SO MANY MORE OF US NEED HELP
Feature photo by All Def Poetry x Da Poetry Lounge
When she was 16, Hannah's slam poem "Don't Kill Yourself Today" went viral. Today, lines from her poem are making the rounds on TikTok, being used as an indicator of suicidal ideation.
CW: Suicidal Ideation, Self Harm
Every few weeks since 2015, a stranger on the Internet tells me I saved their life. Some people receive unsolicited nudes in their Instagram DMs - I receive heartfelt messages from people all over the world, informing me that I am one reason why they chose not to die by suicide. These strangers are referring to a poem of mine that exists on the internet in many, many forms (mostly unauthorized by me), straightforwardly titled “Don’t Kill Yourself Today.” I wrote the poem at 16 years old and performed it shortly after at Da Poetry Lounge, a weekly open mic in Los Angeles, where it was filmed by All Def Poetry and posted on Youtube.
“So many more people around us need help than any one of us could possibly imagine.”
The initial response to my poem, mostly on Facebook from friends and classmates, was as kind and enthusiastic as you would expect from supportive peers. But privately, in my Facebook messages, there were more personal confessions - sincere, deeply felt thanks for my words coming from close friends and near strangers alike. Every few months for years afterwards, the poem would resurface - sometimes rewritten on Facebook or Tumblr, reposted on Instagram as screenshots of a series of Tweets, once, inexplicably, as a black-and-white lyric video on iFunny. Watching this happen, almost entirely without crediting me and certainly without my input, was often frustrating. But with each resurgence of the poem’s popularity came the messages - strangers telling me I, or my poem, had saved their life. Messages of gratitude, and hope, and perseverance. Messages that, to me, could have meant, “I have created something important that helps people,” but that instead meant, “so many more people around us need help than any one of us could possibly imagine.”
Currently, lines from my poem are making the rounds on TikTok, being used as an indicator of suicidal ideation to others on the platform. I can see how the writing of my poem would lend itself well to the TikTok format; it is, simply enough, a list poem where I stand onstage and list all the things a person would miss out on if they killed themselves right this instant (goldfish crackers, the last week of their Netflix free trial, celebrity twitter fights, their friends). On TikTok, the directives I announced as a teenager (“don’t kill yourself until you finish your shampoo and conditioner at the same time… don’t kill yourself until you tell someone your best pasta recipe”) become at worst warnings, and at best cries for help (“I finished my shampoo and conditioner at the same time” or “I told my mom my favorite pasta recipe”). Comments on these videos are often filled with other suggestions, both from my poem and from the commenters’ themselves, reminding the person making the video of everything else they have yet to experience, encouraging them to last just one more day, then another.
I want to see this as a positive thing. I want to see my poem being used as a source of comfort and communication for young people who are hurting, and to believe that this is a good sign. But I wrote that poem as a teenager six years ago, thinking of how many of my own friends were struggling with suicidal ideation and even attempts, and the piece has only gotten more popular since. I do hope that means that people are starting to feel more comfortable talking about their mental health, and that the creation of online communities of support has been helpful for the young people who turn to my poem. But when I see someone, younger than I was when I even wrote the poem, turning to “Don’t Kill Yourself Today,” what I see is someone who had to turn to the thought of killing themselves first.
You saved your life, all on your own.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, or to deny the experiences of anyone who has found hope in my poem - that’s why I wrote it, and my heart swells and breaks for anyone who has needed it. When I receive those messages, though, the ones that tell me I saved someone’s life, what I want to tell all of those wonderful people is this: I didn’t save your life. My poem didn’t even save your life. You saved your life, all on your own, the second you clicked that Youtube link or read that Tumblr post or made that TikTok. If my poem was a life preserver, tossed off the side of the raft to you, in a vast, churning ocean, you are the one who reached out for it and held on tight and refused to let go. I am so, so grateful to have made that life preserver. But all the credit for holding on until you make it back to shore, all of that credit is yours.
“Don’t Kill Yourself Today,” when I think of it fondly instead of with mild annoyance (I would ask you to imagine how you yourself would feel if, as an aspiring artist fresh out of college, you would be always outshone by a piece you created in your junior year of high school), is a poem that believes in a beautiful future. I am, myself, a person who believes in a beautiful future, or at least in the possibility of one. I can’t imagine how I would feel about my own life, or continuing to live it, if I did not believe in the possibility of a future that was kind, and sustainable, and loving, and just. Which is why, looking around, I can see why my poem might be gaining in popularity once again - I can see the world we have made for younger generations, and that future does not always look beautiful. Since I myself left high school, I have seen teenagers cope with an ever-present threat of gun violence, environmental and economic disasters, and now the increased isolation of virtual learning and social distancing that I can only imagine makes the already impossible social landscape of high school even more unbearable. And, well, I don’t think one poem on Youtube will ever be enough to counteract all of that.
Six years ago, as much as I saw myself surrounded by despair and hopelessness, as much as I had more friends dealing with depression and suicidal ideation than not, there was still, in all of us, a deeply held belief that there was more outside of the lives we were living. To us, as much as the present could feel intolerably bleak, the future was a beautiful, exciting place - or at least it could become one, with enough hard work. These days, I don’t know how easy it is for young people to feel the same way. I want my poem to be there, always, for anyone who needs it. But more than that, I want the adults in the room to ask ourselves this: what kind of future are we creating for the people who will come after us? And what are we doing to make it one that all of these beautiful, creative, hopeful, and despairing souls will want to stay alive for?
United States: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK(8255) connects the caller to a certified crisis center near where the call is placed.
United Kingdom: Shout is a service partnership between Mental Health Innovations and Crisis Text Line®, providing people in the UK with the first ever, 24/7, free nationwide texting service. Text Shout to 85258 in the UK to start a conversation with a trained volunteer.
Taiwan: The Taiwan Suicide Prevention hotline connects callers with operators who are trained to provide general counseling, direct callers to appropriate healthcare facilities, and intervene in urgent cases. They can be reached at 1925.
Philippines: The National Center for Mental Health Crisis Hotline offers 24-hour service to people in the Philippines who are depressed or at risk of suicide.
Tel: (0917) 899-8727 (cellphone)
For a full list of suicide prevention hotlines worldwide, please visit Suicide Stop.