Ray Regan: Words do count, and they can save lives
We use anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 of the 171,476 basic words that make up the English language. Language entertains us. We use it to share joy, to express anger, to influence, to appreciate, or just to enjoy an idle chat.
Words are like food; we need them to live.
Our tone of voice and our facial expressions can make or break a connection, regardless of the content. We react with fear or become enraged when harsh words are screamed at our face. Conversely, we feel snuggled when a friend conveys compassion.
Timing counts, too. When we choose to say something determines how well, or if at all, the message will be received. In other words, when we speak is as important as what we say.
When we think about our happiest moments, we thrive on connections. Our relationships make us whole and more humane, and a heartfelt exchange can change our lives.
Last week I had a conversation that is an empirical example of what I’m trying to say.
I volunteer weekly at The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). It’s a hotline for people in crisis — men, women and sometimes children who are contemplating suicide. We’re trained to assess the suicidal risk level and take appropriate action to keep the caller safe. The extent of our interventions is limited to what we say over the phone.
In a crisis, we’re trained to first build rapport by listening empathetically, trying to understand the caller’s hurt no matter how painful the story gets. In low-risk cases, for the person to be heard, to be listened to, is often enough.
Robert, a 29-year-old out-of-work male called. He is warm-hearted and polite, which makes Robert easy to like. But in the beginning, he wept as he talked about his continuous pain, and how he thinks about suicide every day.
Robert comes from a large extended family. He’s frustrated by his self-isolation, by his inability to interact with his family, and how he misses his playful nieces and nephews.
Shame inhibits. Suffering from depression for the last year, he told me about an aborted attempt to get mental health care. Robert’s illness continues because of shame. He said, “I shouldn’t be this way.” I emphasized the fallacy in our culture — how men are supposed to be unremittingly strong, and if we admit to being depressed, even to ourselves, we think we’re “not normal” and “weak.”
Unfortunately, like racism and sexism, prejudice and discrimination both surround mental health too. Misconceptions about the disease cause fear and rejection. Only Robert’s girlfriend of nine years and the aunt they lived with know the heavy burden Robert is carrying, and now I know the family secret too.
I told Robert that in my 30s I was him. I was trapped by the same shame. I denied and concealed what was happening inside of me, prolonging my suffering. We talked about the courage it takes to face mental health. Seeking help, stopping the dysfunctional repetitious cycle we are stuck in, means enduring vulnerability, and Robert understood this. What I forgot to mention is the unselfish aspect of getting treatment; it’s a gift of relief to the people who love us who are suffering too.
To start, I suggested a talk with his general practitioner. Robert told me he doesn’t have one. At the end of the call, when Robert was in a safer place, I asked him what he was going to do. He said he was going to call his older sister (they were close) and tell her everything he has been going through.
In some cases, we make follow-up calls to let the person know they’re not alone and to ask if the suicide ideation has subsided. Two previous attempts to contact Robert went to voicemail. I decided to call Robert on my next shift. Was he still thinking about suicide, or had the worst happened?
Robert picked up on the second ring. He excitedly told me that he was being treated. For his case, Robert said the doctor has recommended two weeks of inpatient care — “to get my head straight,” he added. He sounded relieved, and I was happy for him.
Coincidentally, Robert did open up to his sister. They talk almost every day about everything and nothing. Then it was Robert’s turn to encourage. He said that the phone conversation we had helped to change his life and he will always remember me.
Robert’s story is energizing. His transformation is one example of how and what we say to each other can have a positive effect.