A really important and practical article has been circulating the internet for a little over a year now called Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning. For whatever reason, when I clicked the article, I thought for sure it was talking about mental health and possibly suicide prevention. Even into the first paragraph, it didn’t hit me right away that the author was writing literally about water drowning. Still, with interest, I continued reading and found the parallels to the mental health world remarkable. In the article, there are certain warning signs that can directly link to what we see in our personal and social lives when some people might be so overwhelmed, depressed or anxious that it doesn’t look like it—they are drowning right in front of us and we may have not a clue in the world, before it’s too late.
Drowning is different from aquatic distress. People in aquatic (or life) distress can still wave and thrash about and do things to assist in their own rescue. Drowning people can not. Some of the signals we see from people truly in danger, include items similar to the instinctive drowning response, and they apply to literal drowning and metaphorical drowning.
–Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are physiologically unable to call out for help. Common sense would suggest that when people need help, they would ask for it. And that when they need a LOT of help, they would ask more quickly and with more intensity. But sometimes the opposite can be true. Some people can be so defeated by the weight of their stress that the very act of reaching out to others feels overwhelming in itself. This may be due to a lack of time, social support and/or humility but it’s there.
– Throughout the Instinctive Drowning Response, drowning people cannot voluntarily control their arm movements. This immediately calls to mind behaviors that are not normally seen in your friends or families who are experiencing toxic stress. Different coping mechanisms are used by different people and personality types, but be on the lookout for things that seem extreme: excessive, outrageous spending, binge-eating, risky sexual habits, extreme exercising, chain-smoking, an uptick in drinking, etc. Also look for an absence of typical behaviors like a withdrawal from normal social activities or people. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that these behaviors are completely involuntary, but the brain can easily suppress the rational, clear-thinking side of a person when it is overloaded and drowning in trauma, depression or anxiety.
–From beginning to end of the Instinctive Drowning Response, people’s bodies remain upright in the water, with no evidence of a supporting kick. And here is the hardest thing of all: things may look pretty normal to someone drowning. A person treading water can look exactly the same as a person drowning… maybe you even spot what looks like a smile on his/her face. If you look closer though, the smile may be a grimace of terror. Or it may be part of the social mask put on because no one wants to admit that they feel like they are dying.
I’d like to conclude in the same way the original drowning article did, only I want you to think of how this applies on dry ground to people around you who may truly be in need of a caring person, brave enough to go in and meet them where they are in order to help. After all, small gestures that simply notice and reach out are in itself an act of suicide prevention:
So, If a crew-member falls overboard and everything looks okay, don’t be too sure. Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look as if they’re drowning. They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck. One way to be sure? Ask them, “Are you alright?” If they can answer at all, they probably are. If they return a blank stare, you may have less than 30 seconds to get to them. And parents — children playing in the water make noise. When they get quiet, you need to get to them and find out why.
Written by: Elizabeth Peck, a Clinical Mental Health Counseling Candidate at the University of the Cumberlands and a support assistant to Pax Family Counseling.