Confronting suicide: Breaking the silence around one of mental health’s biggest taboos

A couple months ago I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) through my workplace. This was an intensive two-day training designed for anyone (i.e., not just mental health professionals) who wanted to learn how to deliver “suicide first aid.” In the training we learned very practical intervention skills that were based on a scientifically-proven model. One of the best things about this training was that it also allowed for honest, candid conversation about some of the controversial aspects of suicide. We openly discussed questions like, “Is suicide morally wrong?” and “Is suicide always preventable?” The discussions had me reflecting back on a lot of the attitudes I’ve encountered over the years. People tend to have very strong feelings about suicide, and I’m not here to tell anyone their opinions are wrong. I merely want to add some more context, based on my personal experiences, to some common ideas.

“Suicide is a selfish (and even, malicious) act.”

Some people really do see suicide as a completely selfish and/or even malicious act. I understand this. I actually used to believe this before I ever experienced serious suicidal ideation myself. A girl I went to school with hung herself in her front yard; her parents found her dead that way as they pulled in the driveway. This event really rattled me, and I found myself really angry at this girl. How could she do that to her family? I knew she didn’t have a great relationship with her parents, but this? It seemed so… evil. 

Fast forward a couple years and my stance really shifted. Things with my eating disorder were not getting better. Actually, they were getting a lot worse, even after countless rounds of “treatment.” I truly felt like I was destined to suffer like that forever. In 2010 I made two serious attempts to take my life and looking back I can honestly say that hurting anyone but myself was the furthest thing from my mind. I actually wasn’t in any sound state of mind; I was at a breaking point with my eating disorder. I used to describe it as “not being able to keep up with my behaviors.” There comes a point when the disease really overtakes you and you feel entirely controlled by it. I was running almost completely on adrenaline, starving and exercising all day and then binge/purging all night until the early morning hours. I slept maybe 2-3 hours a night but only when I finally passed out from exhaustion. I hated every single minute of it, but it had become this compulsive interminable routine that I could not stop. My life as I once knew it was already over, because I had no time or energy to devote to any of the people or things that once meant something to me. I saw absolutely no way out other than to kill myself. I didn’t even feel like a person anymore. I was of no value to anyone anymore (so I thought), so there was no point in sticking around.

I don’t doubt there have been people who have killed themselves with the intent of hurting others, but this certainly isn’t the norm. Many people who attempt or complete suicide are under the influence of any number of things that have significantly impaired their judgement. I’m not only referring to substances like drugs and alcohol; it could also be severe depression, starvation, sleep deprivation, trauma, psychosis, etc. I can tell you that after a few weeks of improved nutrition, sleep, and medication adjustments in the hospital I could no longer identify with the person who had attempted suicide just a few weeks prior. My eating disorder hadn’t gone away, and I wasn’t cured of my depression, but my brain was functioning well enough to be able to see things more realistically. I could see myself as a person again, a real person with real people in my life who cared about me.

“People who are serious about suicide won’t talk about it.”

This may be true for some, but it certainly is not always the case. I know in the worst of my illness I was constantly talking to my therapist about death and wishing to die. I think I probably talked about it so much that she eventually stopped reacting like she had in the beginning. I think my attempts really took her by surprise because she was so used to me just talking about it but never acting. I don’t blame her at all for not “predicting it,” I just think it’s worth pointing out that just because someone has talked about suicide for months or even years without acting, that doesn’t mean they won’t at some point reach their breaking point.

Related to this, I think it’s important not to assume that just because someone has “failed” to complete a suicide once or even several times, this doesn’t mean they weren’t serious in their intent to die, nor does it mean they won’t “succeed” in the future. I’ll never forget the time I saw my psychiatrist for the first time after my string of suicide attempts in early 2010. “Well, you’re not very good at this are you?” He said this with an obnoxious grin on his face. And yes, he had a very odd sense of humor. “Well,” I replied, “I’m clearly not very good at this ‘life’ thing either, which is why I keep trying to end it. Maybe you could help me with that instead of mocking my very real suicide attempts?” Actually, I don’t remember what I said at the time, but probably not that. 😉 This response came to me after the fact, like the best comebacks usually do.

There is no “typical suicidal person;” some people openly talk about their thoughts and plans, whereas other people give no outward signs there’s a problem at all. A person who talks about suicide may not be in immediate danger, but he/she is giving you information that should not be ignored.

“All suicides are preventable.”

I wrote the following in December 2013, after a series of eating disorder-related deaths (mostly by suicide) occurred in one of my communities:

    Over the years I’ve unfortunately witnessed many friends, friends of friends, and acquaintances die from this disease, whether it be directly or by suicide. It is of course always extremely sad. However, I think it is misguided to say things like, “how many more people have to die from this disease until the world gets it?” This implies that if only the world “understood it,” it would go away, or people would stop succumbing to it, or even that the world is somehow AT FAULT for all the suffering. I’m all for (responsibly, in the right way) educating the public simply because it is FAR more pleasant interacting with people who have a clue than with the ignorant, but even everyone in the world “getting it” wouldn’t stop the suffering. Eating disorders are complex multifaceted mental illnesses without simple causes. Can’t we just accept that recovery is really f-ing hard and not easily or at all attainable for some, even after multiple attempts and lots of “knowledge”? I’m not discrediting the importance of having supportive people in your life–people who “get it”– this is incredibly helpful, but even the best friends/family members/therapists/mentors can only do so much. I can also imagine that reading something like “when is the world going to wake up?!?” could come off as insensitive to the people who HAVE been “awake,” supportive, and knowledgable and still unable to stop horrible things from happening to the ones they love.

