Considering the Problem of Suicide

Posted: July 2, 2018 in Uncategorized

Here we are again.  Every year 45,000 people kill themselves and even more attempt to. Although there is a deeper awareness of the problem of suicide among the general population, the number of people who kill themselves every year is rising.

Why are more people than ever choosing to end their lives?

Back in 2014 after Robin Williams’ tragic death, I explored this question in some detail:

The answers to that question of “why” are many, but they’re not all that complex to those who live with chronic suicidal feelings and thoughts and to many who work with people who have them.  The “why” is actually pretty simple; what is a bit more complicated and controversial, are the questions of “how” and “whether” we prevent the act.
Nearly everyone – at least in US culture – shares the belief that anyone who is considering suicide is mentally ill or, at best, emotionally distraught. And that they need to be saved, to be kept alive at all costs.  It is seen as a noble cause; certainty in the notion that life is sacred, people find personal satisfaction in knowing they have “made a difference” in the life of someone they have saved from killing themselves.  Professionals and lay alike use the now clichéd reminders to try to convince those who are thinking of killing themselves that they are misguided and life is, truly, their ONLY choice.  While that argument that life may not be the only choice is best held for another time, it is useful to remember that suicide does not always face the same stigma globally that it does in the US. Likewise, sometimes the only thing that is accomplished in saving someone is putting them back in the same situations they could not tolerate in the first place.
For many who have attempted suicide or who live in emotional turmoil and who view it as the only viable option, the efforts of even those who offer the standard clichéd talk are sought out and appreciated.  And those reminders are often successful, at least temporarily, especially with folks facing immediate danger of self-harm.  People go on to live their lives, sometimes bettered, sometimes not.  For others though, all the cliched responses and encouragement are met with a quiet desperation to be heard, to be understood, and to be allowed to consider the option openly and safely. As it turns out, providing the latter may actually lead – indirectly – to a greater appreciation for the life they have.
Few get that. And it is the intense isolation, that feeling that what people are experiencing is “bad” or “disgusting” or lacking courage that propels them further toward a final decision.
So what is the best response?  To know what needs to be said, we need to understand what often does NOT help:
“You are loved.”  “Your husband/wife loves you.”  “Your parents love you.”
It’s a common response to someone who is thinking about killing him- or herself. But in fact, it’s frequently seen as an uninformed and arrogant reaction, especially when it comes from a stranger.  People who want to die do not feel loved – they may actually feel hated by others or completely invisible – and simply saying they are will not convince them otherwise.  Reminding them that they, indeed are, is really a way to guilt them into staying alive.   It also may simply be incorrect.  Not everyone has someone to love them.
“You are not alone.”
In fact, the person who is considering suicide may very well be alone or at least feel that way.  Anyone who has experienced intense episodes of depression or other emotional turmoil understands that reluctance to discuss it with others and also knows how others often abandon them at the most critical times. We have stigmatized psychological problems and called them a “weakness.”  And unless there is someone who is willing to talk privately and safely and honestly, that person will feel isolated.  “You are not alone” is another of those declarations that may not be true.  To say it to a stranger, to write it, or to assume that everyone has the support of others is simply a way to make ourselves feel better.
“It can get better.”
This is a tricky one that straddles the border of acceptable/unacceptable.  It’s true – in many if not most cases, things can improve – but it’s often used as blanket statement to encompass everyone/anyone.  For the individual who combats past severe trauma, for the one who has lived with depression for decades, for those who suffer a brain injury or disorder that has a poor prognosis, things may not get better.
“You are not alone,” “it can get better,” and “you are loved” are no more than lip service designed to make the speaker feel better, even though hardly anyone recognizes that. Empty words are not going to change the desperation that some feel.  While they may be delivered with absolute genuine intent to help, they may have the opposite effect.  Sometimes those words let a person know that the speaker doesn’t get it.  That they have no idea what it feels like to be in their shoes.
If our standard go-to’s won’t help, what should we say and do?  First and foremost, we need to learn to recognize the signs of someone who is struggling and avoid minimizing them with dismissive talk.  Prevention in all cases is preferable to crisis management.  If someone experiences the death of someone close, our presence and care throughout the entire grieving period – which may last months or longer – is far more effective than talking that same person off of a ledge some day.  If someone shows the signs of depression, our  love and support mean so much more than trying to convince them their life is valuable after they’ve experienced silence from us and isolation.  If a person is working through trauma, our encouragement is more helpful than paying lip service (even sub- or unconsciously) to a life that has become intolerable for them.
Simply, we need to invite compassion into our daily interactions. Show people they are valued, loved, supported, and cared for before they lose hope.  Listen to hear what scares them. And fight the stigma of speaking openly about emotional problems, grief, the effects of trauma, and suicide.



  1. rebeccakuder says:

    Thank you. I appreciate this post very much.

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