Can suicide attempt survivors be “stereotyped”?

Fellow Philadelphian, suicide attempt survivor and suicide prevention activist Dese’Rae L. Stage regularly tweets that, “Suicide attempt survivors cannot be stereotyped.  We are anyone and everyone.”Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 9.54.14 AM

While I think I understand and agree with why Dese’Rae says this, I’m compelled to distinguish the cognitive dissonance that arises within me whenever I see this idea expressed on Twitter or anywhere else.

The inclination to end one’s life can arise within anyone.  Despite suicide attempts occurring more frequently in some demographic groups compared to others, there is plenty of evidence that indicates that suicidal ideations do not discriminate based on age, race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc.  Given the dictionary definition of the word “stereotype”:

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…and its inclusion of the phrase “fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person,” here again I find myself nodding and thinking: yes, many people hold oversimplified and factually inaccurate beliefs about people who die by suicide or attempt suicide.  I think many people believe that people who attempt suicide are weak, selfish cowards, and I stand side by side with my fellow behavioral healthcare advocates in working to dispel these notions as false, disempowering ones that only add to the stigma reinforcing beliefs held by many people concerning individuals with lived experience of mental illness.  I’ve published thoughts on this specific subject before.

It takes courage, massive amounts of courage to willfully end your own life.  It takes a special kind of brazen audacity to attempt to intentionally cause your heart to stop beating, knowing, to some degree at least, how much pain and suffering that ending your own pitiful misery will cause for those who have the deep misfortune of loving and caring about you.  Many think suicidal people are selfish cowards.  I won’t claim that there has never been a person who has killed themselves that fits that description, as far as how they lived their life.  But I will offer that anyone who thinks those two words: selfish and cowardly—about the act of suicide itself, has no first hand experience with the morbid deed.  The biological instinct for self-preservation is an almost insurmountable force to overcome.  Death is the greatest unknown and fear-inspiring phenomenon facing every human being that ever has and ever will live.  Possessing an enormous amount of courage is a prerequisite for completing a suicide.  I don’t think that suicide can be accurately described as selfish either, although I understand why people are prone to do so.  Selfish – the dictionary defines the word as:  lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.  While many survivors of suicide, (the friends and family of people who have died by suicide) may rightfully wonder how much consideration was given to their feelings by the recently deceased, it is impossible for someone who has died to experience “personal profit or pleasure.”  The ending of psychic or emotional pain and suffering by death does not result in pleasure, and the absence of pain does not necessitate the existence of its opposite.  The suicidal act itself therefore, by definition, cannot accurately be described as a selfish one as I see it.  Suicide is the extinguishing of the self.  An act that causes the self to no longer exist is not selfish, rather it is selfless.

While I think many people have oversimplified and factually incorrect beliefs about those who attempt suicide, I believe one effective way to fight the rising U.S. suicide rate is to correctly identify and inform as many people as possible of the types of behavior that people exhibit prior to making a suicide attempt so that life-saving interventions can take place prior to an attempt occurring.  Dr. Thomas Joiner, an American academic psychologist and nationally recognized expert on suicide authored the book Why People Die by Suicide in 2005.  From Amazon.com:

Drawing on extensive clinical and epidemiological evidence, as well as personal experience, Thomas Joiner brings a comprehensive understanding to seemingly incomprehensible behavior. Among the many people who have considered, attempted, or died by suicide, he finds three factors that mark those most at risk of death: the feeling of being a burden on loved ones; the sense of isolation; and, chillingly, the learned ability to hurt oneself.

Granted, I think it is correct to say that Dr. Joiner is not attempting to “stereotype” people who die by or attempt suicide; he paints a highly nuanced portrait of the suicidal person and the types of thoughts and behaviors that many people have or exhibit prior to attempting suicide.  In other words, it seems to me that Dr. Joiner and many others working to fight suicide are rightfully trying to identify the “type” of people who attempt suicide by exploring suicidal thinking and behavior assiduously.

As a suicide attempt survivor and prevention activist who works in this cause day in and day out, I repeatedly recognize thoughts I had years ago prior to my suicide attempt in stories in the press involving  suicide.  This happened this week when UFC fighter Ronda Rousey appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and publicly shared about a suicidal ideation she recently had after losing a fight.

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“What am I anymore if I’m not this?” Ronda Rousey

After reading this brief from the New York Times, I thought: if she had made an attempt, it would have been an egotistical suicide attempt, very similar to mine.  It seems to me that Rousey’s suicidal ideation stemmed from a sudden, unexpected and irrefutable challenge to her self-conception as a UFC champion.  Her seemingly fleeting thoughts of ending her own life arose out of an attachment to seeing herself (and being seen by others) as a UFC champion, and a temporary unwillingness to see herself as anything else.  The thought of not seeing herself and not being seen as a UFC champion seemed, fortunately temporarily, unbearable to her.

When I was 27 years old, a challenging work assignment in a particular business area where I had no prior experience, presented an almost unbearable challenge to my own self-identity.  The experience that I went through so challenged my positive self image as someone able to tackle any obstacle put in front of me that I became unsure of absolutely everything.  Up until the time that I began to have suicidal ideations, I had never doubted my mental faculties, but the psychological crisis I became embroiled in shattered my sense of self and stripped away any prior sense of self-esteem and self confidence, and replaced those attributes with self doubt and eventually self loathing.  Hope and excitement for what lay ahead of me in the future were replaced with fear, even dread of what people would think of me if they learned about my psychological and emotional collapse.

My suicide attempt was an egotistical one based on feeling ashamed for not living up to my own potential as I saw it, and I think Ronda Rousey’s would have been too, if she had made an attempt.  I’m happy that she did not, and I am grateful that it occurred to her to share about her suicidal ideations publicly, prompting me to share these thoughts.  Einstein, like many other scientists, believed that free will was an illusion, and a product of a belief in another illusion: the “self” or the story we’re continually telling ourselves and others about who and what we are. I believe recognizing the “self” and free will for the illusions that they are, represents a radical yet promising pathway to reduce the suicide rate.

In conclusion, I do think Dese’Rae is right:  suicide attempters cannot and should not be “stereotyped,” but working diligently to identify the types of thinking and behavior that people who attempt suicide exhibit, essentially, identifying the type of people prone to attempting suicide lies at the heart of causing the beginning of the end of suicide in the U.S. and beyond.

2 Replies to “Can suicide attempt survivors be “stereotyped”?”

  1. I feel ashamed to say this, but I do sometimes think my son was selfish when he took his own life. I feel this way when I see how his suicide affected his brothers sisters and parents. And then I feel guilty for thinking he was selfish. Then I feel incredibly sad and cry.

    1. I’m sorry I missed this comment until just now. I so rarely get real comments from real people. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, and feelings Peter. Having nothing to do with the thought you expressed here, but rather because of some recent personal reflection about the time immediately preceding when I nearly died by suicide… I have been thinking more and more about the mental gymnastics that I went through to NOT think about my family as I moved towards self-destruction. There was not an ounce of hate for anyone besides myself in my suicidal behavior. I had nothing but love for everyone in my family, for everyone in my life really… here again, myself excepted of course. All this to say that as I continue to examine how I used to think about life when I was 27 years old… it’s fair to say that I was rather self-involved, if not self-obsessed. Mind you, the involvement and obsession was ,to a large extent, focused on growth and development, but it was certainly self-centric.

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