Is Suicide a Choice? (Regardless, It’s Not Selfish)

Is suicide a choice? It's not selfish, but it's not passive/involuntary - graphic of arrows pointing in two directions

This post isn’t about saying that suicide is something people should choose, or that it’s a good choice, or that it’s a choice that they want to have on the menu. I’m writing this because, while it’s much more complicated to get into the element of choice, I believe that it’s inaccurate to say that it’s not a choice, full stop. So let’s talk about it.

As a quick background about me, I have major depressive disorder and have a history of multiple suicide attempts. This post is not written because of any current suicidal ideation.

Defining terms

To be clear on what we’re talking about, we first need to be clear on what the words mean. Let’s consider some definitions (from Google Dictionary unless otherwise noted):

  • suicide: (this comes from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, as Google Dictionary doesn’t provide a definition)
    • “Suicide is death caused by injuring oneself with the intent to die. A suicide attempt is when someone harms themselves with any intent to end their life, but they do not die as a result of their actions” (CDC Fast Facts)
    • Wikipedia‘s definition, “the act of intentionally causing one’s own” cites Stedman’s Medical Dictionary
  • choice: “an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities”
  • intentional: “done on purpose; deliberate”
  • involuntary: “done without will or conscious control”
  • selfish: “lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure”
  • selfless: “concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own; unselfish”
    • Google defines unselfish as “willing to put the needs or wishes of others before one’s own”

Choice does not mean that the options are good. It also doesn’t mean that you have control over what the options are, or how many of them are available. To be a choice only requires two options: A or B (in the case of suicide, living or dying). A choice is not inherently the result of a clear, unimpaired decision-making process; it’s simply picking A or B (or possibly C, D, E, or F) and having the mental capacity to know what the consequences are.

Relating these terms to suicide

In the case of suicide, a thought process known as cognitive deconstruction may be at play, but that narrows one’s focus on choices and consequences rather than removing them altogether. It doesn’t remove awareness that dying is the consequence, but it temporally restricts the view of consequences so that nothing beyond the immediate consequence (as in lights out) is relevant.

Suicide is done with the intention to die (if the intent is not to die, that would be a suicidal gesture). It’s not the same thing as an accident, which involves neither intention nor choice. It is active, not passive or involuntary. The act of suicide is not the same thing as symptoms of illness that require no action whatsoever on the part of the ill person.

Suicide is neither selfish nor selfless/unselfish; for that matter, most choices don’t come down to selfishness or selflessness. It would be very difficult to argue, based on the dictionary definition, that suicide is selfish. So why does understanding of the English language fly out the window when it comes to suicide and selfishness? Stigma. Stigma encompasses attitudes that have nothing to do with dictionary definitions; after all, no one is going to spontaneously stop thinking suicide is selfish because it’s pointed out to them that the word doesn’t actually mean what they want it to mean.

Availability and acceptability of choices

The options that are and are not acceptable to an individual may not appear the same way to others. I could choose to be hospitalized for my illness, where I would have access to a more effective form of treatment than I can access in the community. However, there are some very significant downsides to hospitalization, so in very few circumstances would that be an acceptable choice for me. Deeming that option unacceptable is, in itself, a choice, even though it’s not ideal.

Happiness, on the other hand, is deemed by many to be a choice, but while it may be desirable, it’s not always on the menu of options. If my options are A or B, it doesn’t accomplish anything for me to try to choose H.

Suicide vs suicidal

The StatPearls medical reference describes suicidal ideation as a “broad term used to describe a range of contemplations, wishes, and preoccupations with death and suicide.” Suicide is an action, and suicidal ideation is a thought process.

A 2014 article by the CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention was titled “Suicide Is Not Cowardly.” He wrote:

“Suicide is not a choice. Suicide is a health issue. Suicide can result if a mental illness—like major depression or bipolar disorder—goes untreated, in the same way that a patient can die from pneumonia if they go untreated.”

Later in the article, he wrote: “It’s important to understand that people who are feeling suicidal do not choose to feel that way; their feelings are a symptom of their mental illness.”

