I almost killed myself.
In early 1997, I was 24 years old and had taken what should’ve been a harmless medication, but it sent my liver into such overdrive that my doctor recommended that I add my name to the national liver transplant waiting list. I was in immense physical and psychological pain that seemed like it would never end. It became clear that I could no longer live like that.
One morning, I reached the breaking point. On my way to work was a ravine. It would be so easy, I thought: one wrench of the steering wheel and all of this would be over. I envisioned my car flying off the road and my pain finally stopping. Somehow I stayed on the road and with the superior care of my doctor, my system cleared out the medication and I got healthy. Not everyone is so lucky. A 2015 Australian study found that entertainment-industry workers were up to seven times as likely to die by suicide as the general population.
I am a music business attorney at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Los Angeles, a former volunteer suicide prevention crisis line counselor, and the founder of the nonprofit suicide prevention foundation LightHopeLife Inc. Following the suicide of Linkin Park‘s Chester Bennington, I realized that while mourning is a necessary human process, more needs to be done to bring the issue of mental illness and its related causes — such as addiction, alcoholism and depression — into the light.
Bennington and Chris Cornell are just two of the recent deaths by suicide in the music industry, which follow so many others. Kurt Cobain. Don Cornelius. Brad Delp. Keith Emerson. Michael Hutchence. Mindy McCready. Ronnie Montrose. Elliott Smith. Butch Trucks. These are just some (but by no means the most important) of those countless devastating deaths by suicide. While mourning these incredibly talented figures is necessary, it can’t be enough.
Many believe in the mysterious value that the tormented mind brings to creativity and that it is the tortured soul from which the most exquisite creativity flows. I’m not so presumptuous to believe that I have the slightest idea of the cosmic origins of the kind of creativity that changes the world, but I am keenly aware that we, the family, friends, colleagues and fans of music industry participants, are frequently the first line of defense when we notice anything concerning about someone. While any of us may be able to recognize when someone’s in psychological distress, few feel equipped to meaningfully help such a person.
The deafening silence with which mental illness is met in most corners of society perpetuates the very isolation and alienation that compounds the problem and keeps those who are suffering from seeking the help that’s so critically needed. The following may be the essential beginnings of what can be said to someone in potential need:
• “It seems like you’ve been down lately. How are things with you?”
• “How long have you been feeling this way?”
• “It sounds like this is overwhelming for you…”
• “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
• [If the answer is yes] “Have you thought about how and when?”
• “Does anyone else know about how you’re feeling?”
• “Do you have anyone whom you consider close to you? Tell me a little bit about [him/her/them].”
• “What do you think [his/her/their] reaction would be if you were to share with [him/her/them] how you’re feeling?”
A few keys to “reaching” someone and offering what may be a crucial lifeline are:
1. Asking open-ended questions (i.e., questions that are intended to elicit a substantive answer, rather than a yes/no answer).
2. Not asking “leading” questions (i.e., questions that are intended, whether consciously or subconsciously, to get the answer that you want to hear, such as, “I know that it’s been busy lately, but you’re not really thinking about hurting yourself, are you?”).
3. Not shaming (e.g., “committing suicide would be such a selfish thing to do”).
4. Reflecting feelings (i.e., giving responses that indicate that you are listening to what is being said, such as, “I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for you to have carried this around with you for so long. How have you been able to deal with these feelings?”).
To be clear, none of the questions or statements above should in any way be considered a substitute for help by a doctor (whether medical, psychological and/or psychiatric), the subject of which can be broached during a conversation or, if necessary, a call to 911. However, it may be the critical first step in the process of saving someone’s life.
Too many people live in darkness and isolation, but all of us hold within ourselves the ability to offer a desperately needed lifeline.