Content warning: This video and article contain descriptions of suicidal ideation.
In 2017, about 17.3 million adults in the United States experienced at least one episode of major depressive disorder, or about 7.1 percent of the adult population, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. What’s more concerning, however, is that about 35 percent of people who experience a depressive episode do not receive any treatment.
This can happen for a number or reasons, such as believing things aren’t “bad enough” for them to see a therapist, perceiving stigma around mental health care, or being unable to afford or access mental health care. As a result, many people “tough it out” for as long as they can and do not seek treatment until they believe they’ve hit “rock bottom.”
This was the case with Tim O’Brien, who lives with depression and suicidal ideation and has survived several suicide attempts. For years, O’Brien “white-knuckled” through his pain and used alcohol to numb the thoughts in his head. (Learn more about Tim’s experience with mental illness here.)
But that changed after O’Brien’s final suicide attempt, in which he ended up on lockdown in a psychiatric ward. He spent two weeks in that facility under continuous observation. “I wasn't allowed to leave until we really had a solid game plan as far as what I'd be doing going forward, and where I'd be going,” he says.
This was a wakeup call for O’Brien. “I was exhausted and sick of being drunk, and sick of feeling that way, of just wanting to be dead any moment that I wasn't unconscious,” he says.
In the last year, O’Brien began therapy for the first time. “For me, personally, cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has been a really great method of dealing with [the] suicidal ideation,” he says.
CBT is a subtype of psychotherapy that focuses on identifying negative thought patterns and learning how to respond in healthy ways. It can be particularly helpful for people with suicidal ideation by helping them find alternative ways to react to these thoughts and urges.
“You know, I'd like to stop having those thoughts, but in the meantime, I'm very happy to be able to handle them,” says O’Brien. He describes how he can now “look at” negative thoughts as they come to them. “ I used to just drink until I couldn't think that thought anymore. That was how I got away from it.
And now I can sit with it.”
Even though O’Brien is doing better, he knows that maintaining his mental health is a long-term game, and he plans to continue therapy for an “indefinite amount of time.” Learn more about treatment for depression here.