There is a very important distinction that absolutely needs to be made between suicide as an action and suicidal thinking. Suicidal ideation as a symptom of mental illness is not a matter of choice; it’s a symptom, and it may be entirely involuntary. Cognitive behavioural therapy tells us that thoughts and actions are not the same thing.

Symptoms and resulting behaviours

Suicide is absolutely a health issue. Suicidal ideation can be a symptom of depression and other mental illnesses. However, if you have pneumonia and you do nothing, that pneumonia might kill you involuntarily. If you have suicidal ideation and you do nothing, you will remain alive. To go from suicidal ideation to dead requires an action (or long-term deliberate inaction that leads to death by failure to attend to the basic needs of life).

In an article on titled Suicide Is Not A Choice, the author compared suicide to obsessions in OCD, arguing it’s not a choice, it’s a disorder that requires treatment. However, obsessive thoughts are a closer match to suicidal ideation, i.e. suicidal thoughts. Comparing suicide to compulsions makes for a far looser analogy, but a fundamental part of OCD treatment is not acting out compulsions. If a choice can be made not to perform compulsions, that is only possible if there was some element of choice in performing them—not a good choice, not a desirable choice, not a choice that would be made if better options could be identified, but not an involuntary action.

Is addiction a choice? Absolutely not. Is cracking open a bottle right now a choice? Yes. Are the alternatives that are available right now (withdrawal, emotional suffering, going to an AA meeting, etc.) any better? For that person, in that moment, probably not, or that bottle would remain unopened. Choice doesn’t mean having options that are good or what you would prefer. Effective treatment allows better alternatives to exist and be available.

Suicide behaves like a verb, not a noun

Sometimes suicide is used as a verb, as in “he suicided.” It gets rid of any spare bells and whistles and sticks to the point. What got me started on this post was reading an article from the Canadian Mental Health Association that says you’re not supposed to say “suicided.” They didn’t give a reason, but my guess is that they were probably averse to the idea that there’s any choice in suicide, perhaps because that seems too easy to link to blame, which can then link to stigma.

Yet suicide is not involuntary, nor is it passive. It requires conscious action; it behaves more like a verb than a noun. When suicidal people come up with detailed plans, gather lethal means, and possibly write suicide notes, those are active steps. Those steps are likely taken because mental illness or some other form of desperation has taken away (or at least appears to have taken away) other acceptable options.

The people who died by actively jumping, rather than falling, from the Twin Towers on 9/11 faced two choices, to burn to a crisp in the fire or jump; both were horrible options, but there were no apparent alternatives (like living), and those people chose what seemed like the least painful option. Being intensely suicidal can be like that. There appears to be one option, out of the shitty options of living or dying, that’s perceived as being associated with the least pain. Intense pain drowns out thinking about long-term consequences, but it doesn’t erase the ability to make choices from what appears to be available.

A lack of acceptable options

At those times when I tried to take my own life, I was committed to dying (there’s that word, commit). I had made plans, and I was committed to following through on them. I could absolutely have chosen in those moments not to try to die. However, living was not an option that I considered to be acceptable at those times. Option A was living and option B was dying, and my choice was dying.

Was I ill? Absolutely, very much so. Did the suicidal thinking originate in a choice? Nope. Would option B even have been on the table if I was well? Nope. Would I have made a different decision if other options were available and acceptable? Quite possibly, but that doesn’t negate the fact that I chose option B, dying. There was no impulsivity; the planning, procuring of means, and acting were all intentional. To say there was no choice leaves out a significant part of the overall picture of my personal experiences.

Obviously, not everyone has the same experiences, nor am I by any means trying to suggest that everyone perceives an element of choice in their own personal experiences. However, it only takes one purple people eater to demonstrate that the assertion that purple people eaters don’t exist isn’t accurate.

Does it matter if suicide is a choice?

Where am I seeing a link between the notion of choice and stigma? If suicide is not a choice, there’s no room for blame, and therefore, how could there be any basis for stigma? Easy-peasy lemon squeezy. Yet stigma can exist even if something is passive (like having a certain skin colour), and it can be absent when something is an active choice (like choosing takeout rather than delivery).

