When suicide happens, it often staggers everyone left behind. Questions linger. Why would someone even consider suicide? Why didn’t they just reach out for help? Feelings of isolation, fear, uncertainty, anger, or disbelief are common. Understanding is less so.
For some of the people with whom I work in therapy, primarily teens, suicide is sometimes viewed as a means to an end. It is seen as a way to end the pain they feel. It isn’t always some “tiny voice” they think they hear telling them to end it all.
Suicidal thoughts serve as a symptom that something isn’t right. For some, suicide is the heart’s and mind’s way of searching for an answer to psychological and emotional agony.
When I do speaking engagements or meet with families, I explain that suicide isn’t always the result of an “illness.” You don’t have to be ill, mentally or otherwise, to consider suicide. Suicide is sometimes seen simply as a tool by those who don’t see a purpose in living. Why suicide becomes their tool of choice is harder to comprehend.
There is a considerable lack of awareness in our culture about the factors that may contribute to suicide. That lack of awareness tends to leave us stunned when we hear about someone ending their own life, whether we knew the person or they were a celebrity. Sadly, the shock of suicide that many of us experience when it occurs may stem from:
There is a considerable lack of awareness in our culture about the factors that may contribute to suicide. That lack of awareness tends to leave us stunned when we hear about someone ending their own life, whether we knew the person or they were a celebrity.
- Romanticized view of fame and talent: We tend to fixate on sex appeal, fashion, money, and fame. It’s no surprise, then, that society holds firmly to the view that if you are famous/attractive/talented/popular, you are without troubles. This belief keeps us limited in our view of why suicide happens among the successful, wealthy, and famous.
- Emphasis on mood and affect: Many people assume that if someone is smiling and appearing to be in good spirits, they must be happy and satisfied with their life. The sad reality is we cannot rely solely on a person’s mood and affect to determine their zeal for life. Mood and affect are powerful. They can get us jobs and dates. Because we had to learn to adjust our mood and affect to fit the expectations of daily life, many people hide behind a mask of positivity to survive.
- Narrow view of existential discomfort: Most people can be assumed to believe there are many reasons to live and few reasons to die. But we must keep in mind that for some, dying seems far more attractive than living. We don’t walk in anyone else’s shoes, and we don’t know how a person views life from day to day. We are constantly changing.
- Associating suicide with mental illness: Mental health is being talked about more than ever. While that has helped efforts to destigmatize mental health conditions and invited more empathy, people whose impressions of suicide come largely from the media may incorrectly associate it with mental health problems. For example, some may hypothesize that Anthony Bourdain’s death was the result of an undetected or untreated mental illness. But we can also hypothesize that his suicide may have been the result of an existential crisis that he internalized.
According to the World Health Organization, almost 800,000 people die by suicide around the world each year. That equates to one person dying by suicide every 40 seconds.
It’s an epidemic. It’s a tragedy. It’s traumatic.
But it’s not enough to understand how prevalent suicide is. We need to adjust how we think about it and work to educate others. The deaths of Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Robin Williams, and others that seem to catch us by surprise should instead wake us up. Instead of letting that shocked feeling come and go, we should let it stimulate within us the courage to change.
Suicide data. (n.d.). World Health Organization. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/suicideprevent/en
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