5 Toxic Misconceptions About Suicide No One Should Believe — and Here's Why
After writing the article, “To The Suicidal Mama Fighting to Stay Alive for Her Kids,” I received an incredible outpouring of kindness, gratitude and understanding for which I am eternally thankful.
So many people said “me too” and validated the thoughts and feelings of suicide that I battle on a daily basis. I am appreciative to those individuals who were vulnerable and identified themselves with me in solidarity, despite the sensitive nature of the topic. It is for those people who said “me too” and for all of those who weren’t able to say it, but were thinking it as well, that I feel the need to clarify some toxic misconceptions that were also shared in response to my article.
Misconception #1: “People who die by suicide don’t love their kids enough.”
Misconception #2: “People who have kids lose the right to kill themselves.”
Misconception #3: “Suicide is a choice.”
Misconception #4: “People who are suicidal don’t appreciate the gift of life.”
Misconception #5: “People can always get help if they just ask.”
We do not get to choose our battles in this life. We don’t get to pick what color our skin is, what socioeconomic status we are born into, who we love, what educational opportunities we have, our physical and mental health status, or the resulting oppression and prejudices that we may face. As much as we might like to think we are “in control” (after all, we are often taught that America is a meritocracy and if you just work “hard enough,” you can do anything), there are too many variables (i.e., institutional oppression, genetics, actions of others, etc.) outside of our control to truly make a significant and lasting difference in the outcome of our social and health determinants. This is not to say that changing socioeconomic class or superseding the educational status of one’s parents or beating the odds of a terminal illness is impossible — it happens, but these cases are the outliers, the exceptions, and usually the “lucky” ones.
Some people get lucky: they’re born with certain privileges, they win the lottery and don’t have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck, they enjoy perfect health regardless of their health behaviors. Some people are less lucky: they are discriminated against for things they cannot control (i.e. race, ability status, sexual orientation, sex, gender, body size, etc.), they never know what it’s like to experience financial security no matter how hard they work, they get a chronic and debilitating illness despite being the perfect image of health. We all know that this world can be cruel and someone can do everything exactly right — exactly as they are told — and still end up drawing the short straw. We just always hope it’s not us. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but it’s our daily lived reality, just like mental illness.
We do not get to choose whether or not we are neuro-normative. We don’t get to pick if we want to have a mental illness, what type, when it should become apparent and how it will affect us. We are not in control of the biological and social circumstances that result in mental illness, and therefore we are not in control of whether or not we experience suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
This is often evident when you look at intrusive thoughts. Even people without mental illnesses can have intrusive thoughts. For example, a person might think as they’re driving down the road, “Hmm, I wonder what it would be like to crash my car into that tree?” and just as quick as the thought came into their mind, it is gone. They might think “Wow, that was strange,” or “I’d never do that,” but the thought came and went all the same. Another example: someone with no history of violent tendencies gets enraged at their boss for a decision that the boss made and spouts, “I could just shoot him/her,” and in the same moment thinks, “But I’d never do something like that.” It’s not intentional and maybe even hardly noticeable, but intrusive thoughts can happen to us all.
Suicidal thoughts often start in the same way. At first, they are intrusive and unwelcomed. They are fleeting – a blip on the radar. When life gets extraordinary difficult, even people without any diagnosable mental illness can be prone to thinking “What if I just killed myself? Wouldn’t that make all these problems stop?” Usually the thoughts stop there and we find some other way out of the pain and discomfort of the situation, but as I explained in this article, humans are inherently rational beings and often do whatever they can to end their pain or discomfort. If death seems to be the only available option, we sometimes go against all of our human instincts to preserve life and do the unthinkable to end the pain.
“OK,” you might say, “we all have intrusive thoughts, but you are in control of whether or not you act on those thoughts and ideas. A person can choose not to kill themselves.” I see your point, but I disagree and here’s why:
While suicide can absolutely be prevented if caught and effectively treated in time, it is not a choice in the way we traditionally think. I know, that’s controversial, but stay with me: Depression is an illness of the mind and suicidal thoughts and actions are a symptom.
Not everyone who is depressed will have this symptom, but the ones who do never had a choice in the matter. This symptom is so pervasive, so sneaky, so malignant as it spreads and takes hold. What starts as a fleeting, invasive thought becomes a daily occurrence which becomes a plan which becomes the unwavering belief that there is not another option.
Here’s the kicker: A “choice” implies there are multiple outcomes to choose from. It also implies that a person is capable of weighing the perceived benefits and consequences of these various options and making a rational and well-informed decision about how to proceed. A “choice” also implies that a person has control of their actions. I know we like to believe that we are firmly in control of every decision we make, but ask anyone who’s promised themselves that “today will be the day I give up [fill in the blank]” only to end up in the depths of despair by the end of the day because they weren’t able to do it.
