I have been reading a very interesting book called Time Warped: Unlocking the Secrets of Time Perception by Claudia Hammond. This is a great book for anyone curious about the many mysteries of how we interpret and view time, and how our perception of time can change as we age and even from one moment to the next. While a lot of the book has fascinating facts that are not exactly useful as far as effecting everyday life, there are a few things that I think have immense potential for practical implications.
One of the most important things this book mentions is the way mental illness, namely depression, effects time perception. While I mainly suffer from anxiety, I have had periods of severe depression in my life. And even though I’ve had suicidal ideations in my teen years, I still never fully understood how anyone could go through with ending their own life. I think understanding how depression can warp our idea of time plays a key role in suicidal behavior.
It has been shown that people with depression over-estimate the amount of time that has passed in a given interval. Basically time slows down when you have depression. Each moment begins to feel like an eternity. Every day is simply too much to bear. Life seems to drag on and on. Knowing that depression can make you perceive time in this way really makes it more understandable why someone might feel like they just can’t take it anymore.
In addition to that, Hammond points out in this book that depression also effects one’s ability to imagine the future. So not only do they feel like every moment is taking longer than it objectively is, they also cannot visualize a future for themselves. Granted, being depressed, they may only imagine an awful, bleak future if they can imagine one, but they are incapable of imagining things getting better. They can’t imagine things ever changing in general. Even on my darkest days, part of me finds a small amount of comfort in the thought that nothing lasts forever, and when you’re already so low, most likely things can only improve from there. But imagining not even having that, to truly believe things will always remain the way they are, that things will remain painful, intolerable, desolate, lonely? Well, it begins to become more clear why suicide seems like a reasonable choice to some people.
Now, I’m not a psychologist, nor do I have any training in counseling people with depression, so perhaps this knowledge is already being implemented. However, I immediately thought of a way this may benefit therapists and perhaps even help save lives. In my experience as a social worker, there are many times when we must assess whether or not a client is at risk of hurting themselves. To do this, we normally ask if they have ever thought about hurting themselves, if they have had those thoughts recently, if they have a plan, etc. There is nothing wrong with these questions and I think they should still be asked. However, there is A LOT of stigma around depression, mental illness, and thoughts of suicide, especially amongst older generations. While we all hope each client will feel comfortable enough to answer questions about suicidal ideation honestly, I’m sure many don’t.
I remember in school reading about all the warning signs to look out for regarding depression and suicide. These are certainly beneficial and take into account that not everyone will verbally express these thoughts and feelings to others. By now, I would assume most people know these are the signs people are looking for and may actively seek to avoid being found out in these ways. I would propose that therapists, social workers, even friends and family members that are concerned about a loved one committing suicide, should begin asking seemingly innocuous questions regarding time perception.
The person’s ability to answer questions about the future would be a dead give away as to whether or not they may be at risk of suicide. You may think, well if they are already trying to hide their true feelings, they would just make something up. But if I understand correctly, they would not do this. Because they would not be able to. It isn’t that they are imagining an awful future full of suffering and would lie to the questioner, offering an imagined pleasant or neutral future. They would be incapable of giving an answer at all apart from “I don’t know.”
Not only would this question be much less direct than asking someone if they had thoughts of suicide, it would also be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to be deceptive with the answer. I believe this would be a great way for people to nonchalantly discover whether or not someone is depressed or potentially suicidal. As I said perhaps this is already being utilized by therapists, but it could also be useful to anyone concerned for a loved one. I am hopeful that this kind of information will become more well-known and perhaps even save lives by allowing people to get the help they need before it’s too late.