A few weeks ago, the Huffington Post released a compelling story about ways to prevent suicide. Much of the article focused on Jerome Motto, a psychiatrist and researcher who pioneered a new technique to reduce suicides. Drawing from his experience as a soldier in World War II, in which letters from a female pen pal boosted his morale while fighting in Europe, he demonstrated how simple outreach toward others can save lives.
Motto’s experiment consisted of simple letters sent to patients who had survived suicide attempts, yet refused follow-up psychiatric treatment. He sent his intervention group a series of typewritten form letters: “We hope things are going well for you. If you wish to drop us a note we would be glad to hear from you.”
Simple as they seem, the form letters had an impact. Over the first two years, the control group, which did not receive the letters, had a suicide rate twice that of the group that did. The intervention group continued to have lower suicide rates years later, even after they stopped receiving the letters.
Although they didn’t ask for them—they didn’t want to create any obligation on the part of the patients—Motto and his researchers also received many responses. One person wrote back that “You will never know what your little notes mean to me,” while others disclosed intimate details of their lives and struggles. One patient wrote a revealing response of five single-spaced, typewritten pages, which began: “You are the most persistent son-of-a-b*tch I’ve ever encountered, so you must really be sincere in your interest in me.”
The entire story, about the power of empathy and thoughtfulness to penetrate even the deepest levels of despair, struck me, coming just prior to Thanksgiving. I thought I was coming down with a cold, and did not want to infect my mother, I did not travel home that weekend for the first time this year, instead spending it by myself.
The holidays present a wonderful, idyllic (and idealized) opportunity to gather and reunite with friends and distant loved ones, but for some can also heighten a sense of isolation. The Centers for Disease Control, debunking the myth of a holiday-related spike in suicides, notes that December traditionally sees the lowest suicide rate of any month. But that fact does not diminish the sense of melancholia that can creep up on even the hardiest of souls during cold and dark winter evenings.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I had a fair bit of work to keep me occupied over the Thanksgiving break (and I ended up not getting a full-blown cold after all). But I also tried to thwart any potential holiday blahs by putting Motto’s theory into practice.
I sent get-well greetings to a family friend recovering at home from minor surgery. And I emailed a family member deployed to Afghanistan (who has since—thankfully—returned from his tour of duty). While I hadn’t anticipated spending Thanksgiving by myself, I had little reason to despair of my holiday when compared to someone in a similar, yet far more dangerous, set of circumstances. Sending a note of greeting seemed the least I could do to show my gratitude for his sacrifice.
On one level, it seems counter-intuitive for someone spending Thanksgiving alone to check in on others. But I’ve tried to develop a habit of doing so over the years. Many of my friends have commitments to spouses and children to juggle, and for good or for ill, I don’t. It means I generally reach out to my colleagues to check if they’re okay, or set up a time to meet, rather than the other way around, and I’m fine with that.
People struggling with loneliness—and we all do from time to time, whether over the holidays or at other times of year—can feel overwhelmed with emotions. But as bad as one’s situation can feel in the moment, other individuals are almost certainly undergoing similar, if not worse, crises themselves. I recognized well before I read about Motto’s research that reaching out can improve the outlook of both a message’s sender and its recipient.
Nearly six years ago, I faced a difficult time in my life. I needed surgery on my ankle that would severely impair my mobility for months, even as my boss had just resigned his Senate seat, making my future employment situation unclear at best. Yet days before I went under the knife, I spoke with a close acquaintance juggling two immense challenges: a marriage teetering on the brink of divorce, and aging family members approaching their death.
As I chatted with this person just prior to my surgery, I resolved to spend time during my convalescence reaching out regularly with calls, e-mails, and texts seeing if I could do anything to help, and making sure this person was okay. I often didn’t get a response back, but as with Motto’s subjects, that wasn’t the point. The point was to let them know that someone was thinking about them. The individual later did tell me that the outreach meant a lot, at a time when this person felt emotionally isolated.
If you feel pangs of loneliness creeping up on you this holiday season, or you know someone who might feel lonely, the one-hit wonder by the folk group Friend and Lover provides sage advice: “Reach out of the darkness—and you will find a friend.”
Give others a gift more powerful than any gift you can find online, or in any store. Give them the gift of yourself—your time, your attention, your caring and interest. Whether you’re the one struggling with the holiday blahs or someone else is, you’ll be glad that you did.