Trigger warning: suicide
Last week this image caused a bit of upset on Twitter:
It’s from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a non-profit organisation that seeks to understand and prevent suicide through research, education and advocacy. They also aim to help those affected by suicide. It seems to be a good organisation with good intentions, but out of context their image (originally posted in 2012) raised some hackles in the British mental health community. Why? Because it removes the focus from the suicidal person and it seems to feed into the “suicide is selfish” idea. This belief is unfortunately common. Killing yourself is often seen as selfish, cowardly and weak. It’s yet another part of the stigma that surrounds mental illness.
I recently shared this image (from Boggle the Owl) on my blog:
The response was overwhelming. So many people contacted me to say that it had made them consider suicide and/or mental illness in a different light. I’m so glad, because it did the same for me when I first saw it. Despite having been mentally ill since my early teens I too had bought into the “suicide is selfish” rhetoric, and realising that my suicidal urges didn’t make me selfish was a huge step. It lightened the load. Because in my experience, that’s what suicidal urges are, an enormously heavy burden that weighs you down. And it’s one that is incredibly difficult to he honest about; during my most recent crisis, in February/March this year, I hid my increasingly suicidal thoughts and feelings from almost everyone. The previous times I had felt suicidal, and the one time I seriously attempted to kill myself, absolutely no-one knew.
There’s a lot of ignorance about suicide. Firstly there’s the idea that people who talk about killing themselves will never do it, when in fact most people who kill themselves have told at least one person that they want to do so. Then there’s the suggestion that telling someone you’re suicidal is just attention-seeking. Can you imagine that? Your world has shrunk to the confines of your own mental torment, your existence is so unbearable that you’re considering ending it, you pluck up the courage to tell someone how you’re feeling because you know you need help, you’re drowning in pain and BAM! You’re dismissed as attention-seeking.
Equally as bad is “You owe it to your family/friends/hamster to stay alive” and “It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. I’ve had mental illnesses since my early teens – what’s temporary about that? While for some people depression and suicidal thoughts may be relatively fleeting, for many they are a recurring or constant problem. Imagine 2, 5, 10, 20 or more years battling your own mind, your mental pain, every single day. Or maybe it’s physical pain and illness that you’re fighting against. While holding down a job, bringing up children, maintaining a facade of normality for the outside world. It’s exhausting. And being told that you “owe it” to other people to keep yourself alive? No. Just no. That’s implying that they are more important than you, that their feelings trump yours and that your anguish doesn’t matter. All that matters is how your death will make others feel.
Lastly there’s the nasty sentiment that people who jump in front of trains or off motorway bridges are just a selfish inconvenience to others. Let’s think about that. Another human being, someone who loves and is loved just like you, has found their life to be so unbearable that they saw no alternative to ending it. Their pain was so immense that it blocked out all other thoughts. And you’re complaining because your journey has been delayed?! That’s the true act of selfishness, to me. Seeing someone else’s pain, suffering and death only in the context of how it affects you.
So no. Suicide isn’t a selfish act. It may be a desperate one but it is not selfish.
If you are suicidal or know someone who is and you need support, please check out the “Want to talk to someone?” bar at the top of the page.