Two and a half years later, although slightly less cynical than I was then, I still generally feel the same way. It’s a complicated subject and I’ll admit my views are likely very colored by my own experiences, particularly in the world of eating disorders. I’ve already blogged about my views on conventional treatment and how ineffective it is for many people, especially those with chronic eating disorders. A lot of the people I’ve known who have died by suicide had been through multiple treatments, had access to some of the best doctors and therapists, and had a slew of very loving and supportive people in their lives. It often isn’t a matter of the world not understanding or caring, it’s just the sad but true fact that eating disorders (or depression, substance abuse, etc.) are powerful, unrelenting forces that sometimes can’t be taken down.

This is a tricky subject because I don’t mean to imply that anyone should ever be deemed hopeless or untreatable. What I do want to convey is that we (friends, family members, therapists) are all only human, and we can only do so much. As great as it would be to think that with enough love, effort, and knowledge we can save everyone, that’s not reality. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that it is not always in a person’s best interest to continue to engage with a chronically suicidal person, for the sake of their own mental health. I unfortunately witnessed the dissolution of a very close friendship shortly after my suicide attempts in 2010. This person had to go through the trauma of finding me unconscious one night, not knowing if I would ever wake up. She had to watch me come out of the hospital a few weeks later seemingly “so much better” (my words) only to repeat the same series of events less than a month later. This was on top of having to deal with me as a very sick and unreliable friend for many years. After an awkward attempt to reconnect shortly after these events, our communication gradually dwindled until we were no longer talking. I still miss her, but I don’t blame her for anything. She did what she needed to do to protect herself and I’m glad she did.

The ASIST training focused on the initial interactions with a person at risk, understanding their situation, and keeping them “safe for now.” Sometimes that’s all you can do. As a society, I hope we continue to talk openly about suicide. Even though knowledge alone cannot save everyone, it helps break the stigma and forces people to confront the issue instead of brushing it under the rug.

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1 thought on “Confronting suicide: Breaking the silence around one of mental health’s biggest taboos”

  1. Found your blog via your Ask a Manager comment and am really enjoying reading it so far. I have depression/dysthymia and struggle with overeating, so it’s great to read a blog from someone else who has been there and likes to analyze what’s really going on with both the conditions and the mental health industry that surrounds them.

    As to the topic of this specific blog post – I find the “suicide is selfish and malicious and there’s always a way to avoid it” attitude so frustrating (and self-contradictory: how can you be completely self-centered and motivated by trying to hurt others at the same time?). I often feel like the people who spout it are completely lacking in, I guess you’d call it empathetic imagination. Surely there is no one out there who has made it to adulthood (hell, puberty) without having at least one moment of complete and utter despair, even if it was fleeting. Maybe there are more out there than I think; I guess they are fortunate in most senses, and I wouldn’t wish my depressive episodes on anyone, but as a result I don’t think they really know what it’s like for someone who’s having a really hard time, and multiply that level of difficulty when there are ‘comorbidities’ like other psychiatric issues, problems with physical health, chronic or acute, disabilities, and just general life situations that suck.

    The thing with depressive episodes, for me at least, is that my thinking is dysfunctional. I become self-obsessed and selfish. I know intellectually that there’s a world out there, and other people who I interact with, but none of it seems quite real emotionally. That solipsism is part of the package with depression, and anything else that makes you actively suicidal or experiencing suicidal ideation. So it’s weird to criticize suicidal people for being selfish; of course they’re selfish, they’re in so much pain that they can’t think about anything else. I’m pretty sure that anyone who’s in a situation that puts them in incredible pain (physical, mental or both) and makes them feel like their life is over would be thinking about themselves all the time too. It’s like criticizing someone who just lost their leg in an industrial accident for thinking about how they have no leg anymore, instead of how their coworkers are going to react.

    Obviously it’s horrible when you lose a friend or family member to suicide, and there’s a lot of guilt, fear and grief for those who are left behind (more so than with less emotionally fraught ways of dying like an accident, illness or old age). And I guess anger is a natural response, but blaming the person who killed themselves without even trying to understand their point of view, even if it was dysfunctional and inaccurate at the time, is just lazy and self-centered itself.

    Our culture is so relentlessly positive, often without any basis in reality. People with depression aren’t ever allowed to feel justified in feeling sad at all, even the kind of sad which is a natural part of the human experience and not necessarily at diagnosable levels. It’s really frustrating to have the only picture of recovery be one that seems fake and artificial. ‘Suicide is evil and bad, and you are evil and bad if it ever even crosses your mind briefly’ is an unfair and unrealistic expectation to hold people to – anyone who’s a thinking, feeling human being, not just those of us who are dealing with mental illness.

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