Creative Commons image from JD Hancock
“Sometimes I really want to kill myself.”
“I hear that’s bad for your health!”
The above exchange took place between a suicidal teenager and their friend. At first the joke might seem a bit insensitive, but in reality it captures a nuance about suicidal thinking that’s rarely discussed: suicide and death are not synonymous. Not in the mind of someone contemplating taking their own life.
Indeed, there are many twisted subtleties about suicidal thinking that seem counter-intuitive at first, pointing to one of the hurdles facing suicide prevention and awareness raising efforts: the thought processes of someone considering suicide are often much different from those of people not sharing those thoughts. Spreading a shared understanding of what it’s actually like to face thoughts of killing oneself is therefore a vital step in the fight against suicide (and all mental health-related) stigma.
For instance: many (mistakenly) think of suicide as a selfish act. How could someone inflict so much grief and suffering on those they leave behind? For one thing, reluctance to inflict such pain on loved ones is often a vital protective factor for suicidal people. But for many – especially suicide attempters – suicide is actually thought of as selfless, due to a perception that they are a burden on those close to them, and that the world would somehow be better off if they were not part of it.
More to the point of this post, here’s another intriguing one: Contrary to common belief, most of the people I work with who are actively suicidal don’t actually want to die. Sure, they no longer want to be alive as they know it – they may view their current and future lives as unsurvivable – but they don’t want to be dead. Suicide is viewed as an escape from an unbearable set of circumstances, death an unfortunate side effect.
As a professional working to prevent suicide, I’ll admit to having had difficulty reconciling this seeming contradiction. I often hear things like, “if I had killed myself, I wouldn’t be facing this problem,” and it can be a challenge to respond with empathy when the temptation to point out logical flaws is strong. “Don’t you understand, killing yourself won’t solve anything,” I find myself wanting to say. Problems and solutions are properties of the living, after all. Death cannot be a solution, because to be is to exist, and to exist to live. Put another way, the only thing suicide can really promise is the elimination of any chance of anything getting better. Granted, we must be cautious to avoid taking this line of thinking to the extreme of another problematic myth – that suicide is an act of weakness, or of giving up – but that’s another post for another day.
All this though is missing the point, which is, again: suicide and death are not synonymous. When I’m challenged to empathize with a suicidal client, I’m often helped by reminding myself of the above fact. When I see the two as inextricably linked, a suicidal person may not. To use one of my least favourite clichés, the sooner I can ‘meet the client where they are at,’ the more effectively we can carry on with therapy.
P.S. – Today is World Suicide Prevention Day! Check out the International Association of Suicide Prevention’s website to find an awareness-raising event near you.