Random Acts of Kindness Day: Compassion and Mental Health

When reaching out is not possible

Posted Feb 10, 2020

Random Acts of Kindness Day is an awareness day on February 17th that encourages individuals, families, friend groups, and organizations nationwide to support acts of kindness. These simple acts of kindness can brighten someone’s day and save a life.

In the mental health world, we often tell individuals to reach out for help, call a suicide hotline, talk to a friend, or set an appointment with a therapist when in reality, many individuals who are hurting are unable to reach out. These individuals could be in denial or, maybe, are too scared to reach out. They could be frozen by stigma, assuming they will be harshly judged for their feelings. They may fear they will be placed on “suicide watch” in a mandated treatment facility, or they may not know where to start. Calling a suicide hotline is not always easy, and finding sound mental health treatment in specific communities may be nearly impossible. Individuals who are actively suicidal want to end their suffering; they are not necessarily looking up suicide hotline numbers or searching social media for posts to help them cope with their thoughts and feelings. 

As a result, we should be "reaching in" to help those in need. Simple acts of kindness are one way to reach in. Whether it is buying someone lunch, hugging a neighbor, asking a stranger if they are okay, writing a letter to a friend, or complimenting someone, you never truly know how a simple gesture can save a life. 

How caring letters help in suicide prevention

I spent a large portion of my childhood handwriting letters to my grandparents, my teachers, U.S. troops who were deployed overseas, older men and women in nursing homes, and children in foster care. My school always had some campaign to help those in need, which consisted of construction paper, glue, words from a 5th grader, and sloppy handwriting. I was doing what I was told, while simultaneously having fun with glitter and magic markers. My childhood self was not aware of the positive emotional impact I was making. Fast forward over two decades later, and I am now well aware of how handwritten notes and cards have become a dying art, a dying art that can touch the soul of a stranger and save a life. 

"All I wanted was for one person to see my pain and say something kind”, states Kevin Hines, a suicide survivor who is now a mental health advocate. 

It is uncommon for individuals who are deep in depression, overcome with anxiety, or on the brink of suicide to reach out to others, but others can reach out to them. A simple “hello” as an acknowledgment or random act of kindness may be enough to cut through the darkest areas of a suicidal mind. These individuals are experiencing an immense amount of internal pain, are lonely, and are desperate for connection and kindness. To them, suicide is the only way to end this pain. 

As humans, regardless if we identify as “loners” or “introverts," we thrive on human companionship. Chronic loneliness can rip one in pieces from the inside out. Add grief, alcohol, depression, financial hardships, and extraordinary stress, and this may leave many individuals reeling and desperate for others to “reach in”. 

The impact of “reaching in”

Dr. Jerry Motto, a UC San Francisco trained psychiatrist and a veteran of World War II, theorized that sending “care letters” to individuals discharged from psychiatric hospitals would decrease suicide rates in this population. Individuals who receive treatment for a mental health or substance use disorder are most at risk of relapse or suicide days after they are released from their treatment program.

This high-risk period occurs because these individuals must learn to re-adapt to the real world and must face triggers, deal with broken relationships, and grabble with their emotions on their own. Dr. Motto devised a follow-up psychiatric care kindness approach, where he would consistently write letters to a group of patients after discharge, and the control group of patients did not receive these letters. This research over the first two years revealed a dramatic drop in suicide rates among those individuals who received the letters compared to the control group. 

Today’s suicide rates are the highest they have ever been since World War II, despite the millions of dollars we are spending on research and treatment. We are more engaged with our electronic devices rather than with each other. As a result, we are more out of touch with humanity. Whether it is a handwritten care letter, kind text messages, a cup of coffee, a home-cooked meal, a flower bouquet, or quality time with each other, our community needs to work together to practice kindness and to “reach in.” Even the simplest acts of kindness may save a life.