This post may be triggering for some individuals. Please do not read if this may be distressing for you. If you are in crisis, you can find your local suicide hotlines here: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html. Your life matters.
Whenever a high-profile death by suicide rocks the social media news cycle, I am both deeply saddened by it and apprehensive of the comments that I know will come along with it. Comments like, “how could he do that to his kids” or “but she had a husband, didn’t she think of him at all?” or “what a selfish thing to do”. I’ve had enough of it this week, I have to say something. Repeat after me: suicide is not selfish.
Listen, I can understand how suicide can seem selfish to people who have never been suicidal. I know that the concern we all feel for the loved ones left behind by suicide can morph into anger at the person who died by suicide. If you have never been suicidal, you just can’t understand. Too often it is assumed that those who contemplate, attempt or die by suicide are not thinking of the effect their death will have on those around them. Please hear me, that is so far from the truth.
Drawing from my own experience, my suicidal ideation is usually accompanied by the feeling that I am holding my loved ones back from true happiness. In my darkest moments I cannot register how important I am to the people who love me, even if they are right in front of me telling me just how much I matter to them. In my darkest moments all I can see is how much my mental illness impacts those around me, how hard those I love struggle to take care of me, how much I am burdening them, how much better their lives would be without me.
When I am suicidal I am thinking about others almost constantly. Wouldn’t my friends be happier if they didn’t have to worry about me all the time? Wouldn’t my husband’s life be improved if I was out of the picture and he could find someone less broken to love? Wouldn’t my mom be relieved if she didn’t have to drive me to appointments anymore? Eventually the doubt is erased and the “wouldn’t they” changes to “they would”. These are highly distorted thoughts, they completely shut out that my loved ones want me to live. They are unbalanced, irrational and drastic. But these are the kinds of thoughts that claw away at me when I am suicidal. I am usually able to understand how much suicide hurts the survivors, but not when I am most suicidal. When I am most suicidal I believe that my death would be a relief and bring joy to those around me. My mental illness distorts my reality. “Yes, they would grieve”, I think to myself, “but after they got over it their lives would be better”.
One person’s experience alone can not explain suicide. It is important to note that suicidal thinking does not look the same for everyone. I provide myself as an example, but my experience does not speak for everyone. I am fortunate to have learned this through meeting tens of individuals who have been suicidal. Having listened to their stories I have gained an understanding of just how diverse the causes of suicide are and just how different each person’s thinking around suicide can be. However, one theme that is almost universal amongst the people I know who have been suicidal is concern for their families and friends.
Let’s consider for a second that someone’s suicidal thinking is not as preoccupied with others as mine tends to be. I believe that most people who die by suicide feel desperate, exhausted, at the end of their rope and that there is no hope for recovery. That still does not make suicide selfish. No one should be judged as selfish for fighting hard against a serious and sometimes fatal illness and then losing the fight. Yes, suicide is preventable. Yes, there are treatments available that work for some people. But at its core suicide as a result of mental illness is no different from any other illness that can result in death. This can be hard to grasp if your thoughts and emotions have never been overtaken by mental illness. For too long phrases like “committed suicide” or “took their own life” have programmed our collective thinking and made us believe that the person who suffered and died from suicide is somehow to blame for their death. This is why it matters that we reframe the way we talk about death by suicide. We need to use our words to convey that suicide should not be about the act itself but about the underlying distress or illness. People with mental illness do not take their own lives, suicide takes their lives from them. Suicide is more disease than act.
Saying that suicide is selfish completely ignores the experience of suicidal people. It contorts suicide into something that it is not and further confuses public understanding about suicide. I believe that the misconception that suicide is selfish stems from a real lack of understanding of what causes suicide. If you are someone who struggles to understand suicide, now is the time to do some research. You owe it to yourself and others to educate yourself about why suicide occurs. If you think suicide is selfish, you don’t understand it.
If you are in distress please reach out for help. If you don’t know where to turn for help, please consider contacting a distress line near you. http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html