A mental health advocate opens up about his past.
Content warning: This article and video feature mentions of suicidal ideation and descriptions of suicide attempts.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, causing over 47,000 fatalities in 2017, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). That same year, about 10.6 million U.S. adults reported suicidal ideation—that is, they considered or planned suicide.
Tim O’Brien is one of the people who struggles with suicidal ideation. “I am someone who suffers from depression and suicidal ideation and have tried to kill myself many times, thankfully unsuccessfully,” says O’Brien, who is now a mental health advocate.
Like many people who experience suicidal ideation, O’Brien lives with depression. Research suggests that nearly half of people who die by suicide have some type of mental health diagnosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Considering how many people live with an undiagnosed mental health disorder, this number could potentially be even higher.
O’Brien describes the feelings of depression and suicidal ideation as “strongly linked,” and that one naturally leads to the other for him. “Depression is … a feeling of meaninglessness. It's a feeling of emptiness, and demotivation,” he says. “If this is how I understand the world to be and how I feel, then this is how I should be reacting.” (Learn more about symptoms of depression here.)
Here's the good news: Research shows that getting treatment for mental health disorders, including depression, decreases the risk of death by suicide. It's not that treatment "cures" suicidal ideation, but it gives the person tools for how to respond to those thoughts in healthy ways. The recommended treatment for depression is a combination of medication (antidepressants) and therapy, which allows space for the person to talk openly about what they’re experiencing, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
In fact, one form of psychotherapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy can be tailored to suicide prevention by helping the individual understand their thinking patterns and find better ways to cope with them.
“I still have some suicidal thoughts all the time,” admits O’Brien, “but I handle them in a way that is far more productive and healthy because I've now been given the tools to do that.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255).
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My name is Tim O'Brien.
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I'm a 29-year-old filmmaker.
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I live in Brooklyn, as most 29-year-old filmmakers do.
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I am someone who suffers from depression
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and suicidal ideation and have tried to kill myself
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many times, thankfully unsuccessfully.
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And now I'm here to talk about my experiences with that
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and hopefully encourage other people to open up
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about the struggles that they have with mental health.
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Tim and Shawn, thanks so much for doing
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this interview with us. Tim?
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What is the difference between having depression
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and having suicidal ideation? What is that like?
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I mean, personally, I don't know. (laughs)
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For me, they're very strongly linked, but depression is a,
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to me, it's a feeling of meaninglessness.
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It's a feeling of emptiness and demotivation.
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For me, it was not something that seems like
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some sort of outside thing.
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Like certainly you can use the metaphor of like
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a pounding voice in your head or something
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when an urge gets that strong to kill myself,
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but it is more like, if this is how I understand the world to be
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and how I feel, then this is how I should be reacting.
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And some of the methods you used were quite violent.
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Can you describe what you attempted?
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Yeah, last year I tried to drown myself a couple times, and--
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In your bathtub, right?
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Yeah. Yes. And then
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the incident that put me in the hospital, I stabbed myself
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in front of some friends, and then tried to throw myself
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into traffic when paramedics were trying to get me
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into an ambulance, and I mean that kind of moment,
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it was, it felt like the walls were closing in
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and I needed to get out, and yeah,
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it's a very desperate and ugly and uncomfortable, like,
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it's not, it's a terrible feeling, to want to do that.
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I still have some suicidal thoughts all the time,
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but I handle them in a way that is far more productive
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and healthy because I've now been given the tools to do that.
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Reducing suicide risk. Silver Spring, MD: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2019. (Accessed on April 2, 2020 at https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/reducing-suicide-risk.)
Suicide. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 2019. (Accessed on April 2, 2020 at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml.)
Suicide rising across the US. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018. (Accessed on April 2, 2020 at https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/.)