Why we need to stop calling suicide selfish

Whether you agree with it or not, the concept that ‘suicide is selfish’ is most likely one you are aware of. It has always struck me as an oversimplifying phrase for a complex issue, yet its prevalence reveals a lot about enduring beliefs and, at times, misconceptions about mental illness. Reassuring, convenient, and meaningless, much like ‘bullies are cowards’ (another phrase I’ve never really understood) it allows the hurt, anger, and confusion of those who lose a loved one to project their frustration onto the action. Yet anger and reproach should not be the dominant force within mental illness and suicide awareness discourse. We need to recognise how such terminology can create a damaging rhetoric that ostracises and dismiss rather than opens pathways of understanding and acceptance. Calling suicide ‘selfish’ does nothing but harm.

The phrase itself appears to rest on a fundamental fallacy that assumes that such an action is a choice: taking one’s own life is selfish as there are so many alternative options that have simply been declined. In many respects I can completely understand how this principle can go unquestioned, with all actions apparently stemming from and a product of an individual, but that makes it no less erroneous. In the recent Channel 4 documentary The Stranger on the Bridge it was striking how often Jonny referred to his state of mind as he resolved to take his own life as ‘not thinking’, ‘not logical’, ‘not myself’. Depression and suicidal tendencies are an illness, one with every capability of ending fatally, and death by one’s own hand and death by other terminal illnesses are not so far apart as they would appear. Both are the losing of a battle with a disease, though the latter would certainly never be labelled as ‘selfish’. Maybe you disagree with such a suggestion, yet it is sadly far from unheard of for those battling with depression to know they need help, be successfully diagnosed, and receive treatment, and yet they might succumb to their illness all the same

A lot of what feeds this apparent disparity is how ambiguous both the causes and manifestations of severe depression can be. Suicide can be the culmination of many different things, not just an inherent characteristic, and it is these variations that can seemingly undermine the credence of ideas surrounding deep-seated mental illness. For instance, suicide as a response to extreme circumstances (from attempts following stock market fluctuations to the growing phenomenon of intimate videos being leaked online), a sense of stagnation within one’s daily life, or being impacted by a tragic event are all valid influences that can affect an individual’s mental health. Their predominantly circumstantial nature receives a lot of focus in many discussions found online (although this is admittedly coming from well-meaning amateurs of the internet) with ideas of ‘don’t let a bad upbringing define you’, if you’re not happy then move, change’, ‘Things will get better’. These are all positive attempts to try and give individuals back a sense of autonomy and empowerment yet they only reach out to the rational, motivated aspect of an individual and as a result do not touch on or even acknowledge the possibility of anything more deeply rooted or beyond autonomous choice.

The word ‘selfish’ is inherently bound up with notions of disapproval, and thereby arguably helps to reaffirm notions that this is not acceptable and must be discouraged. It emphatically declares ‘I don’t think you should do that’, when no one thinks they should do that. By applying such a quality to the actions of those who do seek to take their own life – ‘successful’ (another example of discourse that needs to be changed) or otherwise – does nothing to reach those who are gone and only serves to admonish someone for how they feel when they have no control over that feeling. It achieves nothing except perhaps that sense of duty done for having told off and no doubt cured all those naughty depressed people. Of course you can take ‘selfish’ in far less loaded terms, simply as an act that is driven by concern for one’s own state and wellbeing. Certainly this can be a more neutral understanding, but one could take this and apply it to virtually every element of the day. Eating because you’re hungry, performing a job to earn a pay check, making a cup of tea, wearing warm clothes, well that’s just all about you. To this extent, such an interpretation is largely tautologous to the point of meaning nothing; indeed, such a definition for selfish isn’t even in the OED.

