Suicide and the Selfishness Stigma
There is a stigma around suicide that says suicide is selfish. Despite all the conversations everyone has started about mental illness, despite any awareness campaigns and openness from people who have struggled, suicide is still a touchy subject (#SU4MH). It’s avoided and it’s looked down upon. Most commonly, suicide is called selfish. How can someone kill themselves and not think about the people left behind? How can someone only think of their own pain? But the idea that suicide is selfish is a product of stigma.
Suicide Is Not a Selfish Act
Anyone following my posts here on HealthyPlace might have noticed that I don’t like a lot of “meaningful” phrases. I’m sure for some people they’re wonderful, but for me, what I see is a shiny cover to a flawed saying.
Today I’m picking on “suicide doesn’t take away the pain, it gives it to someone else.” The number one reason it bothers me is because it is a guilt trip. The number two reason is because it indicates a lack of understanding of how suicide works.
I was suicidal from my late teens into my early 20s. There were various reasons I didn’t end up taking my life, the final one being that I started to find hope and realized that I didn’t have to live in the whirlwind of my struggles. I began to understand that my mental illnesses were lying to me about how broken I was, and I worked to quiet the voice in my head that constantly drummed out suicide, suicide, suicide, suicide. It went from literally being the only consistent thought in my head, to a whisper, to only an occasional appearance that had no guts to it.
The struggle and complete disorientation we feel with our minds when we’re suicidal is what makes it nearly impossible for it to be a selfish act. Yes, I was thinking about ending my own pain, but I was also thinking about how my death would completely change the lives of the people I loved -- for the better (Going From Suicidal Thoughts To A Suicide Attempt).
A Google search lists the definition of selfishness as, “being concerned, sometimes excessively or exclusively, for oneself or one's own advantage, pleasure, or welfare, regardless of others.”
All of the stories of suicide attempt survivors or from people who have dealt with suicidal ideation, that last part of the definition doesn’t fit. It’s never “regardless of others.”
How Suicidal Thoughts Are Not Selfish and Mess with Your Mind
What people need to realize is that our mental illnesses, including suicidal ideation, have incredibly strong voices within our minds. They are ever-present and when they become all encompassing it is so difficult to see beyond what they’re telling us, even if it logically doesn’t make sense. Suicide tells us everything would be better off without us and that repetition is both damaging and a struggle (Reasons for Suicide: When Your Brain Lies to You).
I can understand why people think suicide is selfish. There is an “all about us” air to it, but selfishness has an implication of choice. Mental illnesses do a very good job of taking choice away from us and most of the time we don’t even realize it. Our brain chemistry literally is out of whack and we don’t think the same way everyone else does, sometimes to the detriment of ourselves.
I also understand that suicide and death hurt a whole lot, but, understand, if you have lost someone to suicide, it is not an affront to you. It isn’t that they didn’t love you or didn’t take you into consideration. Speaking from experience, a lot of thought goes into ending your own life and I thought about the people around me every single day.
We weigh our options. Unfortunately, the scale doesn’t always come back to the side of living.
Barton, L. (2016, April 28). Suicide and the Selfishness Stigma, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, December 2 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2016/04/suicide-and-the-selfishness-stigma
Author: Laura A. Barton
My brother committed suicide 7 weeks ago. His mental illness was bad. He refused to seek help, lashed out in anger when suggested in a loving way. I know he was in pain and he did what he thought was best. I do not have guilt but I do have a enormous amount of sadness. I loved my brother dearly I wish I could have eased his pain God knows I tried. In some wad suicide does give pain to someone else just a different kind of pain depending on the person left to pick up the pieces. I don't think suicide is selfish but I do believe it gives pain for the people who loved the person.
Thanks for your comment and my condolences on the loss of your brother. I'm sorry to hear he wasn't able to get the help he needed. If you're feeling like you need resources, please check out this page: https://www.healthyplace.com/suicide/suicide-family-members-grief-and-loss/
I didn't mean to say that those who have lost someone to suicide don't experience pain. What I'm saying is that telling someone who is suicidal the phrase about not ending pain but transferring it to someone else isn't something I like because I don't find it helpful and I feel like it's guilt-tripping the suicidal person. It's as if people are inadvertently saying, "I get that you're upset and all, but if you kill yourself *I/your loved ones* will be sad." Instead of really acknowledging someone's pain that is leading suicide, it's almost invalidating it by saying, "but what about me/us?!" I don't mean to say that pain is any less, but, again, I don't see it as helpful in that situation of trying to convince someone not to take his or her life.
