World Suicide Prevention Day — Suicide Is Not Selfish

International Association for Suicide Prevention

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. There are many ways to approach the concept of suicide prevention. One of those ways is to decrease the stigma related to suicidality, because stigma tends to promote silence, and silence is definitely not a good thing when it comes to suicidality.

One stigmatized belief that I see frequently expressed is that suicide is selfish, and that’s what I’d like to tackle here.

Let’s begin by defining the word selfish:

  • Merriam-Webster: “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others”

I don’t think desperately seeking to end seemingly unendurable pain qualifies as either advantage, pleasure, benefit, or welfare.

Debate.org strikes me as a hotbed of ill-informed opinions, meaning it’s probably reasonably representative of society at large these days. They have a debate page on this very topic. 41% of respondents believed that suicide is selfish. A few highlights/lowlights from those opinions:

  • “You should endure the pain you go through to save others from it.”

What I find even more disturbing is when people who have a mental illness and have experienced suicidal ideation publicly express their belief that suicide is selfish. Doing a Google search on the topic I found one blogger (who I wasn’t familiar with) who believed that “committing suicide is the most selfish thing a person can do.” I also know a blogger with a large following who has stated on multiple occasions that suicide is selfish.

What interests me is the frequent claim that a suicidal person is selfish for not considering other people, but by the same token, wouldn’t it be rather selfish to expect a suicidal person to continue tolerating excruciating pain in order to avoid causing pain to the people around them?

The latter probably sounds strange and wrong, so why should the former?

Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts don’t typically occur in the context of clear thinking. Mental illness can make thought processes less and less logical. Cognitive deconstruction is a process that can cause an intense narrowing of focus that can facilitate a shift from thinking about suicide to acting.

It’s useful to consider internal and external sources of motivation, with intrinsic factors often being a more powerful motivator. In the past when I’ve experienced thoughts of suicide, even after I lost the intrinsic will to live I was still extrinsically motivated to live for the sake of my family. When things get really hard, though, extrinsic motivation alone isn’t enough to stand on.

When negative events happen, the natural tendency is to try to understand why they happened. In the case of suicide, there typically isn’t a clear answer as to why it happened. That doesn’t stop people from trying to understand, though. The notion of suicide being selfish is a convenient target to attribute difficult emotions. Anger, for instance, may seem like a “wrong” emotion to be experiencing, but identifying the suicide as selfish may allow anger to seem like a more acceptable response.

An attribution I would like to see more of is suicide being viewed as death by mental illness, just like some physical illness can be fatal. Granted, not all suicide deaths are a result of mental illness, but a great many are. Is it really all that different from death by other terminal illnesses? What we need is to intervene earlier and more effectively so that mental illness doesn’t get to that terminal stage.

So, is suicide selfish? I would say a resounding no.

And to those who do think it is, I think it’s worth some self-reflection to see where that’s actually coming from.

To bring it back to World Suicide Prevention Day, attitudes matter when it comes to suicide. Unconstructive attitudes, such as the selfishness viewpoint, promote silence as people are fearful of being judged. When it comes to suicide, silence can be deadly.

Originally published at https://mentalhealthathome.org on September 10, 2019.

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 4books, latest is A Brief History of Stigma| mentalhealthathome.org