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 2019, June 16 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivingmentalhealthstigma/2016/04/suicide-and-the-selfishness-stigma
Author: Laura Barton
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.
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.
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.
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-referral-resources/ 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.
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.
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.
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'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 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. :)
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!
I know it is painful to hear, but it's true. Everyone today wants to blame their actions on <em>anything</em> 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.
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. :)