You can talk about suicidal thoughts and depression. USA TODAY editor shares advice after her mother's death by suicide.
I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
This story contains discussion of suicide.
Laura Trujillo's mother died by suicide 10 years ago after jumping off a ledge into the Grand Canyon.
Trujillo, managing editor of USA TODAY's Life coverage, has spent those 10 years trying to understand what drove her mother to that final action, as well as working through depression and suicidal thoughts of her own.
Trujillo documented her journey in a 2018 USA TODAY story, and this week she expands it into a deeply personal memoir, "Stepping Back From the Ledge: A Daughter's Search for Truth and Renewal."
In the book, she talks about the notes her mother left her and her children before she jumped – and the notes Trujillo wrote to her own family as she considered ending her own life. She talks about her past sexual abuse and years of therapy and medication. She shares her "safety plan" and what gave her hope.
In short, she puts it all out there.
This week, we talked about why sharing her story was so hard, and why she did it anyway.
This must have been so painful to write. How did you find the strength to do it? What do you want to have happen?
"I hope that I create a space for people to be able to talk about mental health issues, depression, suicide, and not feel as alone when they talk about it, " she said. "Or (help) people not feel self-conscious or scared to talk about it because it feels weird."
She said people like to say "mental health is getting so destigmatized, we're all doing such a great job." But as she was going through these experiences, "I would never call into work and be like, 'I just can't get out bed today.' I wouldn't. I would be like, 'I have the sniffles' and they would say, 'I hope you feel better.' "
Were you scared?
"I have these moments where I was like, I don't know if writing this book is going to make me unfriendable. I don't know if this book is just going to make employers think, 'Wow, she's a mess. There's a lot of people in the world we could hire aside from her.' Whether it's for a job or friendship, we know everyone has baggage, but I was like, wow, this might be a lot to put out there."
But then she thought, what is the risk if I don't share the story?
"The risk is I don't talk about it and other people don't either."
And to Trujillo, that risk was greater. "I'm not saying they end up being my mom," she said, but when people don't talk about their mental struggles, it can make their situation worse. "And my mom said in one of her notes that she was too proud to ask for help. And I don't know exactly what that meant, if it meant she was embarrassed or meant that she wanted people to think she was together enough that she didn't need help."
So many times, Trujillo said, we just see the pretty parts of our friends and co-workers lives. "I guess I was like, well, if I share the really hard parts, maybe other people can feel OK sharing their really hard parts or asking for help when they need help.
"It's like you have depression, you have brown eyes, you have brown hair. Right. It's part of who you are and you can deal with it or you can hide it. And that doesn't always go well."
How can we help others who may be struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts?
"I learned not be afraid to talk about it. People may just want to kind of back out of those conversations. Like, 'Ooh, I don't wanna talk about that. Will it make it worse?' Ignoring it, pretending it's not there, never makes it better."
Backstory:We need to talk about suicide more
So how do you talk about it?
"It's just letting people know you are there for them when they want it. If they do say they are having a hard time, say, 'Do you want help finding someone to talk to?' Offer to be helpful."
Some people might want to back out of conversations about depression, thinking, " 'OK, well, they'll tell me more if they want to.' But they don't have that ability. So it's OK to ask and then it's OK to check in later."
She said just a text can make a difference, "Just 'Hey, checking in on you.' It doesn't always lead to a conversation. It might not even lead to doing something. But I can say it certainly helps people feel that someone cares about them."
Trujillo said she was afraid to bring up her own suicidal thoughts to her therapist. She didn't know what would happen. "What plan does that put in motion? Or what does that mean? Am I going to lose my kids or something? You just worry about all those things."
So what did happen?
"The reaction was just more questions like, 'Well, how often are you doing this? And do you feel like you're going to act on this?' It was just a lot of questions and not shying away from the conversation. It was that openness of creating that ability to talk about it."
Her therapist also told her to have a safety plan, a series of steps to take when those feelings return. Trujillo's plan was really a to-do list. She shares them in her book:
- Take your medicine, even if you think you don't need to. (You will think you don't need to at some point, but that means the medicine is working, which means, of course, that you need it.)
- Talk to someone. Are you doing that?
- Compliment someone today. You likely are thinking something nice in your head, so say it out loud. It always makes someone smile, which will make you feel better. The other person, too.
- Go outside. Put your feet on actual earth.
- Do something useful for someone else, without being asked. Make coffee for someone else. Make the kids' lunches. Fold laundry. Offer to help someone at work.
- Write something and share it. Doesn't have to be about Mom, just something to be part of the world. Just post something on Facebook. If someone comments, comment back.
- Do you still feel bad? Don't be alone for the next day, see how you feel. Ask someone to do something, go for a walk, to lunch or coffee, something.
- Still bad? But you knew to look at this list, so you are OK. Do these things. Promise. (Read me again in a week, and you'll know). If you don't feel better, call your therapist.
What do you want to tell people who right now might be making their own safety plan, who currently are where you have been?
"Know there are always people who care about you, even when you don't think there are, or you can't name them in your head. You do matter, and you are important. I really, truly know that. And I know that no matter how bad it got, it didn't last forever. And even when I thought it would last forever, I got out of it. So I know it gets better. And it's really hard to see that when you're in that moment."
Trujillo still has her to-do list. She explains why in her book:
"I don't look for it anymore, but I know that I will keep it, not because I need it, but because I need to see where I used to be so that I can see where I am now. I remind myself that I never want to be there again."
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.