I was once told that talking about suicide "makes people uncomfortable." Now, if you haven't felt suicidal, and talking about it makes you "uncomfortable", here's a message: fuck you - and get comfy.
In the past, I've spoken with mentally ill friends about their problems - and I've screwed it up. I've also occasionally gotten it right. The best advice I can give anyone is, unless the person is in immediate danger, just listen to them and then encourage them to seek professional help. And if you're the person who's feeling awful, or not feeling at all, seek out help, it's always there.
(NOTE FOR PALS AND FAMILY OF THE UNWELL: If you fob them off, try to force them into treatment they don't actually need or can't stop giving your opinion because you pride yourself that you "call it like you see it", you are a terminal moron who deserves to be alone in your little world - and eventually will be.)
I understand how hard listening can be. Other people's mental health issues stress me out, but they've been stressing me out for 20 years.
My father was an Anglican priest. He had the stomach that's compulsory among the Anglican clergy, and the beard that men grow when the face and neck have fused into one big wobble. He was a broad, hairy, sexy, middle-class beast, and about 100% funnier than your dad.
He was also a clinical depressive.
When I was ten years old, I was given a copy of that year's Guinness Book of World Records. Aside from the Bible and the collected works of William Shakespeare, it was the biggest hardcover book in our house. One day, after a few seconds' planning, I took it into the kitchen where my parents were eating breakfast. I thumped it on the counter and said, "Just thought I'd do some light reading...!"
I know, right? It's not even worthy of a groan. But my father laughed!
And then he repeated this extraordinarily weak joke to my mother with delight and amazement. He thought it was incredibly good, this thing that had all the features of a joke - his own son had cracked a discernible near-funny.
Later that year, he went into the kitchen, plugged the iron into the wall, and when it was hot enough, burned the skin off his legs just to see if he could feel anything.
He was found, unconscious, on the floor of the room where my crap little gag had hit him so well, only a few months before.
They were third-degree burns.
Dad killed himself in 1996. His suicide has clouded my mother's life for two decades. She'd already buried a brother who'd killed himself. When dad died, she faced inquiries from friends who couldn't fathom how or why he had done this thing to himself. Some blamed her. It was relentless.
A local orthodontist blamed her, and then realised grief had made him say a terrible thing, so I got my braces for free.
My world was broken, but my teeth are very good.
Twenty years ago, there seemed to be no public understanding of mental health problems, at all. There was a pointless shame attached to suicide, an attitude only the ignorant had then, and only the appallingly thick have now.
Suicide is not a selfish act, it's a strong person who can no longer take the incredible pain and emptiness they feel. There's no agony-free way out of this world - if the easiest thing seems to be death, then the suffering must be horrific.
But, this doesn't mean anyone should kill themselves. There is help. It is hard. But it is easier than dying.
Depression can be infinitely confusing for all involved. You have to listen, difficult things need to be discussed, patterns need to be identified. It can't be ignored and it can't be shouted out of people. It's the most subjective of all diseases, and it comes at you out of your loved one's face.
My father's death used to make me think I was an expert on suicide, because I was numb to what had happened to him. His death became my toy and calling card. I used to talk about it when I met women. Wasn't it nice of my father to kill himself, just so I could get laid?
(NOTE TO YOUNG MEN: a suicidal priest father outweighs anybody else's shiny car. You will appear sensitive and worldly to any girl who's outgrown ponies and moved straight to vampires.)
What this lame mastery of my father's death actually did was make me selfish and insensitive. My father was dead, he had killed himself, yes, but I'd never contended with the actual symptoms of his depression, my mother did. I just knew the nature of his corpse.
So when I saw depression in several of my friends, I didn't understand what I was looking at, I just knew the names of medications. How could what they were suffering be the same thing my father had? I'd buried that when I was ten.
So I blurted out everything I thought I knew. And their behaviour - from the rudeness to the vague haze, to the crying and the memory loss, stressed me out... so I didn't really listen.
My best friend killed herself two years ago.
It is horrible.
It isn't my fault it happened, but I wasn't exactly the resource I could've been.
And it is horrible.
The fact she'd killed herself meant my mother's trauma over my father's death was reawakened.
Which was horrible, and something I didn't know could even happen.
Yet, our sadness can't be the equal of what a depressive suffers - because it doesn't kill us, or make us feel dead. It just comes back all the time and ruins whole days.
And if we don't hurt as much as someone with actual problems does, then they need all the help they can get.
Fuck your discomfort, is the point I'm making.
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Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)