Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

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.

For further understanding please read these incredible posts from BipolarBlogger: Count no blessings: How a suicidal mind works and Ten things not to say to a suicidal person.

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.


Comments on: "Suicide isn’t selfish" (18)

  1. craftythesouless said:

    I agree, good post. I always thought that it would be stupid for me to spend my life in a miserable existence just so those around me do not have to grieve. It would be selfish of them to expect that from me. I look for reasons to live, suicide to me is the number one option, but I’m still currently open to finding a new one to take its place. It can be a solution for someone not an escape or defeat as much as people will hate that statement.

  2. great post Sam.:)As someone who also has contemplated suicide I get exasperated trying to explain to others it is not selfish or attention seeking and time after time it falls on deaf ears.
    I love the owl poster but the one above it is not so good.
    However,if their intention is to not just prevent suicides but offer help and support to suicidal individuals it’s not such a bad thing at all.

    • Yes, having looked at their website I understand what they were trying to say; they do support the bereaved as well as those who are suicidal. But out of context, as it was when I saw it on Twitter, it just seems to be more of the “You owe it to others” spiel.

  3. I can’t help but be torn by this.

    As a daughter who found her dad deliberately ODing {unexpected visit home} yes, I can say suicide is selfish.

    He wanted to check out, I know the reasons why, and even now years after he died, they still leave me feeling like less of a daughter. His reasons leave me with anger, resentment and ill feelings towards not only him but my sister who passed away.

    When my own mental health problems kicked in and I found myself seriously planning to end it all I was torn between understanding why people feel it’s the only option whilst knowing that my dads choice to end it all was partly why I was left feeling so worthless and unworthy of existing.

    It’s left deep rooted feelings which I’m still trying to sort through, so whilst anyone who feels suicide is the only option has my utmost empathy, I can’t help but be reminded of the little girl I once was who wants to know what I had done to make her daddy want to kill himself.

    It’s such a complex and difficult topic, different for everyone concerned. But as someone left behind, left wondering why I, {and my siblings, his wife etc} wasn’t enough for even my own father to live for why would I be worthy of anyone else. I can’t help but think of it as a selfish act. If only for the emotionally vulnerable state it leaves loved ones in who have to live with the endless unanswered questions.

    • I’m so sorry you went through that, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been. I do understand why so many people believe suicide to be selfish. I think for me the tipping point was when it dawned on me that I was sympathetic towards someone killing themselves as a result of experiencing severe chronic physical pain or illness, but not severe mental anguish or illness. I realised that if one reason was acceptable to me then the other should be too.

  4. This is fantastic and much needed. Thank you.

  5. I agree, Sam. When you frame mental illness the same way we view physical pain, it becomes clear. Great post.

  6. Great post and something definitely need to be discussed and share. I can relate to this post very much.
    Thank you. Sending positive vibes your way – Phoenix.

  7. feministepoetique said:

    Thank you so much for this post! I recently had to deal with my mother’s trying to make me feel guilty regarding my suicidal thoughts and urges in late June.

    Another important point to add is that sometimes it can be so hard to resist the urge and it is horrible when everywhere you go you think about jumping off bridges and in front of trains and stuff. Thankfully I managed to resist all of the urges but of course unfortunately that is not the case for everyone and I know how hard it is and understand why some find they cannot resist the urge any longer.

  8. Suicide is the result of a deeply disturbing illness and its name is not “selfishness”..nor is it a character flaw or lack of faith. Thank you for the post. I would like to reblog it. My own son died by suicide and I have never been angry at him …only at the depression that caused him to do it. We never have all the answers but it does not stop us from trying to find them. Blessings and peace.

    • I’m so sorry for your loss, that must be incredibly hard. Feel free to reblog, that’s absolutely fine. Thinking of you.

  9. Sarah Jane said:

    I have to say I didn’t read the poster like that. I read it as a reminder that we all have people who love us. When I saw that, my immediate thought was actually for the people I know who are dear to me and who sometimes contemplate suicide, and how I wish I could make them see that they are loved and valued.
    I’ve often found it very hard to imagine what use I could possibly be to anyone, or how I could deserve love, and have thought about suicide, though more in a kind of ‘what’s the point of me’ way than actually planning it or wanting it. The reason I’ve always had to keep going has been the grief I’d cause my parents, and my gran when she was alive. So, while I would never advocate calling suicide selfish, because as you say it is in no way selfish, I don’t think reminding people of their value to others can hurt … it strikes me as a positive thing which has probably saved many lives. Often low self esteem is at least partly at the root of suicidal feelings.

  10. Thank you for this. Just thank you. :’)

  11. robin1967 said:

    As someone who has been suicidal quite often, I thank you for the post. I agree completely with your sentiments re: suicide.

  12. Yes, it is selfish. Thousands and maybe millions will now hurt do to Mr. Williams’s decision to end his life. That was not selfish? He chose the easy softer way of truly dealing with his anguish. I fight through my depression every day, because I know it is the right thing to do, and those who love and depend on me, agree.

    • Why should he have to consider millions of people he doesn’t know? If you have depression then you will know how utterly desperate it can make people at times. Sometimes ending your life can seem like the only option and it’s not something that people do lightly. The pain of others is an abstract concept, your own pain is very very real and can be overwhelming.

    • To Zachary: Anyone who claims to have clinical depression would know just how tragic this is. It is not a choice. I hope you will educate yourself. Just because you say you fight depression does not make you a hero…it only makes you lucky. Your judgment is merciless and only harms those of us who have been left behind because of this illness. It really makes no sense that you would call it a coward’s way out since if you try doing it yourself you will find out just how difficult it really is. Your remarks are selfish and unfit for a forum that has compassion toward the people who really do have depression and die as a result of that disease by way of suicide. You add to a stigma that has been perpetuated throughout the ages due to religion and ignorance. It is my mission in life to undo the harm caused by your kind.

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