I should have known better. I was the supervisor of a residential substance abuse treatment program, a residential mental health crisis unit, a mental health crisis line, and the on-call crisis evaluation team. Furthermore, I had experience with my own major depressive disorder. I really should have known better.
A young nurse was working in our programs dispensing meds, seeing to the wellness of our residents, consulting with our psychiatry team, and leading small groups in both our residential programs, among other things. It was her first job out of nursing school. She was intelligent, gifted, dedicated, and a hard worker.
One day as I walked into our central office, she was sitting there with my assistant. As I walked through the door it was very obvious that there was some serious talking going on. The nurse’s face was wet with tears and her general appearance reflected deep sadness. “What’s going on,” I said. My assistant replied, “She’s depressed.” And then I said it, “You’re too young to be depressed.” It was the stupidest, uncaring, and un-factual thing I could have said at the moment.
We all say dumb things from time to time. We are incapable of being perfect. Most of the time, our thoughtless statements merely cause annoyance with others or embarrassment to ourselves. But there are a few times in life when our response to a situation is of critical importance. On the day above, I was not up to the task. I failed miserably.
A couple of years later I had a crisis of my own. My wife of 29 years had told me to leave. When I asked how long, she replied, “weeks.” (Those “weeks” turned into four years.) Several weeks had passed and I was miserable. I was in the midst of my third major depressive episode. Lonely. Missing my children and grandchildren. Desperately wanting to reconcile with my wife. I loaded my car and started for home.
Traveling toward home on Western Kentucky Parkway, my wife let me know that I was not welcome. Despondency gripped my soul. I turned around and started crying heavily. Unwanted suicidal thoughts rushed through my mind. In desperation I called 911.
The operator patched me through to a state trooper. We talked. I sobbed. Soon into the conversation, he asked me where I was and where I was going. I told him. He immediately asked, “Why are you going that way?” And proceeded to tell me which way I should have gone.
Really! That’s what you’re troubled about in this situation? I interrupted him, “I’m in crisis here and you’re concerned about which direction I chose (to get to my destination).” Thankfully, a counselor soon came on and after talking a while I was able to get an appointment for the next morning.
Here are a few things you should NOT say to a person in crisis.
- It must be God’s will.
- You made your bed now lie in it.
- You need to . . . (fill in the blank with your lamest advice).
- It could be worse.
- Let me tell you about . . . (fill in the blank with your lamest story).
- You’ll feel better about it in the morning.
A person in crisis doesn’t need their experience spiritualized in the moment. Maybe later, but not now. S/he doesn’t need castigated. She doesn’t need to hear what she “should,” “ought,” or “could” do. He doesn’t need his situation compared to another’s. She doesn’t need to hear your story or the story of your aunt, sister, mom, or friend. He doesn’t need to be dismissed or have his circumstance trivialized.
When I’m in crisis, here’s what I need:
- A good listener that lets me talk. One who doesn’t force me to talk, but will sit with me in silence if that’s what I want to do.
- An understanding, supportive, dependable person.
- Someone who will say, “What can I do to help you?” Or, “Help me to understand what you need.”
If you don’t know what to say, it’s best that you express your care with an appropriate touch or a reassuring smile. Avoid with all diligence the asinine things that I have said and been told.
The LORD be with you.