I hope that clears things up a bit.
l have made 3 suicide attempts in my life. My parents incested me and none of my relatives, police or social workers or custody judge believed me that l was incested me and my child was given custody of my child. She still lives with them. l have no friends or therapists to talk to about the hell that is my life. I went 8 monyhs without a psychiatrist then l got one who just gives meds but refuses to let me talk about my past and won't do therapy. l won't feel guilty if l find it necessary to kill myself one day. I have no one in this world who gets me. l can't keep living in a world where no one cares how much l hurt.
Hello. I'm so sorry that you've had to go through this and just know that even though it's really tough, you can get through this and there is help out there for you. I understand that navigating therapists can be really difficult and depending on your resources you may be limited, but please, if this therapist isn't working for you and giving you what you need, try someone else. I believe you and in you, and there is treatment out there for you. Please take a look at this link and see if there is something that can help you out, then reach out. https://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-refer…
Suicide hotlines, while for help with immediate suicidal ideation, can also help you find the resources you need and get into the treatment you deserve. You can get through this. There is still hope.
Please know someone cares, call or text the hot line. Someone will be there, I, made it through sexual abuse myself and one suicide attempt. I met a wonderful compassionate therapist who I still have 5 years later. Who refuse to give up on me in my darkest days .
When all people's ears fail, God's dont, he will help no matter what...
You tell the child that their Mother was sick and now she is in heaven with no more pain. That's what I would have told the child. Because it's the truth. No lies, no blaming, no guilt trips. Be honest. Integrity is everything!
I have suicidal thoughts almost every minute of every day. I don't think I could ever go through with it because of the pain it would cause my daughter. She lost one of her best friends to suicide in 2013. It is a catch 22. I know I would be better off dead, but that doesn't help my family much. I suffer from PTSD and a brain injury. People don't understand my pain. Everyone thinks they have the answer, "better get back to the doctor", but that's just more pills that don't fill the void. As a matter of fact, if I were going to kill myself it would probably be with pills and alcohol. So the countless pills they prescribe would just help me in going through with it. Therefore, I cope. Will I ever go through with it? Probably not, but then again, tomorrow is another day.
Amen! When I go "over to the darkside" I call it my Visitor, an unseen entity creeps up my spine and overtakes my brain. I'm AM NOT driving my own bus during these times. So, for those who think suicide is a selfish act a few thoughts:
1. We are mentally diseased, no different than being diseased with Cancer, Diabetes, Heart issues, we don't have a choice whether we want to be or not we just are.
2. Do you enjoy seeing human suffering? The starving children of the world? Genecides that go on? Animal abuse?? I know you non-believers must really enjoy seeing animals made to fight, poached, starved am I right?? You put down a beloved pet if it's sick and in misery dont you?? Or do you limp him along in his suffering because YOU don't want him to go? We are in no different type of pain and anguish, and you cannot allow us at least the option of having peace??
3. I find those people who believe suicide is a selfish act, are also the people who COULD NOT take one day, one hour or one minute living in my mind. The mentally ill live with an invisible 100 pound back pack each and every day of our lives, all the while maintaining jobs, homes and families. The non-believers have not even a glimpse into how our brains and minds work. The dark recesses, the thoughts that we dare not utter, even to spouses, family. The infinite darkness, fear, sadness, anger and confusion. If I could, I would be happy to do a Vulcan mind meld with these people, guaranteed you will wish you were dead.
Of course family members of a person that committed suicide will say that it was selfish of the person that killed him/herself to go through wih it . They feel guilty about not having helped and supported the person enough , not made the person feel loved and cared about enough to prevent the suicide . It is their guilt feelings that require the blame to be pointed away from them and back at the suicidal person . They know they could have prevented it with their love and support , and they dont want the guilt . At least that is what my situation is like . Everyone says "get help " ! But do you suppose they will reach out and take the time to be a friend , when that is something that would really help me, since I feel so isolated and lonely ?! They all think its not their job . I actually do want them to be plaqued by guilt if I ever commit suicide .
