What I Want the Yoga Community to Know About Suicide Prevention

Author’s Note: This article discusses suicide. It’s based on my experiences and conversations with others about their experiences. However, everyone is different and our experiences can vary greatly. I’m not attempting to speak for everyone who lives with suicidal thoughts. I’m also not saying everyone has to share their experiences if they don’t want to or don’t feel safe doing so. No one is obligated to share personal information with anyone. But for those who do want to share our stories, there are many barriers that prevent us from doing so.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Get trained. Start a conversation. Support each other.

In 2017, newly separated, I had three surgeries in four months, followed by nine months of wound clinic visits. In all this time, while my world was imploding and my body could no longer contain the chaos, not one person questioned my ability to teach yoga and meditation. In fact, I often heard how this all made me a better teacher because I had to learn how to adapt the poses to my worn out and recovering body. It meant that I had a real life experience to help me understand my students better.

By 2019, I had a growing business as an accessible yoga teacher. I was teaching weekly studio classes, special workshops, and inclusive teacher trainings. But I had also experienced several major life changes, and my mental health started to spiral downward. In April 2019, I had what was easily the worst panic attack of my life. It brought with it very vivid, very active suicidal thoughts that wouldn’t leave even after the panic stopped. I told my therapist about it and he had me tell my roommate in an attempt to keep me safe. After a few weeks the thoughts seemed to quiet a bit and I felt comfortable telling a few more people about them. Carefully selected people—no one I was too close to (so they wouldn’t worry too much or feel too much “responsibility” to take care of me—people I knew had their own mental illness struggles. But most importantly, people who wouldn’t tell others in my life who might not be so understanding.)

Then, when the thoughts came back, I told no one. I felt they’d either worry too much—that it would stress them out and they’d be annoyed with me—or they’d think I was too dangerous, too much of a liability to have around. Very few people know what to do with a suicidal person. We’re a human embodiment of both the fear that they, too, could end up sick like us and the guilt that they can’t save us from our own minds. So I kept quiet. I was determined to push through it, the same way I had been with my physical illnesses (unsurprisingly, it didn’t work there either).

During this entire time when my mind was quickly being taken over, again, no one ever questioned my ability to teach. If they did, it wasn’t to my face and any questions to others never reached me. At the time I couldn’t understand it. It was incomprehensible to me that no one could see or that no one was saying anything about how I was clearly losing it (and that was exactly how it felt, as if I was losing everything). There was no way, I thought, that everyone couldn’t see the chaos in my mind. But still, no one said anything. 

That was until one night, curled in a ball on her bed, my roommate looked at me, asked me if I had a plan, and said, “If you have a plan, I think it’s time for you to go to the hospital.” I didn’t argue with her. I only asked if she’d come with me. In that emergency room, with someone watching me all night long, was the first time I had felt safe in months.

My absence was quickly noticed while I was in the hospital. My chronic illnesses make social media my social life. Regardless of whether they’re with friends around the world or down the street, most of my interactions are online. But with no phone or internet access, I was completely absent from my circle of friends. I knew I had a choice when I got out of the hospital: I could make up some kind of story and try to deflect or avoid any questions. Or I could tell the truth. 

Why I Decided to Speak About My Experience Despite the Barriers

I knew when I talked about my surgeries that there wouldn’t be any questions or any shame. I also knew that part of the reason I delayed getting help this time was concern about what people would think. Would it hurt me as a yoga teacher? Would it make it harder for me to find freelance clients? Would I lose friends? And I thought that was bullshit. I almost died. I thought the shame was absolutely ridiculous. And, if it wasn’t for the caring and insistence of my friend, I could have been dead. Of course, the sad irony is, had I died, many would have openly wondered how I could have been so selfish or why I didn’t reach out.

In a very deliberate decision, I posted openly and honestly on my personal Facebook profile that I had spent the past week at a behavioral health hospital. I told everyone that if it hadn’t been for my friend, I wouldn’t have gone. I told them if they were unaware of the signs of suicidal thoughts and didn’t know what to do to help a friend with them, to get suicide prevention awareness training.

Suicide really freaks people out. Even people who are knowledgeable about and experienced with mental illness. The stigma is so great that those who struggle with it rarely speak about their own experiences. This leaves those of us who live with suicidal thoughts all going through our lives as if no one else we know is living with these kinds of thoughts and feelings as well.

When I posted about my hospitalization I received many supportive and positive comments publicly on the post. But I also received some private messages. Most of these messages were from people thanking me for sharing my story, expressing that they had their own experiences with suicide and didn’t know many, if any, others who had been through the same things. My community is heavily skewed toward yoga people and queers. Unfortunately, those of us in the queer community are too familiar with suicide. Queers who contacted me wanted to know what hospital I went to and what my experience was because they were considering “going inpatient” and often not for the first time.