Of course there is no denying the impact such an action can have on those left behind. Its absoluteness makes any closure or resolution impossible, letting questions stand forever unanswered. There is always an element of this whenever we lose someone we love, and is an inherent aspect of unpredictable deaths. It is the tantalising chance this would not have happened, that maybe things could have been different, which makes it so exceptionally hard to accept. The anger and frustration many people naturally feel in this situation can be seen channelled in the idea of suicide as profoundly selfish, yet there is also an element of guilt. Suicide can look like a reproach, where people feel they should have seen the signs or that they didn’t do enough, if they’d only done this or that differently this would never have happened. In this respect such ideas can be an outlet for guilt, a guilt as understandable as it is misplaced. Indeed, the idea that suicide is selfish if it leaves dependents behind is a distinction that kept emerging during research, yet looking at the other side (resources are listed below) children are often the only reason people give for holding off of attempting their own life. Instead of assuming they are thinking only of themselves and do not care for those close to them, looking at their ideas of unworthiness and an illogical need to efface the self as a statement of how profound their feelings of despair when even with love and support someone still feels that suicide is the best thing that they can do. Depression is an illness that can actually stop those who labour under it from reaching for the cure, where many sufferers actively strive to keep the extent of their struggles from their loved ones for fear of hurting them, and the shame and embarrassment imagined by those who are victims of financial or social ruin makes them feel that this is their only option. As understandable a statement of anger as it is, perpetuating an idea of selfishness will not undo what has been done, and can only serve to reinforce feelings of shame and isolation where there should be understanding and hope.

There is, however, an enduring school of thought that believes suicide is a declaration of weakness, a cry for attention that often ends up going too far. I can’t deny that there are people who do attempt to take their own lives with a view to survive and gain attention, but I would never approach a situation with that assumption. There is at least part of this school that stems from people not really understanding or knowing how to respond to individuals who express suicidal feelings. Having not experienced something like depression first hand, it can feel difficult to give real credence to someone telling you they’re unimaginably sad to a degree that you can’t relate to. In The Stranger on the Bridge it was striking to realise how many people must have walked past Jonny on the bridge before someone actually interacted with him, and it is this inability or reluctance to approach something clearly so delicate and complex that can be seen to say a lot about how we approach suicide as a society. I do not wish to suggest that people who walked past were bad or wrong, it’s a very difficult scenario to walk into or know what to do in. I just hope it can be a benchmark from which we can move upwards. Considering how unreliable many suicide methods can be – the most popular method by far is drug overdose yet this is also the least effective – it seems strange that survivors can be dismissed as melodramatic when, had they succeeded, there would be a very different dialogue surrounding their actions. Why are we stigmatising those who do not succeed?

Suicide is not a choice. It is the culmination of a disease and we should recognise it as such. Even in the case of the recent Germanwings disaster – where if ever there was such a thing as a selfish suicide this would truly have to be it – as monstrous as the actions of the co-pilot undeniably were, I do not for one moment doubt that they were the actions of someone who was deeply unwell. It is inexcusable, but in it we can still see evidence of a man losing the fight with his demons. Seeing this, a truly selfish suicide, other attempts can be brought into relief and show that ‘selfish’ is not the right word to cover all. What makes suicide more devastating than the profound travesty of any premature deaths is that in many cases they could be prevented. There is a cure, there is an answer, it is possible that with the right help individuals can be pulled out of profound, grinding misery and defeat their demons – but this takes acceptance and dialogue. Stigmatising their darkest hour will do nothing towards achieving this. So whatever you do or don’t believe about suicide we owe it to every mourner, every fighter, every loss and every survivor to remove selfish from the rhetoric.

In researching this post it took me to some of the darker and sadder corners of the internet, and there are no doubt some rather unregulated and dangerous communities that exist founded on ‘support’ for those who hope to take their own life. Fortunately, there are also some excellent resources that seek to provide help, anonymity, and a safe space for those who want and need to reach out and communicate with someone. If you’re worried about someone but don’t know where to start, or are worried about yourself, Reddit provides excellent resources and a well regulated forum that can provide means to a positive community. Anonymous, save for a user name, there is acceptance and no obligation.

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