Trigger Warnings: suicide, mental health stigma, claims that suicide and suicidal people are selfish, psychiatric abuse, psychiatric hospitals
I just read on another blog that I follow that someone was stuck on a train because someone had jumped in front of the train. Rather than feel sympathy and sorrow for their fellow human being who had felt so sad and desperate that they chose to end their own life, this person claimed the person who committed suicide was selfish to have jumped in front of a train, causing people to be late. This is what they said:
“Something needs done about this, it happens too often and now my train is delayed again. These people should be locked up for disturbing all these timetables”
First of all, this person valued getting wherever they needed to go on time over the life and mental health of another human being. I hope I don’t need to go into all that is wrong, and frankly disturbing, about that. The specific situation aside though, plenty of people claim that people who commit suicide in any way (or even fantasize about it, with no intention of acting on their fantasies) are selfish. This is what I want to discuss.
I myself have been suicidal many times (sometimes with a plan to act, and sometimes without one but vaguely daydreaming about it). I also am close to many people who have been suicidal. In my experience (both in my own life and in what I’ve heard from them about their experiences), suicidal ideation often has little to do with wanting to die, and certainly has nothing to do with wanting to hurt loved ones. That first part may be surprising to you, so let me explain: Nobody knows for sure what happens after death, if anything, and that uncertainty is scary, even to people who are suicidal. Suicidal people may also have aspects of their life that they like, that they love even. It is a last resort. It is not about wanting to die or not wanting to live. It is about not having any other options, running too low on cope to handle the bad, no matter how good the good may be.
It is about not having any other options.
Suicide is rarely anyone’s first thought when they first become depressed. A suicidal person may have already gone to family and friends for support extensively to no avail, or they may not have anyone to support them at all, they may have already exhausted all their options for mental health treatment, or they may not be able to afford treatment or live near humane treatment, they may have already exhausted all their coping skills to no avail, or they may not have many effective coping skills or ways of learning new ones. So let me repeat once again for good measure…
It is about not having any other options.
Many people in this state of mind are very, acutely aware of the effect their death would have on others, and this can keep them going but it can also be torture to think about. If your life is so miserable that you can’t imagine making it through another year or even a week, knowing you can end it may be your only source of comfort. It’s like for instance being in a terrible job that is traumatic for you and you know will never get better, so the only thing that comforts you is the thought of the weekend coming. The thought of death is like that for some people, like looking forward to the “weekend” from the struggles and trauma of life. Imagine if there was no weekend to look forward to, just neverending suffering, how would you deal with that?
The suggestion was to “lock people up”, but long-term psychiatric hospitalization is like jail. “Patients” (or more accurately in my opinion, “inmates”) are not usually allowed to go outside, eat fresh and healthy food, have phone or computer access, or have visitors for more than a specified hour each day (if that). There is not much to do. Staff may be abusive. Restraints are used on inmates who don’t follow the rules, rules which may be very restrictive and silly and unnecessary and even abusive and traumatic. Restraints, seclusion, and punishment may also be used on inmates who the staff just don’t like. Ever seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Not all that much has changed since then, especially in long-term, high-security, locked wards. If hospitalization is the only possibility, then death may be a welcome alternative.
That comfort, the only comfort you may have, is gone and replaced with guilt once you realize it would hurt the people who love you, and possibly even distant acquaintances. That comfort is smashed to tiny pieces when people call you (or others in your situation) “selfish” for even thinking about it, nevermind acting on those thoughts.
Another thing: it’s true that not all suicidal people are aware of the effect their death would have on others, but this is not a sign of selfishness either. This is in fact a defining symptom of depression. Depression twists your thoughts. It makes you feel like you’re a horrible person, a burden on others and the world at large. Sure, it’s possible to recognize these thoughts as “the depression talking” and learn to combat them…though often only with years of practice, comfort from loved ones, and therapy. Not everyone has loved ones, or access to a humane therapist (or any therapist at all). And for some people, “years” may be too long to wait, to continue to suffer.
I am all for measures to give people hope and other options besides suicide. I am all for improved healthcare, more affordable and accessible healthcare, free community centers and support groups where people who don’t have friends can make them, community art centers with open studio time and open mic nights and concerts and plays, and increasing and improving affordable classes and groups to teach coping skills.
It should also be noted that not all people who commit suicide or think about it do so because of biological, chronic conditions like clinical depression or bipolar. Many are dealing with external issues with their lives and society at large, such as poverty, homelessness, abuse, bigotry, and loss. These issues also need to be dealt with, and in the meantime people who have suffered or are suffering from such trauma need to be supported. This does include the trauma of people who have lost a loved one to suicide or witnessed a suicide, including train conductors (who are prone to developing PTSD if someone jumps in front of their train) and those riding the train.
But if we’re going to do this, let’s do it for people with mental illness and/or trauma. Let’s do it so they can have peace in life rather than needing death for peace. There are much better reasons for suicide prevention than avoiding “inconvenience”.