The first time I sat next to a person who had attempted suicide, it was a midlife man who had decided he’d rather be dead than go back to a psychiatric hospital.

I know. Sounds crazy, right? Except there’s more sense there than you want to know.

Here’s how he found himself at such a point:

A few months prior, he’d been laid off from the computer programming job he’d held for two decades. He was working in a company where both his father and his uncle had worked before him, a company from which they would eventually retire. In that company, our midlife male had started as an assembler with only a high school education, but his promise showed and the company trained him to become a programmer.

Over the years, the company regularly trained him for any new skill he required. He’d also been allowed to take up to 4 weeks off every five years or so to get his mental health back on. For 20 years, he had been living in the best of the old-line paternalistic economy, wrapped in a support system of routine, colleagues, and long-term security.

From Long-Term Employment to Unstable Contract Work

Being kicked out left him afloat in what philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls a sea of “liquid modernity.” In this brave new world, each individual desperately paddles about attempting to gain hold on anything that might keep him or her from sinking. Those who are temporarily afloat imagine that their own efforts have led to their success. But that sea of ever-changing change causes each temporary support to dissolve, usually sooner than later.

For our friend, “liquid modernity” came in the form of the new world of contract programming. As a contract programmer, it was up to him to be sure he was ready for whatever challenges a new employer — always a new employer — might throw at him. That left him in almost constant terror that he would fail. On this morning, facing another new start at another new contract, he just couldn’t face it.

“I would rather die than go to this job,” he thought.

“I should call my therapist for help,” he thought.

“But if I call my therapist and tell her I want to die, she’s required to send me to the hospital,” he thought.

“I’d rather be dead than go back to the hospital,” he thought.

And so, following that chain of thought to its logical conclusion, he reached for his pitcher of iced tea and began swallowing all the meds on his table. Since his last refill had been only two days previous, that was quite a lot of pills.

Miraculously Alive with a Belly Full of Drugs

We found him 24 hours later, miraculously neither dead nor in a puddle of vomit or diarrhea. With help from a peer advocate, we managed to keep him out of hospital and under our care.

In the long run, the best solution we could find in the US system of care was SSDI. He cheerfully declared himself “retired” and settled into slow days of not very much. No stress. No need to die.

Why Does Death Look Better than the Psych Hospital?

Why would anyone rather die than go to a psych hospital? There’s probably as many reasons as there are people who’ve been there. Some include:

  • Once you’ve been in a psych hospital, you are supposed to reveal your mental “disability” on job applications and when renewing your driver’s license. Not a big confidence builder. Plus lots of employers aren’t up for the “risk” you pose. As a result, often …
  • People with a psych hospitalization on their records find they’re ruined professionally.
  • A psych hospitalization (or any psych treatment) causes other doctors to treat you as incompetent. I learned this myself when an orthopedist used a charade to dispute the idea that I had the same condition another doctor had diagnosed in my sister. When was the last time an MD attempted to explain your physical condition with a charade? Right.

For our man, staying out of the local hospital, with its echoing tiled corridors, may also have been a way to limit the many voices he heard on a daily basis when in times of crisis. Auditory hallucinations, impaired gating and delusions of reference are bad enough. No one needs to compound that with a setting that allows you to hear everything said, screamed, dropped or thrown within 75 feet or so of your cell-like room.

Better Alternatives to Psych Hospital Care

I’m glad that the personal networks this man had developed through his local church made it possible for him to stay out of the hospital and pass through this crisis.

I wish that we offered, in the US, some of the alternative respite programs that are popping up in other countries. Two I love are in the UK: the Maytree Centre and the Drayton Park Crisis House. Staffed by caring volunteers, these programs allow people with emotional challenges to experience themselves as more like than unlike other people in the community.

What’s stopping us from creating similar places of shelter in the US? Anyone want to jump on board?

Until we have these places of shelter, you can find compassionate help at the Crisis Text Line (text to 741741) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. Both are available 24/7.