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“Checking On Your Friends” Isn’t Enough to Prevent Suicide

Our current systems are unjust, cruel, and harmful. As individuals, we can support our friends in crisis. But there are so many other factors that must be part of the conversation. 

TW: suicide, mental illness, police interaction, threat of sexual violence

By Nylah Burton

In November 2019, after months of struggling with intense suicidal ideation and symptoms of unmedicated Bipolar I Disorder, I attempted suicide twice. I don’t quite remember everything that happened, it was all such a haze of emotional turmoil and mental anguish. But I do know I wanted to live, I just didn’t want to live with so little hope and so much pain. 

I tried to save my life at a few points. So I reached out in the best way I knew how: Facebook.

I started begging people to help me, letting them know that my life was in immediate danger. I’d always been told “checking on your friends” was a way to prevent suicide. So I asked. Check on me, please. 

Almost instantly, I received a flood of messages and frantic calls. Are you alone? Call the hotline. I love you, Nylah. I need you to be here. You are not a burden. Please talk to me. When I first reached out, I thought receiving these messages would help. But they didn’t fix the crisis I was in, because in my desperation to end the pain, I attempted suicide again. 

What saved my life was physical and professional intervention. One friend distracted me until another person arrived at my apartment. That person called the suicide prevention hotline, and someone was able to calm me down long enough for me to stop attempting suicide. The person at my apartment removed the various means I had selected for my attempt. Another person drove me to the emergency room, where I was transported by ambulance to an inpatient facility. At that inpatient facility, doctors identified that I was in a mixed state — a particularly painful swirl of mania and depression that people with Bipolar Disorder experience. I was given medication and put on suicide watch. After the mania had passed, I was released. 


People reached out to me because they loved me. They wanted me to be alive, and they wanted to help. And they did. Afterward, seeing their messages and receiving their support gave me strength and comfort. But in my worst moment, they were powerless. I am alive today not necessarily because I was checked on, but because I received help from the systems that were created to save lives. 

Whenever we hear horrifying statistics or tragic stories of suicide, it’s usually followed by the maxim, “Check on your friends.” Building strong communities and nurturing our relationships are beautiful and necessary. Reaching out to a friend in crisis is never wrong, and it’s often helpful. It can even sometimes save lives. 

But our current suicide epidemic is largely a systemic problem. And it’s dangerous to assert that the burden of addressing that problem should rest on the shoulders of individuals calling or sending a text to a friend in crisis. They often don’t have the proper training, access, or relationship to the person experiencing suicidal ideation for this to be effective. 

Many people are also struggling with suicidal ideation and mental health issues themselves, and it wouldn’t be healthy for them to engage in conversation with someone who was in a crisis. One friend of mine admitted to me that she wasn’t healthy enough to call me in that moment, but she reached out to others who she thought could provide the physical intervention she knew was necessary. 

The systems that are meant to serve us — namely the healthcare system but also law enforcement and other government entities  — have the power to reduce suicide rates. 

When we carry the burden of the suicide epidemic ourselves, those in power are able to avoid accountability. 

There are a myriad of ways that systems can improve to reduce suicide rates. For one thing, there aren’t many safe options for physical intervention. When 18-year Keith Vidal’s mother called the police to take him to the hospital to treat the symptoms of schizophrenia, she did so to save her son from completing suicide. But instead, the police shot and killed Vidal. Suicide hotlines are more confidential and don’t always result in contact with law enforcement, but they often don’t work


In fact, the night of my first attempt, I called a suicide hotline but they were not able to stop me from attempting again the next day. How can we tell people to check on their friends when they may not know who to call to help save their friend’s life? When calling might even endanger them? This pressure is even greater for Black people and Indigenous people, who experience more fatal contact with law enforcement than other groups. Mental health crises can exacerbate that risk. 

