Trigger warning for obvious reasons. The rest of this is behind the cut. Please read with care.
Much like my SIB post (and others), I have some opinions regarding how we approach the topic of suicide. The sayings that I hear the most often strike me as deeply problematic. At best, I find them simply unhelpful; at worst, they actively make the problem worse. I am going to try to address a few of them.
“Suicide is selfish.”
I’ve heard this one for a very long time. I can remember sometime either in my early or pre teens, hearing this while attending a youth function at my church. There was a guy standing in front who I guess decided to talk about suicide, and was loudly proclaiming about how suicide was selfish, and condemning anyone who attempted suicide for that selfishness. As someone who struggled badly with depression and suicidal ideations, this did not actually help me at all. Instead, it took my already ridiculously low self-image, my self-hatred and disgust, and added yet another thing on top of it. Now I was selfish as well.
Happily, I’ve been noticing that more and more people are rejecting this particular saying, but there are still a lot of people who stand by it. Who say it as though they actually think it will convince a suicidal person to stay living. Here’s another problem with it – very often (I know it’s been true for me), someone contemplating suicide honestly believes they are nothing but a burden to their loved ones. That by dying they would be relieving their loved ones from a problem. An accusation of selfishness is not going to have much of an impact on that, though it might become yet another item on the list of “ways I am a burden to those I love.” Quite the backfire, there.
I’m also going to throw in a bit from an exellent blog post by Miriam M on open salon:
…conceptualizing suicide as a “selfish act” sends the message that people somehow “owe it” to their loved ones to stay alive despite immense emotional pain. When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.
So basically, it’s privileging your feelings of sadness over their feelings of depression, hopelessness, etc. While your feelings are valid, claiming that they are more important than the person’s depression and such is awfully belittling.
“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
This one is slightly better. There are certainly plenty of cases where it’s true. I’ve known people who had never had any instance of mental illness in their entire lives suddenly find themselves clinically depressed and in dire need of help. And yes, that’s terrible. I know how hard it is to get help when you feel like that, and how hard it can be to see any light at the end of the tunnel. In which case, it might be helpful to point out the permanency of suicide, and the fact that depression can be treated.
Here’s the thing, though. Not all problems are temporary.
My being on the autism spectrum is not temporary. For altogether too many people, their depression is not temporary (see chronic depression, depressive personality disorder). Bipolar disorder is not temporary. The list goes on. While these things can be treated, managed, and mitigated, they never go away. They never stop having an impact on us. Telling the person who’s been depressed for 30 years that their problem is temporary is dismissive and belittling. It does nothing more than ignore their reality, and try to foist an argument onto them that simply does not apply.
For me, as I mentioned, the autism spectrum is not a temporary problem. I have struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember – they are not temporary problems either. Sometimes I get frustrated at the permanence of my problems, and that all solutions seem to only be temporary or imperfect. When I’m feeling particularly low, a solution that promises to be permanent, however drastic, can look very appealing. The very last thing I need is for someone to tell me that my problems are temporary, because I just wind up thinking that they must not care at all to be so badly misinformed.
“Suicide is weak”
Ok, this one is just horrible with no redeeming value whatsoever. I mean, at least the “suicide is selfish” thing is trying to draw on the imagery of the fact that people will be sad if you die, even if it is doing so in a deeply flawed way. But suicide is weak? Wow. That’s just a straight-up insult to anyone who is considering suicide, and I honestly cannot figure out how insults are supposed to help a person. If a person is really in a bad place, it’s yet another line that can easily be used to further justify suicide, which is not a good thing at all.
Beyond that, it’s simply wrong. The human instinct for self-preservation is incredibly strong.
I used to go indoor rock climbing. Know what frequently happens when a newbie climber makes it to the top of a climb and makes the mistake of looking down? They tend to freeze up and cling to the wall. When that happens, your logic brain is not in control. Instead, some lizard (or something) brain is screaming “DANGER DANGER DANGER” and forcing your hands to hang on. It can even happen to experienced climbers who are trying to do an awkward move or balancing in a position you’d never be in on the ground. Even with safety gear and the knowledge that you will be ok, that self-preservation instinct makes it incredibly difficult to let go.
So imagine dangling over a precipice with no safety equipment and the knowledge that if you let go you’ll die, and then choosing to let go. Beyond the difficulty of making that choice, you have to get past that instinct that keeps you hanging on.
And suicide isn’t like just letting go. It takes deliberate action. It takes WORKING to go past that self-preservation instinct. In a very real way, that takes strength.
So maybe instead of throwing around accusations of weakness, we could recognize the strength in that choice. And then add that if you’re strong enough to do that, you’re strong enough to try getting help first. Because it’s ok to need help and it’s ok to ask for help and it’s ok that it’s incredibly hard to do that.
Instead of accusing a person of being selfish because they are considering suicide, recognize just how much pain they have to be in to be seriously looking at that option. (hint: it’s a lot) Remind them that you care, and that you love them, and that you’ll miss them.
If someone’s problem really is temporary, then go ahead and (gently) remind them of this fact, and that there are other ways to deal with it. However, recognize that sometimes those problems aren’t temporary. Recognize the reality of that. There is no simple soundbite for that type of situation, but even with long term problems, the feelings of needing life to end as the only viable solution are still usually temporary.
And actually, I don’t think suicide is best dealt with via simple little soundbites anyway. It’s a large and complex problem, and trying to force it to be simple just is not a good way to go about things. Because aren’t really dealing with an idea here, we’re dealing with people. Real, living, breathing, feeling people who are in a whole lot of pain.