Suicide is not a topic that many of us are compelled to talk about with any regularity, but with the recent suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, our attention has suddenly turned. We are asking why someone might take their own life, and we are trying to wrap our heads around how there aren’t other, better options.
This is such a deeply complex topic with many variables from person to person; however, some clear misperceptions that are worth knowing:
1. The myth: “Suicide is selfish.”
In discussion, the word “suicide” often goes hand-in-hand with the another s-word: selfishness. It is a common notion among the non-mentally ill that to take one’s life is to disregard the feelings of everyone who knows and loves them. In reality, someone who is pushed to the point of considering, attempting or actually committing suicide is dealing with feelings of severe hopelessness. It’s a kind of hopelessness that transcends the types of thoughts that might be obvious to me or you. While there may be thoughts such as, “My mom would be so devastated if I killed myself,” the emotional pain associated with simply staying alive supersedes any of these rational thoughts relating to loved ones. Alternately, some individuals who commit suicide may feel that their lives have no value and thus they will not be missed, or that their loved ones’ lives may be better without them.
2. The myth: “People who attempt suicide are just seeking attention from others.”
While there are plenty of behaviors that human beings engage in for the purpose of gaining the attention of others, in most instances, attempting suicide is not one of them. As you might guess, suicide is highly correlated with mental illness. Suicide attempts are often the result of those symptoms becoming so severe that they feel unmanageable. The bottom line is that whatever the reason for attempting suicide, it is deeply invalidating, hurtful and unhelpful to suggest that it is a manipulative behavior designed to achieve a certain outcome.
3. The myth: “If you ask someone if they’re having suicidal thoughts, it will cause them to become suicidal.”
Talking can lead to many positive outcomes — such as increased understanding, improved interpersonal relationships and emotional release. If a situation arises where you find yourself concerned that a loved one may be suicidal, chances are they thought of it before you did, so don’t be afraid to ask. As long as you approach such a serious question with sensitivity and kindness, chances are you are going to be helping, not hurting.
4. The myth: “Suicide happens in a moment of intense emotion and is done impulsively.”
Suicide is the most serious, and certainly the most final, act that a person can commit. Like the majority of important decisions we make throughout a lifetime, much thought and consideration go into a person’s decision to take their own life. The suicide note is just one small piece of evidence that demonstrates premeditation. If you’re listening carefully, an individual contemplating suicide may make subtle allusions in the weeks or months leading up to their decision.
5. The myth: “There’s nothing we can do to prevent suicides.”
There is so much we can do to reduce the occurrence of suicide. First, we need to reduce and eventually eradicate the stigma associated with mental illness. If people are too ashamed to discuss struggles such as depression or anxiety, they are less likely to get the help they need and become more susceptible to attempting or committing suicide. Next, we need more education around suicide from an early age. If adolescents and adults alike are taught to recognize the warning signs of suicide, we could all do our part to save lives. More than half of all suicides in this country are carried out with a firearm — another reason for gun control.
This is in no way a comprehensive commentary on misconceptions of suicide. It is merely some basic guidance on how to better support a loved one who may be struggling and how to avoid accidentally saying something harmful or insensitive.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thinking, help is available starting with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. There is no time like the present to get help or to help someone else. Life is just too precious not to.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist committed to working with LGBT individuals and couples and the owner of Emerge Wellness, an LGBT health and wellness center in Center City (www.emergewellnessphilly.com).