This piece was originally published on Many Kind Regards. It is being reposted here with the permission of the site owner, as well as the author.
What to Say to Those Who Judge Suicide Victims
In the aftermath of Robin Williams‘ death last month, Americans seem slightly more open to discussing the issue of suicide. For a few days, maybe even a week, opinions on suicide came from seemingly countless sources ranging from mainstream media to social media and everyone in between.
Sentiments ranged from the idyllic, “Genie, You’re free.” tweet (that I saw attributed to at least three different sources from the Academy of Motion Pictures to a Kardashian), to the more harsh critiques from news anchors and other bloggers voicing their opinions about the perceived ‘selfishness’ of the act.
As I read article after article, and listened to commentary after commentary; two lines of argument seemed to emerge:
Suicide is either a choice (which as such, would be worthy of our ire), or it’s something else.
What if Suicide IS a choice?
Does it matter?
Okay, Matt—I’ll concede the point. Maybe suicide is a choice. I mean, any of us could go to our respective bathrooms, basements, or backyards and end it all right now if we chose, right? So why don’t we?
Well, aside from the social reasons (family, spiritual beliefs, inner purpose, etc.), there’s a biological imperative to survive. If we thought killing ourselves was a good idea back in the day, we probably wouldn’t have made it this far in evolution.
This very survival instinct is WHY suicide seems so unbelievable, so beyond reason, and such a taboo.
So while suicide may be a choice, it’s also generally accepted that those actually willing to make such a choice are (at least in that moment of choosing) suffering so profoundly they are incapable of making such decisions.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 90% of people who take their own lives have a mental disorder at the time of their death. Disorders and illnesses like depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, and others can create powerful distortions in thinking and perception that make suicide appear as “the only way out” from under the torture of some real or perceived psychological pain.
That’s why immediately upon getting someone off a ledge, or convincing someone “to put the gun down”, we are allowed to infringe on people’s freedoms and involuntarily commit them to psychiatric hospitals for stabilization. It’s why the State and Ethics Boards of so many professions, including my own—who so highly value confidentiality will allow mandate us to prudently break that confidence when a person is an imminent threat to him or herself. Now that might sound really paternalistic, but it’s the same reason why we don’t allow confessions under extreme conditions—like physical torture—to be entered as fact in our court systems either. Why? Because at a certain point you will say or do anything to achieve relief from the pain that’s been inflicted upon you.
So now we have a tiny idea as to what is going on when a person acts against the self, let’s talk about this seemingly common rush to judgment coming from the survivors of suicide, aka those left behind. Are those who can say in casual conversation or publicly on twitter that suicide is a cowardly act, or is the ultimate act of selfishness, or even that it’s the easy way out, really just judgey bastards? The world is a big place, so I don’t doubt the presence of some truly hateful people. But what about the people that we know to be loving, and compassionate about plenty of other issues—and then throw us for a loop on the topic of suicide?
Is there something else at work here?
Think about that famous quote from Mother Teresa, “If you judge people, you have no room to love them.” I once heard a colleague of mine (back when I was still teaching) offer these words of condolence to a student who’d recently lost a brother to suicide. The student responded through gritted teeth, “I don’t WANT any room to love him! I hate him.”
Obviously I cannot see into the hearts and minds of those who so harshly judge victims of suicide. An alternative explanation, is to recognize anger is a normal part of our response to grief. Depending on the perceived proximity and the relationship to the deceased, one might feel abandoned, rejected, and a milieu of other painful emotions. These feelings tap at the core of our vulnerability—which is not a fun and cozy place for most—and therefore some of us choose to react defensively.
Now, for a celebrity as beloved as Robin Williams—whom so many felt connected to through his work—that proximity may transcend truly physical boundaries.
Normalizing this ‘ugly’ response to suicide is not meant to whitewash the damage such negative reactions can have on the living, but rather seeks to promote understanding for both ourselves and each other. We can’t possibly hope to improve without a little insight, right?
And at the same time, judging the judgers does little to promote healing for those deeply affected by the loss, and makes everyone slightly better at judging. Personally, I think we’re top tier in that department as it is—no improvement necessary.
So what’s to be said to those who snap to judgment about persons who attempt or complete suicide?
Truth be told, I don’t have a concrete answer.
What I do have, however, are THREE REASONS why you might possibly consider tempering the urge to judge:
1) Its fruitless.
Yes, perhaps it’s odd to lead with an argument that speaks to efficiency and productivity when we’re talking about an emotional event, such as surviving suicide. And I’m doing it anyway—for precisely that reason. Surviving suicide is a highly emotionally charged event. Just look at the many tearful tributes we saw in the wake of Robin Williams’s untimely departure. Instead of jumping headfirst into the melee, recognize that vilifying the deceased only harms those whom the person loved who are left behind to hear your vitriol. At best, it delays the grieving process, and may bring about intense feelings of guilt later on—which are always damaging. Shakespeare may have named Envy the Green-Eyed Monster, but Guilt can be equally destructive. As for the grieving process—you may have heard the terms, the Grief Cycle or the Tasks of Mourning. Personally, I prefer the latter. These are cognitive and emotional states that people generally to pass through or reconcile in order to heal from a loss, such as the loss of a loved one to suicide. Defending or even destroying the reputation of a lost loved one takes away from that process.
2) Suicide is not a cause unto itself—it’s an end.
As I mentioned earlier, a great majority of people who attempt or complete suicide have suffered with a mental illness. Mental illness is not something openly talked about in our society, nor is it very well understood. So when we blankly place 100% of the blame on the person for being “stupid” or “selfish” or whatever else—we completely miss an important factor. That would be like saying that a car accident was 100% someone’s fault when in reality, the person was hit by a drunk driver.
Matt Walsh and others have suggested suicide can’t be compared to cancer, because no one chooses cancer. But mental illness can? No one chooses to have depression, bipolar, or some other mood disorder. The truth is we have a long way to go before we have a decent handle on mental illness. The more we learn about the brain, the more we’re learning just how little we know about it—and about mental illness in general. Recently, I ran across a fantastic video that briefly explains what I’m talking about: Your Brain on Depression.
What we do know is these illnesses affect the way a person sees and experiences reality. In fact, simply getting diagnosed with a mental illness can be a catastrophic life event for someone which often requires its own form of grieving, and crisis intervention.
3) Crisis Intervention & Missed Opportunities
Speaking of crisis intervention, you may also like to consider the fact that sharing harsh judgments about suicide in the case of a celebrity death or otherwise, might diminish the likelihood that someone having suicidal thoughts will reach out to you for help. Think about it—how likely are you to reach out to someone for help when the following is true:
1) You already feel lower than dirt.
2) You’ve heard this person call others in similar situations horrible, derogatory names.
Would you? Because I sure as hell wouldn’t.
Over the course of the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to work very directly with people who were struggling with various degrees of hopelessness and suicidal ideations. And I’ve also learned what you say in one context can profoundly impact someone who you barely know.
The best example I have of this occurred when I gave a presentation at a local college regarding local counseling services and signs/symptoms of suicide and depression. It was a fairly large group, and overall an uneventful presentation.
About a month later, a request came for an appointment with a student who said he’d been in the group, and wanted to talk with me because he “thought I was nice.”
What followed was one of the most complete suicide plans I (and most of my colleagues) had ever heard. It was so complete, I almost felt like I was talking with a corpse. And yet there he was, in the office, making quite literally, one last plea.
Am I careful about what I say in response to suicide? Absolutely. You never know who is listening.