I don’t think this is a question of will power — there are some things you cannot “will” yourself into or out of no matter how hard you try. For example, try to hold your breath…keep holding it… and at some point, you will inevitably gasp for air whether you want to or not because your body will override your conscious choice to hold your breath in order to get the oxygen that it needs. You can choose to hold your breath over and over again, but your body will win out every time because ultimately, it isn’t in your control.
I believe people who attempt or die by suicide do so because their brain cannot conceive of there being another option to end the pain and suffering they are enduring. You cannot say something is a choice when there is only one thing to choose from. Someone cannot choose between options when there are none. Suicidal ideation, if left untreated, can literally change a person’s brain to the point that they cannot conceive of continuing to live as something they can do.
A suicidal person’s brain is substantively different than the brain of someone without suicidal thoughts. That is not a choice. That is the process of an illness being carried out – one that is determined by biology and environmental factors beyond that person’s control.
When a person dies by suicide, it is because an illness took hold and carried out its process, not because the person chose to die, or wasn’t strong enough, or didn’t appreciate life, or didn’t love their family enough, or whatever inane myth we’ve been told to believe. It is not a question of love anymore than when a person dies of any other life-threatening illness.
When people die of an illness, they are at its mercy. Sometimes, modern medicine can intervene. Sometimes we can treat and stop and reverse the process — and sometimes
we can’t. People die of suicide, not because they loved less or chose to be sick, but because their and our attempts are beating the illness were not enough and the process of the illness won out.
Why do we believe that illness is not a choice when it comes to illnesses pertaining to all other parts of the human body, but we can’t accept this explanation when it comes to aliments of the mind? Would it be more believable if I said depression is a tumor that pushes upon the part of the brain that controls impulse control and self-preservation instincts, and with enough time and pressure the tumor causes a person to act in a way they never would have otherwise and they die by suicide? Would we forgive people then for dying of an illness they had no control over in the first place? Would we empathize and understand and stop placing blame where it doesn’t belong?
What if we legitimized mental illness the way we do with physical illness? What if we understood that dying by suicide was no more a choice than dying of congenital heart disease? What if we stopped assuming that the person didn’t love their life enough or seek enough help or make the right choices and instead chose to believe that the person did the very best they possibly could given the circumstances? We need to place blame where blame belongs – on the mental illness, not the person.
I adamantly refuse to believe that me and the thousands, maybe millions, of other people that share in the burden of suicidal ideation, do so because we’re somehow not doing life “right.” If being suicidal were a lack of love, I’d never experience it, because no one could ever love my kids as much as I do. One more time for the people in the back: I do not struggle with suicidal thoughts because I am lacking in love for my children. That’s absurd. I will always love my children the most of anyone in life and in death. I don’t know how I will leave this world, but my love for my children has no bearing on it. If anything, I have fought like hell to stay in this world that causes me so much
grief and pain because of them, and if one day I can’t anymore for reasons beyond my control, that will not negate my love for them.
Furthermore, for those who say people who experience suicidal ideation shouldn’t have kids, then by that logic, no one should have kids because we are all susceptible to illness, including mental illness. Someone once told me “When you have kids, you lose your right to kill yourself.” There is something intrinsically wrong with that sentiment. When we hear that someone has the desire to kill themselves, we should be concerned with treating the underlying reason(s) a person wants to die — not insisting they can will themselves out of an illness they never chose in the first place. Why are we using blame and shame to try to guilt people into continuing to live in despair instead of treating the cause for their anguish? Has blaming and shaming ever worked in the long term? (The answer to that is no, no it hasn’t.) Again, we would never tell someone with a physical illness that they don’t have the “right” to die, so why do we do it with depression and resulting suicidal ideation? We are not that powerful. We do not get to decide what does and doesn’t kill us.
If you’ve never experienced suicidal ideation secondary to depression, I hope you never understand where I am coming from; but since you don’t understand what I am going through, you also don’t get to judge it. Please stop telling me how good my life is. I know I have it good, and yet having an incredible life has no bearing on whether or not I am sick.
Just like cold germs don’t care if you are getting ready to go on vacation, and arthritis doesn’t care if you’re an exercise enthusiast, and traumatic accidents are oblivious to the fact that it’s your wedding day; mental illness doesn’t care how perfect your life is, how much you love your kids, or what it might destroy in its wake.
Mental illness happens. Suicide happens — way more than it should, because we tend to cloak it in shame instead of treating the underlying causes. The person who is enduring the daily hell that is living with suicidal ideation should not be where we are placing our blame.
Let’s treat the symptoms, let’s treat the disease and stop holding people accountable for something that was never in their control in the first place.
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Unsplash image via Mai Lezhava