Even when a person makes it to the emergency room, the experience can be retraumatizing. Patients are sometimes accompanied by family members or friends who might berate them or make insensitive comments out of fear, ignorance, anger — or some combination of all three. An officer is assigned to the patient, which can feel criminalizing. How many people’s lives would be changed if we normalized the presence of mental health advocates as soon as the patient arrived? These advocates could have specialized knowledge that many ER professionals lack or don’t have time to employ. They can comfort patients and educate those who accompany the patient. 

The inpatient experience is also part of the problem. Too few beds often means that patients are released before they are ready. 

And even getting to the facility can be a dangerous experience. Before a previous hospitalization, I sobbed and refused to voluntarily check myself in. All I remember is that I wanted to sleep in my own bed, and I wanted my own books and clothes with me. 

Because this was deemed “non-compliance,” my psychiatrist called the police, who handcuffed me tightly and took me to an overcrowded, underfunded state hospital where I was threatened with sexual violence by a male patient. The trauma of that experience made me less likely to seek inpatient care when I was in crisis at other times, which is how I got to the point of asking friends to check on me in the first place. 

We cannot say “check on your friends” is the first line of defense when all these inequities and dangers exist during the inpatient process. 

What happens after release also contributes to this crisis. As a freelancer with class privilege, I was able to take a month and a half off from work. It was critical to my healing process, and my heart breaks for people who have to go through something similar but can’t afford to take the time off. Some may even lose their jobs because they missed work while they were hospitalized.  


On top of that, being hospitalized costs thousands of dollars — even with insurance. My father is a physician and I am on his insurance plan. But when I got my bill back, the ambulance alone was $1500. I have no idea what the other costs associated with this will be. 

So not only can people lose income or their job, but when they leave the hospital, they’re saddled with debt. That debt may impact the ability to secure housing or student loans. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty that is likely to continue suicidal ideation or chances of attempting suicide again or completing suicide. One of the most effective ways to reduce suicide is to make healthcare completely free so that everyone can access it without fear of financial ruin or housing insecurity. 

Sometimes the system punishes you financially for getting help. There are many jobs where if you are discovered to have a bipolar or schizophrenia diagnosis, you can’t work there anymore. We live in a country with little-to-no gun control, but after a person attempts suicide, they are 140 times more likely to complete suicide if they own a gun. When Australia restricted gun access, their suicide rate went down drastically

Our current systems are unjust, cruel, and harmful. As individuals, we can support our friends in crisis. But there are so many other factors that must be part of the conversation. 

Like all violent and tragic deaths, suicide is terrifying. For many people, the terrifying nature of suicide makes them dismiss it, to say that those who attempt suicide, die by suicide, or express suicidal ideation are seeking attention.

When we perpetuate the idea that checking in on a friend is enough to save their life, we inadvertently promote this idea. Isolation and loneliness are contributing factors to suicide —  living a predominately white state with very few friends, it was for me — but I was past the point where asking me how I was feeling or taking me to sushi night would have taken away the pain. 

I needed a holistic, aggressive approach. I needed emergency intervention and medication to stabilize me, and therapy to get me out of crisis. I needed community, family, and professional fulfillment to allow me to thrive. For the most part, these are things that only systems can provide, not individuals. Even the barriers to creating community and building relationships are also often systemic.

Suicide is not the illness, it’s the symptom, a fatal one if completed. You can’t address a symptom without going back to the root of it, and I promise you that root of it is almost never as simple as not getting checked on enough. We need health services that are inclusive, free, and safe. We need legislation that makes our world a better place to live in, where people feel like they have hope.  


It’s hard for people to feel like carrying on when they’re experiencing houselessness, or when they’re in crushing debt, or when they’re disabled and not getting the services they need, or when they’re terrified of hate crimes and climate change and gun violence and fascism. 

Most of the people I know and love are experiencing mental health issues. Many of them have attempted suicide as well. When they express suicidal ideation or disclose an attempt, I will reach out and check on them because I love them and I want them to know that they’re not alone. But I know that to truly fight this issue, to truly confront the suicide epidemic, I have to look beyond myself and hold systems accountable. 

Nylah Burton is Denver-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk

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