There were many reasons I was afraid to speak up. But being honest wasn’t as scary as I thought — and it saved my life.
When I stepped into her office for the first time, I didn’t know that Judy, my high school’s social worker, would be responsible for saving my life.
It was the fall semester of my sophomore year and I was clinging to what little sanity I had left. My classmates and teachers were also stopping by Judy’s office to express their concerns. I was crying in algebra, barely even picking at my lunch tray in the cafeteria, and falling apart even more each day.
I was only 15 — pretty young to be feeling suicidal, in my opinion. My mom was taking me to one psychiatrist after another, but the pills they prescribed me weren’t doing much.
In fact, I worried they were making me even worse.
I started sleeping with a shoebox filled with pills: the SSRI antidepressants the psychiatrists were prescribing, as well as other prescription and over-the-counter medications I found around the house.
I sincerely believed that if things got only a little bit worse, I could turn to these orange vials of medication, these pill bottles that contained enough poison to destroy my liver.
I knew I had to tell someone I was becoming suicidal — that the idea of killing myself was feeling less scary in my head.
At first, I rejected the idea of suicide, but as I spiraled into depression, I grew more used to the idea.
I wasn’t sure how she would respond when I told her I was considering suicide. One day, I would know that Judy might be the only person to save my life. My own mother was freaked out by the intensity of my depression and the fact that I kept begging her to drive me to the nearest mental hospital.
“I’m sad,” I started one day, drumming my fingernails on her conference table. I was too nervous to sit on the couch that was next to her desk. She stared at me in a way that unnerved me. She wanted me to explain some more about what sad meant. She had a sinking feeling that I was slipping.
“What does sad mean?” Judy asked.
I sucked in a deep breath. If I told her, how would she respond? I wasn’t sure that I really wanted my mother to know that I was on the verge of ending my own life. I didn’t want to scare her. I didn’t want a lot of attention.
Even though I desperately wanted help, part of me just wanted to be left alone.
I knew that I probably belonged in a hospital where doctors and nurses could watch over me and figure out the right medications.
When I clung to a bottle of pills one night, I knew there was no way out of this: I had to tell Judy before I really overdosed on my medication.
I stepped into her office, trying to figure out how to tell her that I was seriously thinking about ways to die by suicide. Instead of solving quadratic equations in algebra class, I was scribbling down suicide notes in my favorite gel pens. I looked around the classroom, noticing that my friends were all paying attention to the lecture, and that some of them were passing notes and giggling.
Judy looked up from whatever she had been working on. I had been in her office a few hours earlier, as it was my custom to chat with her before my first class of the day. I sat at that conference table, trying to figure out how to tell her that I was starting to consider suicide as a solution to my ever-increasing depression.
“What’s wrong, Lizzy?” she said.
“I’m sad,” I said. I was constantly saying this, but we couldn’t seem to figure out how I could move past all the sadness.
I was in treatment with both a psychiatrist prescribing antidepressants and a clinical psychologist who met with me every Saturday morning to talk about novels and self-help books.
“What does sad mean?”
“You know,” I said. It felt scary to tell her that I was thinking about ending my life, that I was getting so used to the very idea of being dead.
“Just knowing that Judy was solidly behind me made me more confident in my battle with depression.”
“No, I don’t know. Lizzy, I need you to tell me,” she said.
“Well, I have these pills,” I said. “I’m thinking about taking some. To stop the thoughts.”
“What thoughts?” she asked.
“About death,” I said. “Judy, I’m thinking about taking an overdose. I want to die.”
Tears spilled from my eyes and onto the conference table. She passed over a box of tissues and looked at me with something approximating concern.
Judy had seen me through some hard times: when I had emerged from my chemistry classroom sobbing and out of control. My teachers were complaining that I was crying in classes, to the point that it was complicating their ability to lecture.
“You don’t have to die because you are sad,” she said. “You’re struggling with depression and there’s a way out. Treatment works.”
“I am seeing doctors, Judy,” I said. “Nothing works. I’m feeling hopeless.”
“Hopelessness is a major symptom of depression. You have a medical illness and it’s my job to keep you safe and alive,” she said.
“You’re not going to call my mom, are you?”
“You know I have to,” Judy said. “Would you be willing to go to the hospital, so the doctors could observe you and maybe try some new medications?”
I should have known that Judy would tell my mother about my depression and that I was having such a hard time remaining in my classes. I was not functioning at school.
“This is a school, not a mental health facility,” the school psychologist said when Judy brought her into the mix. “Elizabeth should be admitted to the child/adolescent psych ward.”
I was doing everything I could to continue life as normal. Once she knew that my depression had progressed into suicidal thinking, Judy promised she would never give up on me.
This was exactly what I needed when just going to chemistry lectures made me feel like I was falling apart.
“My biggest priority is to keep you safe. I know that what you’re going through is scary, but I promise you that I will not let you die. I know what’s at stake here, and I’m not going to give up on you,” Judy said. “But I have to call your mother to the school. So we can talk about what to do next — including a possible hospitalization.”
Judy kept her promise and my mother soon arrived at the school. One of the guidance counselors and the school psychologist joined Judy and my mom in a conference room while I waited in a small room. During this meeting, the adults tried to figure out how to keep me safe at school with the limited resources they had. Judy had other students to see and couldn’t provide constant psychiatric observation.
But just knowing that Judy was solidly behind me made me more confident in my battle with depression. It was scary to tell someone that I was actually starting to consider suicide.
She might have been very freaked out, but I never would have guessed that. Her voice stayed strong and even, and she made me feel reassured that there were professionals who might be able to make me feel better.
Once I started to talk about suicide, everything changed: the stakes were higher and it seemed that I was more severely ill than anyone had ever thought.
But telling Judy may have saved my life that day and in the months that followed as I continued to cycle through the offices of other psychiatrists.
It may have been one of the hardest secrets I ever had to reveal. But once I did, I started to feel comfortable being honest with my treatment team about what I was experiencing and the feelings I had, so I could get the help I really needed.
Medically reviewed on May 16, 2023
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