Brute Reason

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MAY 16, 2012 3:44PM

What You’re Really Saying When You Say that Suicide is “Selfish”

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I’m still thinking about the Chet Hanks suicide thing from last week and the various responses to it that I saw online. Specifically, I cited two comments that referred to suicide as “selfish.”

“Selfish” has to be one of the most common adjectives people think of when thinking about suicide. Those of us who are involved in mental health advocacy could probably rant at you for hours about how this word perpetuates the stigma that mental illness and suicide carry in our society, how useless and counterproductive it is to accuse a suicidal person of being “selfish,” and so on. In fact, if you get nothing else out of this post, I hope you reconsider using that word to describe suicide if you’ve done so before.

But I can understand where this sentiment comes from. While everyone loses loved ones at some point in their lives, relatively few people experience suicidality first-hand. For this reason, people understand the latter situation much less than the former. Faced with the thought that someone you love might kill themselves and put you through all the resulting grief just because of some inner turmoil that you can’t see or understand, it makes sense that you might feel that suicide is selfish.

At the same time, though, conceptualizing suicide as a “selfish act” sends the message that people somehow “owe it” to their loved ones to stay alive despite immense emotional pain. When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.

I don’t mean to discount the grief that people feel when someone they love commits suicide–that’s real, valid, and deserves attention. And, obviously, I believe that people should not commit suicide. But I believe that because I also believe that people can recover from the pain that’s causing them to consider suicide, not because they owe it to others to live.

What all of this comes down to is that most people do not (and perhaps cannot) understand what actually goes through a suicidal person’s mind. Maybe they assume that suicidal people are just sad the way all of us sometimes get sad, except maybe a bit more so. (I honestly don’t know how mentally healthy people think about suicide because I haven’t been one for a while.) It would indeed be rather selfish to put your friends and family through so much pain just because you felt sad one day.

But that’s not how suicide works.

The way I see it, the tragedy of suicide is not (or is not only) the fact that an individual’s suicide also hurts others. Rather, it’s that the individual could have found a way to heal, be happy, and live out the rest of his or her life. Calling suicide a “selfish” thing to do erases that latter tragedy and implies that our primary purpose in life is not to create a meaningful and worthwhile life for ourselves, but to keep our friends and family happy at all costs.

Our first priority should be to convince those who want to take their own lives that those lives are intrinsically valuable and should be preserved for their own sake. Only when they’ve accepted that premise can they even begin to think clearly about their obligations and interactions with other people.

Telling a suicidal person that suicide is “selfish” only reinforces the guilt they already feel. People should choose to live because their lives feel worth living to them, not out of a sense of obligation towards others.

Note: Since this is quite a sensitive topic both for me and probably for many readers, please try to be especially careful with your comments. I reserve the right to delete any comments that I feel may trigger people, even if they’re completely on-topic.

Filed under: psychology, unpopular opinions Tagged: depression, family, language, mental illness, people, psychology, suicide

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This is so true. I know a few people who have lost loved ones to suicide. They did not say anything about selfishness. They were so deeply saddened by the loss a complex, beautiful person, and knowing that there was so much suffering.
the old addage rings true: suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Totally agree that that's the real tragedy. That being said, there's absolutely selfishness in the act of suicide. This morning a man jumped in front of a subway train at Farragut north station here in washington DC. This is the station I use commuting to and from work. To commit sucidie so sickening, and yes selfish. Anyone who watched this happen will be scarred for life. I don't want to sound petty, but hundreds of thousdands of commuters who depend on public transportation will now be severely inconvenienced and unable to get home. This act was EXTREMELY selfish. This jerk brought down the mental well being of dozens of witnesses to commit such a worthless, despicable act. I was severely depressed for most of my life--I still struggle with it...still have my days here and there--but I know i DO owe it to the people that love me not to rip my life away from them. I'm torn on this issue. I do respect your opinion, but I dont think you see the full side of this.