In a way, this reminds me of the tabula rasa (blank slate) concept and the belief that in order to be equal, we must be the same. From that comes the belief that it’s unacceptable to talk about being different, because that would open the door for inequality based on those differences. You see this in some arguments about sex differences being fully socially constructed, with no biological basis for difference.

Choice. Rational. Selfish. Cowardly. Blame. Shame. Stigma. These are all different things that don’t automatically go together. Treating them as though they do ends up oversimplifying the issue in a way that avoids getting at the meat of it. That meat of it is the stigma that forges those linkages, regardless of what’s in the dictionary. Looking for new words with acceptable dictionary definitions just fuels the euphemism treadmill, because stigma doesn’t operate based on dictionaries.

What this means for suicide prevention

In terms of suicide prevention, if we’re busy talking about suicide not being a choice, we’re not talking about providing better options. As long as mentally ill people can’t access treatment, perhaps because the emergency department is telling them they’re just “attention-seeking” and “not suicidal enough”, or the NHS’s SIM program has deemed them too much of a pain in the ass to be helped, or they can’t afford therapy, or their illness is treatment-resistant and the meds only do so much but there isn’t anything better available, it’s going to be hard for people to come up with better options. Why are those barriers in place? That probably has a lot to do with stigma too.

Maybe we need to talk more about the consequences of the shitty options that are made available because of both the existence of stigma and the difficulty of getting effective treatment for mental illness, and less about whether or not there’s an element of choice in suicide. Because bigger changes need to happen to stop suicide from ever being the most acceptable of the available options for anyone, and oversimplification probably isn’t going to get us there.

Straight talk on suicide - graphics of phoenix and semicolon

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.

34 thoughts on “Is Suicide a Choice? (Regardless, It’s Not Selfish)”

  1. Since I was a child I always found the idea of suicide comforting, that I could affect my own death. Death was always an attractive option to me. – I recently discovered that one should share that information.

  2. Great post, Ashley. Till now this is one of the vivid description I’ve been through on this topic.
    I too got in the influence of suicidal thoughts in 2018. I’ll admit that I searched for “painless suicide method”. That thing is far away now & I hope become same for everyone.
    Treating suicidal thoughts as just another illness is one of the affective major. It reduce the possibility of further guilt.

  3. Ashley, thank you for addressing this issue.

    You may want to consider:

    1. The link between parasitic brain infections and suicide, which I mentioned in a current post, and for which there is an estimated 30% global rate of infection, and
    2. Perceptions of suicide in other cultures. What comes to mind are both Jewish (e.g., Masada) and Japanese (seppuku) in which acts of suicide are honored events.

    The Roman Church and its offshoots have long shunned suicide as against the will of God, but some of these are the same people who shun modern medicine, masks and people who don’t conform. We may want to step out of the Western framework in analyzing suicide.

    Are there situations in which suicide is logical and appropriate? That’s an extraordinarily difficult question, but it is also probably quite inappropriate to brand everyone who considers suicide as mentally ill, as many individuals and psychiatrists still do.

    1. I think it’s incorrect to say that suicide is considered an honored event in Judaism. Masada is viewed as an act of martyrdom, which is really seen quite differently.
      Judaism considers suicide outside of the martyrdom context to be a violation of Jewish law, however, most Rabbis of all streams of Judaism recognize that suicide is the result of great pain and mental illness, and will generally be find ways to “de-classify” as a halachic suicide so that the traditional burial and mourning rituals can be observed.

  4. I’ve often found the discussion over suicide one that makes me cringe, and I think some of it is when the talk turns to whether it’s selfish and whether that person has a choice.

    It made me think about, without making this egotistically all about me, when I had my stoma. I say “there was no choice”, but really there was. I could have not had it, and eventually died, or I could go ahead with having a stoma. No options are great, but I suppose not doing something is an option, if you decide to see it as such.

    Same thing goes for suicide in that case. You can keep going in life, being it’s not technically impossible to do that, or you can end it. You don’t “choose” to feel the way you feel, it just is.

