Are people who die by suicide or attempt suicide selfish?

Thoughts from  about selfishness and suicide via TheMighty.com.

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When a Friend Said ‘Suicide Is Pretty Selfish When You Think About It’

“Like… I get that it’s not the person’s fault really but… suicide is pretty selfish when you think about it.”

Flash.

Instantly, it was like somebody lit that spark in my mind that never fails to ignite my passion for mental health advocacy. For me, there’s something about stigma that turns an ordinary passion into the sort of fire you can just see in someone’s eyes.

The above sentence was said to me (paraphrased, of course) a couple of years ago. I was tabling with a fellow Active Minds member and a friend of hers had joined us to hang out. I think we were tabling about suicide, which is why the subject came up.

My immediate reaction when she said this was to be offended. Did she really have the nerve to say that while we were tabling about suicide prevention? Once I took a step back from my emotion I realized that she didn’t mean to insult anyone. She probably didn’t understand how stigmatizing it can be to label suicide as “selfish.” How could I expect her to understand when the topic of suicide is so seldom discussed in our society?

“The thing about suicide is….” I paused, not wanting to offend her or make her think she offended me, “Even if we can call the act of attempting suicide selfish, the person behind it is not acting out of selfishness… if that makes sense.”

I could tell she was truly listening to what I was saying, so I continued. “When someone is so far into that dark place they want to end their life, they might not be thinking about who their actions are going to hurt. Maybe they are in too much pain to think about it. And even if they are aware of how it might impact their loved ones, the desire to end their pain may have become too great to bear anymore.”

If I remember correctly, that’s about all I said. I could’ve gone in-depth about the known risk factors for suicidal behavior. I could have explained how feeling like a burden (a common experience of those contemplating suicide) might make someone think they’re doing their loved ones a favor by taking their own life, which might completely negate any feelings of selfishness or guilt that they might have had. However, I could tell she was really considering what I had just said, and I didn’t want to go too far and overwhelm her.

The notion that suicide is selfish is something I had spent a great deal of time thinking about.

When I was 14 I felt so incredibly guilty for wanting to die, because I knew if I killed myself my family would be devastated. For years, that guilt and the selfishness I felt for thinking about suicide kept me from reaching out for help. All of the stigma about suicide — much of which I had internalized — had me convinced it was better to suffer in silence than to have someone else think what I did: that I was selfish for wanting to die. I’ll never know for sure if that guilt had pushed me closer to the edge or further from it, but I do know that I’m grateful to be alive.

Make no mistake, I didn’t lose any respect for this acquaintance because of her statement, and there was no animosity created between us. In fact I’m glad she said what she said, because it reminded me that the stigma we need to face is not just in the media and our larger social systems, but in the people around us who don’t even realize these ideas are stigmatizing.

It’s one of the things that make the work I do as an Active Minds member or in other advocacy settings that much more important. I also realized that it was important for me to listen and understand where she was coming from too, because a one-sided conversation is not a productive conversation, especially in the pursuit of social change.

Being part of the social movement against mental health stigma can be difficult and discouraging, especially with the seemingly endless sea of misinformation and disrespect shown in various media outlets, but it’s worth it. Thinking back, it makes me happy to remember how respectful and thoughtful that conversation was. It gives me hope to know that “fighting” the stigma doesn’t have to be a fight —sometimes it’s as simple as a conversation.

I wanted to share this story here because I hope to see a day in which we can completely put to rest the idea that victims of suicide are selfish, weak or otherwise bad people, and think instead with empathy by making an effort to understand what someone might be going through if they are contemplating suicide.

My thoughts on the subject:

As a fellow suicide awareness / mental health advocate, I think it’s important to have conversations like the one you describe in this piece. I shared some of the same feelings of guilt regarding my own suicidal intentions and behavior when I nearly died as a result of untreated depression in 1998.

I think the conversation around suicide and selfishness is an important one. I think it’s important to acknowledge the pain and suffering experienced by suicide loss survivors. I think it’s a completely normal reaction for a suicide loss survivor to wonder: how much consideration did my love one give to me before dying by suicide? I think it’s equally “wrong” to blame someone for being suicidal as it is to blame a suicide loss survivor for wondering about the thoughts and feelings of their loved one prior to their death.

I often turn to the dictionary definition of the word selfish in conversations like the one you had: (of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

It seems apparent to me that some people who die by suicide may not give very much consideration to the impact of their actions on others. They do not see themselves as a burden to others, rather their suicidal crisis stems from feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt. Sometimes simply for feeling and acting suicidal.

I know that some suicidal people go through a series of desperate mental gymnastics to try to think of anything else besides the impact of their death on family and friends. This is part of a process that some suicidal people go through to work up the nerve, to work up the courage to take suicidal action. I know this because I did it, and I don’t believe that my suicidal crisis was unique.

Here’s how I’ve described my thinking in the past about why it doesn’t make sense to think of suicide as a selfish act:

Many view suicidal people as selfish cowards, but I believe it takes courage, massive amounts of courage to turn suicidal thought into suicidal action. Trying to cause your heart to stop beating, while knowing, to some degree at least, how much pain and suffering your death will cause for those who love you requires a special kind of morbid audacity. I won’t claim that there has never been a person who has died by suicide who lived selfishly during his or her life, but I insist that anyone who thinks those two words: selfish and cowardly — about the suicidal act itself, has no first hand experience with the macabre deed. The biological instinct for self-preservation is an almost insurmountable force to overcome. Death is the greatest unknown and fear-inspiring phenomenon facing each of us, which explains why possessing an enormous amount of courage is a prerequisite for dying by suicide.

Suicide can’t be accurately described as selfish either, although it’s understandable why people are prone to do so. The dictionary defines selfish as: lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure. I think it is unavoidable for survivors of suicide, the friends and family of people who die by suicide, to wonder how much consideration was given to them by their loved one or friend, prior to their suicide. Regardless of how much time and consideration someone who died by suicide gave to those left to deal with life after their death, the end of physical and psychic pain resulting from suicide can not bring pleasure nor profit to the deceased. So the suicidal act, by definition, cannot accurately be described as selfish. Suicide extinguishes any notion of the self. An act that causes the sense of self to no longer exist is inherently not selfish.

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