Non-queers are often privileged enough to be less acquainted with suicide. But with that privilege comes isolation for those that do experience it. In the messages I received from non-queer friends, they said they felt so alone and didn't know others living with the same issues. I knew almost all of these people through yoga. Most of them didn’t share this information with many other people. And they definitely didn’t share it in yoga spaces. They may mention depression or anxiety, even bipolar disorder, but they would never mention suicidal thoughts.

There’s an idea held by too many in contemporary Western yogaland that if you’re a good yogi, if you just “yoga enough,” you can cure anything. If you just do the asana correctly enough, if you just meditate the right way, you’ll cure your mental illness—that you manifest what you want in your life. So, if you’re having suicidal thoughts, you’re not doing yoga “right.” Though it’s good that there’s more awareness about the positive effects of yoga on mental health, yoga is all too often touted as a cure instead of one of many available coping mechanisms. There is an expectation that if you practice yoga, your mental illness should go away: an expectation that it’s okay to have a mental illness and come to yoga, but it’s not okay for your mental illness to stick around while your practice develops. This expectation is harmful.

While many yogis were privately sharing their struggles with both suicidal thoughts and isolation, others were publicly sharing their discomfort with my openness—both with me directly and with others when I wasn’t around. Some discussed their disbelief that I would so openly and publicly, leaving no room for misunderstanding, share that I had been hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. And they speculated about whether I could still be a yoga teacher, now that everyone knew I had these thoughts. They wondered if I could still lead and mentor people if my mind sometimes told me that I shouldn’t exist anymore.

I knew when I shared my experience that there would be some people who disapproved. And who, despite how much they enjoyed my company before, would be uncomfortable around me once they knew more about what was going on in my mind. I was prepared for that, and while it still hurt, the messages of thanks I had received from others were immensely more impactful. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the anger I felt because these questions regarding my ability to practice and lead yoga were taking place in front of others who were in precarious situations. With complete unawareness that some of the people who could hear them talking about how I shouldn’t have shared my story publicly or how they didn’t believe I was ready to come back, were in exactly the same place I had been in a few weeks prior. In the midst of what is a completely frightening, exhausting, and disorienting experience, they were further isolated. They were again reminded how much their current reality is too scary for others to deal with.

Let me be very clear here, this is extremely dangerous. This can cost people their lives. Our collective lack of knowledge about suicide and, by extension, our inability to deal with it when it enters our personal realm, make it very difficult for those of us living with suicidal thoughts to seek help and to even get appropriate help when we ask. Toxic positivity only compounds these issues. Yoga and meditation can provide immense relief for many living with various mental illnesses and suicidal thoughts. But they can also be a partner to our mental illness and suicidal thoughts if they’re weaponized against us as another method of shame.

Holding Space for Others, and Finding Support for Ourselves

If you’re holding space for others, talk about mental illness, talk about suicide. Make sure you’re as educated on these topics as you are on the chakras. Take suicide prevention awareness training. Take mental health first aid. Worldwide, every 40 seconds, someone dies by suicide. Suicidality isn’t a minor disease. It doesn’t only affect a few people. Even if you don’t know that you know people who live with suicidal thoughts, you know people who live with suicidal thoughts. More than likely, they’re just not comfortable sharing that information with you. And the fewer people who know, the more precarious their situation is. Just as communities rally around someone fighting cancer, those living with mental illness and suicidal thoughts need their communities to rally around them.

If you’re somebody living with suicidal thoughts, know that you’re not alone. Just as you may have never shared your story, most others haven’t either. That person you see every week on the mat next to you may have just gotten released from a 72-hour hold. Or they may have had to use their safety plan over the weekend. If you feel comfortable opening up, you may find many others right around you who are living through similar situations. If you’re not comfortable talking about your experiences with your current communities, you can reach out to any organizations in your area that support those with mental illness. If you can afford it and have access, find a therapist. You’re not alone, and you don’t have to go through this alone. Brains get sick just like hearts get sick. There is no shame in having an ill brain. You are worthy of love and support and you’re wanted here.

Some resources in the U.S.:

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (English: 800-273-8255, Spanish: 888-628-9454, TTY: 711 then 800-273-8255)

The Trevor Project (phone: 866-488-7386, text: START to 678-678, chat also available)

Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860)

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About the teacher

Elliot Kesse is a fat, white, atheist, agender spoonie who strives to create safe spaces for joyful movement... Read more

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