    To “choose” to end your life has ramifications not just for you but for others, and that’s where the stigma you talk about comes in all the more. It’s “selfish” to leave your family behind, it’s “selfish” to end the life you were kindly given, “selfish” to die when so many “have it worse off than you”. Such things aren’t just unhelpful, they’re incredibly dangerous.

    I think I’ve probably only once or twice come across “suicided” before. It doesn’t ring right to me, but that’s not the meaning behind it that’s just the way the word sounds (like saying “someone swimmed” instead of “someone swam”). But yes, I agree, it’s a verb because it’s doing, it’s action (or inaction in less common cases) that leads to the end point.

    Thank you for being so open in sharing your feelings around your own attempts. This is the sort of stuff I personally think should be talked about more. Not “word soup” and wishy washy conceptualisation, but real talk about real experiences.

    I think – to me at least – it’s more logical to say there’s choice in suicide as an action but there’s no choice in how you feel. The stigma is what needs to change as does the overall framework for dealing with mental health, suicide attempts and those in need of help that are currently deemed as not being “sick” enough.

    Another incredible post, Ashley.
    Caz xx

    1. I think that distinction between actions and thoughts/feelings is a really important one that often gets blurred over. And I think a lot does get blurry because it’s not an uncomfortable topic. Adding to the difficulty talking about it is the amount of word policing going on. There’s a lot of nuance that’s likely to get lost when dialogue gets shut down.

      The selfish thing is weird. By that logic, no one should eat, because they’re selfishly depriving others of food.

  5. When I was suicidal, I did see living and dying as a choice, but I saw living as the worse choice. Even when I weighed my options, I only saw things staying as bad as they currently felt. I felt as though life was meaningless and everyone would be fine without me anyway. I still feel this way, to a point. Rationally, I believe everyone I know would be able to move on and heal if I died. But I’m living now because my life did get better and I enjoy it, even though it took a lot of time and work to feel that way.

  6. Judgments can be easy ways for people to try to make meaning. People tend to default their judgments to good vs bad. When the topic is complicated and judgments are easy, the disconnect seems obvious. Most people don’t know shit about anything in detail but judge as though they do. You taught us about the dunning-kruger effect, as when regular folk suddenly question doctorate level epidemiologists about efficacy of masking, etc.

    Any asshole can judge. It takes real work to learn and practice empathy: listening nonjudgmentally with compassion, showing up.

    We aim to slow down and do the work of empathy. ❤️💕❤️

    1. Slowing down, showing up, and listening are so important. Trying to make complicated thing simple doesn’t work very well, and accepting people’s experiences in all their complexity goes a long way. ❤️❤️❤️

  7. Journalofthegrey

    I don’t think that some people really know what it’s like when it comes to the point where you feel that suicide is an option.

    Some people choose alcohol, some drugs, some both. Some of those and other things. But everyone has a thing where they choose something. Whether be a slow or instant death.

  8. I really appreciate your delicate and balanced handling of this complex and tabooed subject. It would’ve been easy to make blanket statements but your thorough explanation through progression of ideas answers the question much better than any yes vs. no opinion. Thank you for doing this matter justice…it’s rare!

  9. Over many years of my life, after I came close to wanting to actively jump to my death as a teenager, I put in place several mental obstacles to postpone suicide. And then as an adult, despite those obstacles, I also reached a point where I wanted to actively die.

    I really dislike some people (one of whom is a nurse, ugh!) who think suicide is “seeing attention”, “selfish” etc. That if I was serious, I’d not talk about suicide or make gestures but actually make a serious, real attempt.

    Because of that, I felt suicidal gestures wouldn’t help as a way to my family to see my pain, get my then psychiatrist to recognise my depression and chronic suicidal ideation etc. I was already desperate enough to want to make a suicidal gesture.

    I felt like I had to make not just an attempt, but a foolproof lethal completed suicide so I wouldn’t be “attention seeking” (though I bet I would have been called selfish) anymore but no longer in pain due to death.

  10. Its never selfish, in my opinion, it comes down to the level of pain a person is in, and whether they can keep tolerating that pain and some people just cant!

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