March 10, 2023 | OPINION | By Asa Gartrell

Intrusive. Forward. Nosey.

These are all words that people may use to describe someone actively making a positive change in the world. After dedicating a year of Thursdays to working at a mental health crisis hotline, I know one thing for sure: we need to ask each other more personal questions.

The United States is suffering from a mental health crisis.

According to Mental Health America, 50 million adults experienced mental illness in 2019 and 2020. 12 million Americans experienced serious thoughts of suicide. The CDC found even more drastic statistics among youth, with a 60% increase in reported depressive episodes between 2007 and 2019. CNN reported that 90% of Americans believe we are experiencing a mental health crisis.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Symptoms of mental illness plague the modern mind at unprecedented rates. Americans have come to a consensus that this is a real problem; the greater challenge is identifying the cause and designing a solution. My experience working at Lines for Life gave me insight into the second part of this question.

Each Thursday, I listened to people in crisis and tried to guide them through their emotions or plan with them to overcome distressing circumstances. The contacts I took were teens like me, experiencing disordered eating, questions about sexual identity, romantic feelings, parental abuse, bullying, suicidal ideation, loss of family members, mental disorders, or any other situation that could induce crisis.

My role was first to listen, then follow with questions that we’re often afraid to ask our peers: How are you really doing? How are you managing your stress? What’s challenging you right now? You seem down, do you want to talk about anything? Are you having thoughts of suicide?

At least once per shift, one of my peers would receive a message that they saved their contact’s life. People often called in to thank the crisis line for the essential service it provides to those who wouldn’t otherwise find support. More than to the power of Lines for Life, these testimonials speak to the importance of checking in and listening. People just want to feel heard. Myriad factors can take that privilege away from them, and, in my experience, the feeling of being unnoticed is what most drives people into crisis.

So, what’s the answer to the emotional epidemic? Asking personal questions. We can humanize strangers. We can reach across a socially constructed wall and give a peer an ear to vent to.

But we all know what’s stopping us.

The immeasurable influence of the bystander effect: the great paralyzing hand that seizes us by the collar just as we start to wonder if the person sitting alone is alright; decades of social conditioning that encourage temperance and keep intimate conversations between the best of friends; the possibility of embarrassingly misinterpreting someone’s body language; thoughts of how we’ll be perceived. ‘They must have someone,’ we think. ‘We all have bad days. Somebody must have checked in with them.’

Though socially and individually engrained, this excuse is not good enough. The relief you can offer a dejected stranger is worth any discomfort you might encounter. Standing on the other side of countless conversations that backed strangers off the edge of an irreversible choice, I can safely say your question could be the difference between life and death.

We have a collective responsibility to help decrease the numbers above.

The downtrend in mental health is not an uncontrollable flood ripping through America. Most of us stand on solid ground, ready to lend a hand, and the work starts with going against the grain and recognizing the vulnerability in a stranger and in yourself. It could be a simple question that breaks down isolation, shifts hasty plans, and begins the process of relief.

How are you feeling?

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