Among the flood of commentary surrounding highly-publicized suicides, I always grimace at the naïve and ignorant statements made by those who haven’t been touched by mental illness or a loss of this nature. Reading or hearing things like, “what a selfish act,” are extremely hurtful and perpetuate the unfortunate stigma facing survivors. It also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the impact of mental illness on those who are struggling. It’s so easy for people to make snap judgments or statements and continue to move on in their day without realizing how wrong they are. I am certainly not a researched expert on the topic, but I can speak emotionally as a survivor on 5 myths about suicide I’ve observed since losing my dad.
Myth #1 – People who complete suicide acted “cowardly.”
Elizabeth Hawksworth summarized it best in her blog post, “The Death of Robin Williams, and What Suicide Isn’t.” “Suicide is not a weak decision. It is a decision that takes an incredible amount of strength to make, actually. Someone isn’t weak if they end their life. They are desperate. There is a difference. It’s okay to feel angry at the person for dying. It’s okay to question, to rail against the forces that caused this. But it isn’t weakness. Mental illness isn’t weakness. It’s a disease, a pervasive, sometimes awful disease. The person doesn’t deserve anger and skepticism forever. They deserve compassion. Their family deserves compassion.”
These individuals thought that dying and their horrific method of death was actually a lesser evil and less painless than living through their depression, anxiety, etc. I have heard many survivors share that their loved ones left notes trying to convey this message. Their subsequent actions appeared to be perfectly rational to them, even if we can’t possibly begin to comprehend it. We also have to remember that a major contributor to this is the fact that many people who commit suicide are experiencing mental illness and therefore, may not be thinking in a completely rational manner. It’s unfair to label someone a “coward.” Would we use such harsh language towards people who are experiencing other disorders or illnesses? No.
Myth #2 – People who complete suicide are selfish.
Similar to above, this is one of the most common statements I hear in the aftermath of a suicide. Unsuspecting people think that someone was only thinking of themselves and their desire to end their problems and not about the impact their departure would have on their families. This is also untrue. Digging deeper, you will hear just as many survivors share about how their loved ones (unsettlingly) did everything they could to ensure their families and friends would be supported after their death. From opening financial accounts to getting their affairs in order to leaving notes explaining the reasons behind their decision, they took the time in the darkest hours of their lives to give this last bit of themselves to their families. In my case, as well as in others’ the victim went out of their way to let people know how much they loved their family and friends and actually thought they were acting selflessly by “removing” the burden of their problems from their families’ lives. Again, an explanation they thought was perfectly rational at the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if the families they were leaving behind were actually the last thought that crossed their minds.
Not everyone who completes suicide takes these measures, of course. But, regardless, I think most survivors will agree that “selfish” is not a term that crossed their minds following the loss.
Myth #3 – Suicide doesn’t or would never happen in a family like mine.
I can’t think of any survivors I’ve met who THOUGHT suicide was something they’d ever experience in their lives. As one of those previously ignorant people in society, I heard the word suicide and immediately thought “crazy person,” or like I had some kind of idea of the types of homes in which this would happen. Suicide doesn’t bypass any race, gender, age, economic status or geographic location. Doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, police officers, military personnel, teachers, school-aged kids and housewives complete suicide. It happens in the house next door and has likely touched someone in your workplace.
It can even happen to people who say they would never do it. I thought I was exempt. I remember being in elementary or middle school and being sat down at our kitchen table – by my DAD – for a talk about suicide. Prompted by an article about a child who killed himself in our town, he reminded us that “there’s nothing so wrong in life that you can’t come to your mother or me for help. Suicide is not the way out.” Twenty or so years later, it happened. Through counseling, I have learned that this might have been a lot easier for my dad to say back then, before the grips of depression consumed him and the thought of living became so painful. Like me, he was also probably on the previously naiïve side of the fence.
Myth #4 – I would know if my loved one was considering suicide; they’d tell me.
See #3, this is not necessarily the case. True, some individuals let their families know they are having suicidal thoughts or have made attempts in the past. However, I have heard just as many people say that after getting help and observing their loved one turn a positive corner that they were shocked to become a survivor shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, it is commonly the case that once someone has come to the decision that suicide is an option they a) become almost euphorically happy and appear to be at-ease (because they finally have a solution), which can throw family members off or b) they go out of their way to prevent anyone from discovering their plans so that they cannot be stopped.
I still feel confident in saying that our family had no obvious warning signs that would have led me to believe this was an option my dad was considering, especially since he told us we shouldn’t take this route. He appeared to be a little preoccupied and bummed out and we tried to prod him to talk about it or even get help. He brushed us off and thanked us for the suggestions. I thought that was doing enough. It wasn’t. We were absolutely blindsided. He got up that day, went about his usual routine and didn’t come home – as do many people. Survivors are shocked at the normalcy of a loved one going off to have a last meal or run a typical errand just before taking their lives. Family members and friends should be much more hyper-vigilant about checking in on loved ones and seeing through the support and professional care that is needed. I am still filled with woulda, shoulda, coulda’s.
Myth #5 – I “checked in” and so-and-so seems perfectly happy based on what they’re sharing on Facebook.
Wrong. Today’s social media-obsessed culture makes it all too easy for people to self-censor their lives. We post happy vacation photos, share about the births of our children and note various job and weight-loss accomplishments. What people are not sharing about are the battles with job-induced anxiety, the post-partum depression following that birth, the lack of real connection they feel to other human beings, the inability to kick an addiction for good or the defeat they feel when they can’t keep up with the posts of their social media “Jones.’”
I’m always a little disheartened when I get together with a friend or colleague and learn after some questioning that life for them isn’t truly as great as it appears online. I’m guilty of this myself. Why would I want to put out there anything negative? No one wants to hear that.
We must get over this. Your families and friends DO want and need to hear this. No, not via a public status update, but through a phone call, an email or an in-person conversation. We owe it to ourselves and those we care about to do more thorough and genuine checking in – and also to turn to others for help instead of hiding behind social profiles.
So, What Can I Do?
For those who have not been touched by suicide – and even for those who have – I encourage you to take time to read some tremendously informative and helpful information provided by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
- Myth vs. Fact about Suicide
- Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs
- Frequently Asked Questions about Suicide (with Facts)
- Facts and Figures about Suicide
- Where you or a loved one can turn for help
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