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'Bachelorette' contestant opens up about past suicide attempts

Ben Smith admitted that being "intentional and aggressive" with therapy has helped him recover after his attempts in 2018 and 2019.
/ Source: TODAY

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

When Ben Smith went on his first one-on-one date with "Bachelorette" Tayshia Adams, he revealed that he attempted suicide. While he admitted he shared a lot on the date, mental health experts applaud his willingness to talk about his experience with suicide.

“I had two … suicide attempts in 2018 and 2019,” the 30-year-old fan favorite said on the show. “I don’t mean to like throw that on you. It’s a weird thing to do here.”

Ben Smith has been open about his personal struggles throughout this season of "The Bachelorette."Craig Sjodin / ABC

After breaking his back, leaving the Army, being cash strapped and spending years grappling with an eating disorder, Smith felt overwhelmed.

“I was completely lost,” he said. “My life was very dark and I didn’t know how to say that I needed things.”

Smith’s story highlights the realities that many people who experience suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide face: It’s not just one thing that contributes to it, said Kelly Green, a senior research investigator and psychologist with the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine’s Center for the Prevention of Suicide.

“Suicide is always complex and it's never the result of just one factor. It's complex across the range of individuals,” she told TODAY. “For any one individual, there could be very separate and different causes within their own life that led to them thinking about suicide.”

While many people associate mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, with suicide attempts or death by suicide, that’s not always the case.

“Suicide is kind of divorced from mental illness. So, certainly mental illness can go along with suicide. And a lot of people that have suicidal thoughts have mental illness,” she said. “But up to 60% of people who die by suicide had no known mental illness at the time of their death.”

That’s why talking about suicidal thoughts and normalizing them can be so powerful. Dr. Ken Duckworth, the medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), believes “sunshine is the best disinfectant” and that Smith’s candor will empower many viewers who have had suicidal thoughts or made attempts, have eating disorders or feel overwhelmed.

“The more you can normalize these common human problems, the better it is for people to feel less ashamed and more likely to reach out, to get help, to get connected and participate in a coping program to deal with this as opposed to hiding and silence and shame,” he told TODAY. “Many of the viewers watching will identify.”

In 2019, 12 million people experienced suicidal thoughts, according to a survey by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Green said. Suicidal thoughts are more common than people realize because often people feel wary about discussing them. Smith admitted that his past reluctance to talk probably harmed him.

“I didn’t want to be here anymore, and for the same reason I don’t like to share, it’s because I didn’t want to burden anybody with my problems,” he said. “And I thought that was the easiest way to just not be around. Luckily, it didn’t work.”

Green said this is all too common.

“People feel similar to how he felt in this sense, like I can't tell people because I'm going to burden them,” she said. “The more we talk about it, the more we can hopefully empower and help people feel comfortable reaching out and talking about it."

Talking about suicide with a loved one does not increase their likelihood of attempting suicide, the experts stress.

“Ask very matter of factly: Something like, ‘You know, I've noticed that maybe it seems like you've been feeling a little bit down’, or ‘I've noticed that you're really struggling right now. Have you been thinking of suicide?’” Green said. “Really listen rather than trying to kind of force things on the person. It's really important to ask what the person needs and just be a really good listener.”

Hearing about people who survive suicide also remains important. Smith’s experience shows how important having a loved one's support can be for those thinking about suicide or who have attempted it.

“We can't underscore the value of connectedness. He said even though his sister didn't know what was going on in his life, he credits her with really saving his life because she was there for him,” Green said.

Smith also admitted that treatment helped.

“Through being very intentional and aggressive with my therapy, the person that you see before you today, isn’t that person,” he said.

Duckworth said Smith sets a powerful example for others.

“It’s inspiring for people to see someone actively owning their vulnerability and working to improve their coping,” he said.

And, Smith’s experience shows people who attempted suicide recover and live full, happy lives.

“The course can look different for different people,” Green said. “The commonality is helping people to develop lives that they feel are worth living, reducing emotional pain and increasing connectedness.”

Duckworth agrees.

“Mental health treatment is often effective,” he said. “It's important to recognize that this is a moment of tremendous pain when people make this decision and this does not have to be the entire future of your life. This is a good example of that. So, this is a person who is on national TV, enjoying his dating life, owning his vulnerability.”