Suicide Shaming: Part of the Problem
A few years ago I went to see a new hairdresser. She was halfway through cutting my hair when she started talking about her ex-husband’s suicide.
He was selfish, she said. He did it out of spite. He did it to hurt her. He didn’t care about their daughter. He just didn’t want to pay child support, she said.
She called him a coward. She called him weak. She told me that, in her opinion, anyone who commits suicide is doing it because they’re weak and spiteful. That they don’t care who they hurt.
And I was sitting in her chair thinking, “But I’m going to do it because I do care who I’m hurting.”
Some things have changed since that happened. I’ve found a different hairdresser, for one thing. More importantly, I’ve done a lot of healing and a lot of work and am no longer suicidal. What hasn’t changed is the attitude so many people have about suicide and the people who lose their lives to it.
I understand why people have those prejudices. I grew up hearing sayings like, “Suicide is the most selfish thing someone can do,” and “it’s a permanent solution for a temporary problem” over and over again, and I believed them. I thought the same things that the hairdresser thought: Suicide was the “easy way out,” an escape for people who didn’t want to work to make their lives better. That people who commit suicide either don’t care who they hurt or, even worse, that they want to hurt the people they leave behind.
Then I got sick, and I found myself planning my own suicide daily. Hourly. Not because I was lazy or selfish. Not because I didn’t want to deal with my problems, and not because I wanted to hurt my family. I wanted to die because I was in crippling mental and emotional anguish, and I was lashing out at my husband and small children because of it. I wanted to be different, but I couldn’t. I tried so hard to be the mother and wife I’d always believed I would be, and I failed.
I didn’t want to hurt anymore. I didn’t want to hurt them anymore. That was the deciding factor: If I was dead, it would prevent me from hurting my family any more than I already had.
Looking back at that time from a safe place, I can see how irrational that thinking was, but at the time I had no idea I was ill. I didn’t know I was bipolar. I didn’t even know I was depressed. I didn’t have any context to put my behavior into, so I came to the conclusion that I was simply a terrible person because only a terrible person would choose to act the way that I was. (I know now that I wasn’t making any choices at all. I was being victimized by my brain chemistry because my personal brain chemistry is a total fucking asshole that likes to make things difficult.)
Here’s the thing: Being in that place and hearing that only bad people would make the choice I was making didn’t make me less likely to kill myself. I already knew I was a bad person. I just thought the only way I could stop being a bad person was if I stopped being a person.
Suicide-shaming didn’t pull me away from self harm, it pushed me nearer to it. I very seriously doubt I’m the only person who has had that experience.
I know that people don’t know what to say when they’re faced with something as incomprehensible to the healthy mind as actively wanting to die. I know that people say things like “it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem” with the best of intentions; it feels like a more judgmental way of saying, “It gets better.” “It’s the most selfish thing you can do” is maybe intended to sound like “people love you and want you here with us.”
But there’s no kindness in those sayings. There’s only judgment, only shame, and shame never helped anyone heal. Shame makes people hide. Shame keeps people trapped in suffering.
Every time someone told me that suicidal people were selfish, shortsighted, lazy, *insert bad thing here*, it only reinforced the things I believed about myself. It also made me less likely to reach out for help. How was I supposed to tell anyone what I was thinking without also admitting what a terrible, awful failure of a human being I was? And because I didn’t even know I was ill, how was I supposed to know I could get better? From my point of view, being a bad person wasn’t a temporary problem.
Now imagine that people had spoken about suicide with compassion. Imagine someone had told me about losing their loved one and had talked about how much they must have been hurting to make that choice. Imagine that I’d heard over and over that suicide is a symptom of treatable mental illness and that people who lose their lives that way are victims, not villains. Imagine that I’d heard that people wanted to know what I was going through. That people wanted to to help me. That I could be helped. That it wasn’t my fault.
If those had been the messages I’d heard over and over again, I truly believe it would have allowed me to talk about what I was thinking and feeling. Instead, I was told that suicidal people should just get over it or stop being so dramatic or learn to deal with life’s problems. I heard that I was suicidal because I wasn’t trying hard enough and I didn’t care enough and I wasn’t strong enough.
And those messages were lies. I was trying as hard as I was able, but I was so sick. I cared so much that I was willing to die because I thought (wrongly) that it would be better for everyone in the long run. And strength? Strength isn’t even a factor when you’re dealing with catastrophic mental illness. Every day a suicidal person survives is a victory, but someone who commits suicide hasn’t failed. They weren’t weak. They were in pain and didn’t know any other way out.
We need to change the way we talk about suicide. We need to offer people hope instead of condemnation, to repeat over and over again that their pain isn’t their fault, to tell them we care and that we want to help and that suicide isn’t a personal failure. It’s a symptom of a greater illness. As well-intentioned as it likely is, shaming suicide doesn’t save lives, and it needs to stop.
For some ideas on ways to approach mental illness, check out Amelia’s article on loving someone with mental illness and my piece on how to be friends with a bipolar person (if that bipolar person is me.)