Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. There are many ways to approach the concept of suicide prevention. One of those ways is to decrease the stigma related to suicidality, because stigma tends to promote silence, and silence is definitely not a good thing when it comes to suicidality.
One stigmatized belief that I see frequently expressed is that suicide is selfish, and that is the topic for this post. I was inspired to write about this by a conversation I had recently with My Dream Walden.
What does selfish mean?
Let’s begin by defining the word selfish:
- Merriam-Webster: “concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others”
- Dictionary.com: “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.”
- Lexico: “(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.”
I don’t think desperately seeking to end seemingly unendurable pain qualifies as either advantage, pleasure, benefit, or welfare.
Debate.org strikes me as a hotbed of ill-informed opinions, meaning it’s probably reasonably representative of society at large these days. They have a debate page on this very topic (partially archived on Wayback Machine). 41% of respondents believed that suicide is selfish. A few highlights/lowlights from those opinions:
- “You should endure the pain you go through to save others from it.”
- “They are so absorbed in the bad of their own lives. They don’t think about the other people in their lives. Like the parents who gave them life.”
- “The pain inflicted on others is worse than the pain [the] person was experiencing.”
- The person committing suicide is concerned only with ending his/her own suffering, which is an obvious profit, hence a selfish act.”
- “I believe suicide is the most selfish act someone can commit in most cases… The suicidal person is not considering all the good he can do in the world and for himself. To just end it all is ultimately a cop-out from life for someone who doesn’t know how to deal with it”
- “They are taking the easy way out instead of trying to make things better for themselves. They say they can’t help how they feel and that we don’t understand heck yes we do and you can definitely help what you are feeling everyone has bad moments in their lives it just depends what we decide to do when the time comes.”
What I find even more disturbing is when people who have a mental illness and have experienced suicidal ideation publicly express their belief that suicide is selfish. Doing a Google search on the topic, I found one blogger (who I wasn’t familiar with) who believed that “committing suicide is the most selfish thing a person can do.” I also know a blogger with a large following who has stated on multiple occasions that suicide is selfish.
What interests me is the frequent claim that a suicidal person is selfish for not considering other people, but by the same token, wouldn’t it be rather selfish to expect a suicidal person to continue tolerating excruciating pain in order to avoid causing pain to the people around them? The latter probably sounds strange and wrong, so why should the former?
Suicidal thought patterns
Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts don’t typically occur in the context of clear thinking. Mental illness can make thought processes less and less logical. Cognitive deconstruction is a process that can cause an intense narrowing of focus that can facilitate a shift from thinking about suicide to acting.
I wrote recently about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, with intrinsic typically being a more powerful motivator. In the past, when I’ve experienced thoughts of suicide, even after I lost the intrinsic will to live, I was still extrinsically motivated to live for the sake of my family. When things get really hard, though, extrinsic motivation alone isn’t enough to stand on. Staying alive solely for the sake of others felt like a selfless act that I no longer had the energy to continue to do.
When things happen, the natural tendency is to try to understand why they happened. In the case of suicide, there typically isn’t a clear answer as to why it happened. That doesn’t stop people from trying to understand, though. The notion of suicide being selfish is a convenient target to attribute difficult emotions experienced by people who have lost someone. Anger, for instance, may seem like a “wrong” emotion to be experiencing, but identifying the suicide as selfish may allow anger to seem like a more acceptable response.
An attribution I would like to see more of is suicide being viewed as death by mental illness, just like some physical illnesses can be fatal. Granted, not all suicide deaths are a result of mental illness, but a great many are. Is it really all that different from death by other terminal illnesses? What we need is to intervene earlier and more effectively so that mental illness doesn’t get to that terminal stage.
Is suicide selfish?
So, is suicide selfish? I would say a resounding no. And to those who do think it is, I think it’s worth some self-reflection to see where that’s actually coming from.
To bring it back to World Suicide Prevention Day, attitudes matter when it comes to suicide. Unhelpful attitudes, such as the selfishness viewpoint, promote silence as people are fearful of being judged. When it comes to suicide, silence can be deadly.
The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.
22 thoughts on “No, Suicide Is Not Selfish”
Interesting point about blaming the suicidal to allow one’s anger towards them.
If 41% of respondents believed that suicide is selfish, surely that means a majority DON’T believe that. Or was there a big ‘don’t know’ category?
The way that site is set up it’s a binary yes or no.
Thanks Ashley, for tackling a very challenging and difficult subject. I did contact the author in private (we could be talking about different bloggers here) and she did explain her reasons. Funny though she later wrote on her social media that she didn’t expect to be contacted by a stranger about something she wrote in her book and that if she read something she didn’t like, she would not have contacted the author. While I can accept her explanation as to why she wrote what she wrote in her book, her response on social media made me feel she didn’t appreciate the possible impact of what she wrote and that for a mental health advocate, that’s kind of insensitive. You wrote a post recently about anti-advice, although it’s about blogging, I do think it applies as well to other areas. There is a tendency for people to just give personal opinion and then call them “good advice”. This can be dangerous when it comes to mental health and when someone who holds a certain power or responsibility make an insensitive and stigmatizing statement like that, even if it wasn’t their intent, it still annoys me. Now I wonder who is the selfish one? Sorry I’m venting my frustration here because I am likely to skip this part in my response post, which I’m sorry, it will have to wait after WSPD.
Wow, sounds like she has a really bad attitude about it. I agree, if someone has a platform where their voice is heard by a lot of people, it’s important to make sure that voice is used in a constructive way.
To answer a question posted by a reader above, there was a study on the stigma of suicide scale published in 2012. The study was conducted in Australia and 676 staff and students from a local university answered a survey, which used a 5-point likert scale, 38.3% agree/strongly agree that suicide is selfish. I’m not sure what is the percentage of respondents who answered neutral, disagree, strongly disagree. https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/full/10.1027/0227-5910/a000156
I can send you the paper if you are interested.
No problem, I will send it tomorrow…. it’s my bedtime now (2:45am) 😁
Good night 😴
Telling someone they must continue on in unrelenting pain so OTHER PEOPLE don’t feel sad is the selfish thing!
The only time I consider suicide selfish is when people take others with them. No need for a mom to kill her kids too, if she can’t go on. Drop them off somewhere first and go. Don’t drive your car into traffic, etc. That’s my only caveat.
Reblogged!! I love how you always get these discussions going!
A very nice view. I have always been against the proposition that suicide is selfish. other than treat them as criminals, they should be taken as victims of pain.
Thanks for your comment.
Well written. I admit the pain that leads to suicide will never be understood by someone who never faced such an overwhelming emotion and agony. I pray that the world will understand mental illness as a diseases, just like physical illness.
Yes I hope so too.
Great post. You are always so insightful and your posts are thought-provoking.
suicide is definitely not a selfish act! Anyone who says it is, is so, so wrong! Nobody chooses to have a mental illness, that causes them to feel suicidal! Thanks for this post Ashley! It was a good one! xo