I've never thought about it from the guilt perspective, but I think maybe you're right about them transferring their guilt onto the suicidal person and turning around to be blaming. I'm also sorry to hear that the people in your life haven't been as supportive as you'd like them to be. Have you voiced to them that you want them to be more supportive? I'd definitely recommend giving that a try because a lot of the time we just can't figure out what someone needs unless they say it. I know it's tough as well to have to deal with that feeling of isolation, but try not to harbour ill will or hate towards the people in your life. Situations like yours and the people you're dealing with often come from a place of ignorance and it's difficult for them to see outside of themselves. Again, try reaching out to them and maybe even give them simple little ways how they can help you out to start.
Also, definitely take a look at some of the resources in this link: http://www.healthyplace.com/other-info/resources/mental-health-hotline-numbers-and-referr… There are hotlines you can call if you need someone to lend an ear and they can probably also help you navigate getting through to the people in your life.
Fred, I'm so sorry and horrified by your story. Thank you for your service. The VA sucks.
Laura, you're right when you say the belief that suicide is selfish stops people from getting help. I also agree with Fred that mental health professionals hear what they want to hear. After years of trying to get help but being too high functioning to warrant it, I've realized this battle is mine alone.
Honestly, though, who cares what people think about you after you're dead? If you're convinced that your life is worthless anyway, what difference does it make if people say you're selfish? How could that be a deterrent when you feel so hopeless already?
Sharing about how suicide isn't a selfish act isn't about creating a deterrent for those facing suicidal ideation, it's about helping people who don't experience suicidal thoughts understand what a person goes through. Many times when people feel suicide is selfish, they are blinded by anger towards the one who is thinking of ending his own life or who did end his own life. When the suicidal person is still alive, that could prevent him from getting the help he needs and deprive him of a support system of loved ones. If the person has died by suicide, the ones left behind, so to speak, can become embittered towards that person. Suddenly happy memories of that person become secondary and they can think about is how awful it was for someone to kill themselves, how it was an attack on them, even.
So it's not so much advice for sufferers this time around as it is advice for our loved ones.
As a survivor of 3 suicide attempts and being misdiagnosed by a mental health care facility for 8 years yes you read that right 8 years of stupidity and because I kept telling them their course of treatment was not working I was labeled a drug seeker they would not listen and when I found out about being labeled a drug seeker and confronted the doctor about it he cancelled my treatment so I made them give me all of my records and found a new doctor who after 30 minutes of talking to myself and my wife while going through my records busted out laughing looked at us and said that they had me completely misdiagnosed as a paranoid skitzo with antisocial personality and antisocial personality disorder. Keep in mind I am a disabled Army Veteran in reality what I suffered from is PTSD! !!!! Mental health workers are lazy and only hear what they want and because of this I can't get my ssdi. So I know all about suicide
I'm sorry to hear about your struggles with the mental health system as well as your mental illness. I hope that you are able to find some way around all that, but I know that the system is pretty broken so that's difficult to do. It sounds like your wife is pretty supportive though since she's going to your appointments with you.
I think you're right to some degree about mental health workers only hearing what they want, but it could also be a case of having too many patients and not enough training - or no updated training. It's a really unfortunate situation that the state of the mental health system in North America is in. While it's easy to blame the doctors, and while I'm sure there are bad apples out there, we also need to consider the framework within which they have to work. All we can do for now is hope for some improvement.
Thank you for your service in the army and all the best to you, sir.
I have 2 daughters that have tried it twice. My oldest I watch everyday because her depression is so up and down. The last time a year ago she over dosed they had to put her in a induced coma. That was the hardest thing ive ever gone through. No meds. have ever worked for her and lost hope with any therapy. Prayers are what get us by.
I had a family member attempt to diagnose me as having borderline personality disorder after I attempted suicide. The bit that she showed me, a list of symptoms, started out "characterized by a complete lack of empathy". I'm still trying to work out getting over this in therapy. Not only is it untrue for people with BPD, I feel like she thought it fit me because of the 'suicide is selfish' stigma.
