and you wonder why they can’t snap out of it and join a gym or get a pet or take up a hobby, like you did. It’s so easy to walk away and hope that someone else is helping them. Maybe one of those hundreds of other people signing the register book.
I asked for help recently. It was very hard, and I ended up walking out because this helpful intervention took place in a busy Starbucks, which is not a good environment for someone whose anxiety manifests in extreme amplification of annoying sensory experiences. I called someone from the church, told her I was not doing well and that I needed to get out of the house, and agreed to meet for banal conversation about my (nonexistent) hobbies and self-care. I lasted about 30 minutes and called it good; at least I left the house and met with her. And it was hard; I most likely will not do it again soon. Never underestimate how difficult it is to tell a stranger that you need help.
If you would like professional help but cannot afford it, try the closest university or church (if you are religious). Many psychology and counseling graduate programs have student counselors available who will see clients for as little as $5 per hour; I am unaware of what the church-based programs charge but some are free. Cost does not always equal quality. I have been in therapy literally as long as I can remember – indeed, sessions on a psychiatrist’s couch make up most of my early childhood memories – and much of the best help I received was from counselors who saw me on a long-term basis either for free or around $5 to $10 per hour. Many drugs are very affordable as well, but you might also consider applying for financial assistance through the drug company or asking your doctor for 30-day samples. (Be aware that if you are self-diagnosing and attaining drugs without medical supervision, you may do more harm than good if you are not experienced in taking psychiatric drugs and learning which work for you. I suggest you not abruptly stop a drug without consulting a doctor. Shocking episodes of violence have sometimes resulted after stopping and restarting a drug.)
I’ll close with an experience that I never get tired of mentioning: after cutting down the body of a kid who hung himself in his room, I was wheeling him out of the house when his father asked to see him one more time. I unzipped the bag and he said to his son, “I don’t understand why, but I know that YOU know why, and maybe someday that will be enough for me.” I believe that suicide is something we are never meant to understand, much less stamp out. We cannot stop people from wanting to end their lives, but maybe we can help make their lives slightly easier. Maybe we can listen to them and believe.