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.
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. 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 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.
I suspect attribution theory is also relevant here. 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. 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 illness 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.
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. Unconstructive attitudes, such as the selfishness viewpoint, promote silence as people are fearful of being judged. When it comes to suicide, silence can be deadly.
You can find a list of crisis resources here.