I'm sorry to hear that you had to go through that. I appreciate you sharing it, too, because I don't think I've ever heard that perspective of it before.
I am a recent suicide survivor. I never thought of my action as selfish. My pain and struggles were beyond my control. I have been in therapy for a good part of my life. It takes a lot of hard work to look at one's life and it's often despairing. There is no quick fix and many times it gets old dealing with this "stuff". I wanted out of the "pain" I could no longer deal with. I verbally expressed I was heading for a "breakdown". It fell on "deaf" ears. At that moment I knew this was the right decision for me. I just wanted the "pain" to go away~~please stop these reoccurring voices in my head telling me what a "horrible person I am. Yes, it would have been a permanent solution to a "temporary" problem. But it took this act to bring to my feet. Sometimes you are in such despair there is no other way in a delusional
I could not agree with your post more than I already do. During 2009, I had three suicide attempts l. And every time I did it, I was thinking how much better everyone around me would be. I remember thinking I was a waste of resources, money, time, and energy. That I was not worth the air I was breathing. I also remember thinking about the pain I would be putting my family theough, but that the pain of losing me would be less than the pain I was putting them through just by being alive. It felt like being trapped between two bad options: stay alive and cause everyone I knew pain or take my life and hope to eventually alleviate it. In my mind, the pain of my death would have been temporary. Everyone I knew would be better off in a few weeks or months, instead of living with constant pain because of me.
So, yes, suicide is not selfish. There's a lot of thought about how much better everything is going to look for those you love after you are gone. And because of that, we need to stop saying suicide is selfish. It increases he stigma around the subject. At the time, telling me I was being selfish would only have made me want to take my own life even more. Because I felt I was going to continue feeling like that, and feeling like that was causing my loved ones pain.
Thank you so much Laura for writing this post.
Thanks for sharing a bit of your own story. I'm very glad that you liked this blog and I think you identified something I didn't quite put my finger on in my piece. Suicide seems like the only hope when we're in that situation; maybe on some level we realize it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't type scenario, but that the damned if you do holds hope for the betterment of everyone, whereas the damned if you don't seems like a continuous abyss.
Thank you for taking the time to comment. :)
I was also emotionally, physically and sexually abused my adopted parents and my little sister is now an alcoholic and drug addict. We both suffer from abandonment issues! At $100 + an hour, counselling is NOT an affordable option. We are BOTH just struggling to survive. I have a job as a cashier and my sister has a job as a maid
I have mixed feelings about this subject...
As someone who has also attempted suicide I agree 100% with what Laura Barton is saying BUT I also agree with Andrew Carr. What DO you say to a 4 year old child? I was 4 years old when my biological mother shot herself. I ended up being adopted out and my 3 year old little sister ended up in foster care.
To a certain degree suicide IS selfish because it DOESN'T end the pain. It just transfers it to someone else!
Suicide is selfish
I know it is painful to hear, but it's true. Everyone today wants to blame their actions on anything other than themselves. "It's a mental illness." Can you really look at a 4 year old child and say "Your mother wasn't being selfish when she killed herself, she was thinking of you!!!!"
I see where you're coming from, however I disagree. The brain can get sick just as easily as any other part of the body, and when the brain gets sick, it affects how we think, how we process information, and therefore how we deal with that illness. It's not easy to understand from the outside, and it would be really difficult to explain to a child, for sure. Yes, we made the decision to take the action; by definition we are responsible for what we do. However, being responsible for that and selfishness are two different things. As I explained in my blog, people who experience suicidal ideation are not only thinking of themselves, which would connote selfishness, there is a consideration for most if not all outcomes of our actions, including how it will affect others. It's not a logical thought process and it's not a positive one, but overall suicidal ideation is without selfishness.
I could agree with you more. So well said, I as well suffered from suicide ideation for many years until I made an attempt. My sister was very angry and so was my brother it took years to repair our relationship but I can never seem to be free enough to talk about in relation to where I am today which is no more suicide ideation nor thoughts of it .
Suicide is still such a touchy subject and it's going to take a while to break enough stigma that we can speak about it openly. I'm glad to hear you were able to repair your relationship with your siblings and that you are past your ideation of suicide. Count those victories at least and continue to work on the rest bit by bit. :)