Don't Forget People With Disabilities When You Talk About Suicide Prevention

Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Karin Willison, The Mighty’s Disability Editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.


It’s National Suicide Prevention Week, and everywhere people are bringing suicide out of the darkness and into the light. People are sharing stories of losing a loved one to suicide, or surviving a suicide attempt. Story by story, they are working to end the shame.

That’s why it’s important to take this opportunity to talk about suicide in the disability community.

Unfortunately, mainstream suicide prevention efforts rarely acknowledge us. In fact, the media tends to condone and sometimes even honor people with disabilities for taking their lives. This practice is dangerous and I feel compelled to counter it. It’s time to have real, honest conversations about disability, suicide and what makes life worth living.

“You handle it so well.”

“I can’t imagine living like that.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“If I were like you, I’d kill myself.”

Each of these statements has been made to me or a close friend, in some cases more than once. It makes me sad to think people have such an inaccurate mental picture of what my life with cerebral palsy must be like. And yet each of these thoughts has crossed my mind on occasion. I’ve had moments when I don’t handle it well. I have felt sorry for myself and imagined what it would be like not to have a disability. And I’ve been suicidal a few times; the earliest was at the age of 8. But I’m still here and thankful to be, even when negative words ring in my ears and in my mind. My struggles have led me to wonder: How can people with disabilities learn to value ourselves in a world that often doesn’t value us? How can we believe life is worth living when strangers and sometimes even people we love tell us they can’t see how it would be?

People with and without disabilities begin absorbing negative messages about disability from an early age. According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers. Like many disabled kids, I was bullied because of my disability in middle school, and struggled with depression and self-harm as a result. Bullies learn which words are most hurtful, sometimes from being verbally abused at home, and they frequently turn disability-related insults into weapons. Even kids without disabilities learn that a “spaz,” “psycho” or “retard” is the worst possible thing you can be. When a person develops a disability as an adult, these memories of childhood taunts can come rushing back. Suddenly you’re one of “those people” you’ve seen being mocked and excluded all your life.

Discrimination against people with disabilities persists into adulthood, and it leads to other risk factors for suicide. According to a recent study, poverty increases the risk of suicide, especially when a person is unemployed. People with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty, and only 35.9 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are employed, compared to 75.9 percent of non-disabled adults. Many people with disabilities do have jobs, and many more could work with the right support. But employers often don’t recognize our potential, and the system itself makes it difficult for people with disabilities who can work to do so.

Many people with physical disabilities need some form of assistance from the government. Getting disability benefits involves an arduous application process, and some people are denied benefits multiple times. You have to prove you can’t work to get benefits — even though there are programs to work while keeping benefits. Keeping up with all the paperwork and program changes can be overwhelming, and even the idea of needing government benefits is depressing for some people to accept. And if we do survive the gauntlet of paperwork, of exams, of having our privacy invaded and every aspect of our lives scrutinized, we gain access to a patchwork of services that may keep us alive, but make it difficult to thrive. We are punished for being poor, for needing healthcare or personal care attendants, for working or not working, and even for getting married.

The system assumes we are poor, alone and unemployable, and could never be anything more. Many of us aren’t or don’t want to be those things, but why does society devalue us so much if we are? The reality is, not everyone with a disability can work. Some people are just too physically or mentally ill to have a job, and there should be no stigma because of it. We must look beyond what people can “do” and value them for who they are. People with disabilities who cannot work are not useless. We all have something to give, and we all have intrinsic value as human beings.

The fear of being a “burden” is a commonly cited reason for people with disabilities to consider suicide. Suicide when you’re disabled is even regarded as a noble, selfless act by some people — the opposite of how it is commonly (and also incorrectly) viewed as selfish. In reality, suicide is neither selfless or selfish. It is something people do when they can’t see any other options. The desperation people with disabilities often feel is not an inevitable or inherent part of being disabled or ill. It is a reflection of our broken system. No one should feel pressure to cut their life short because of medical bills or because family members are making tremendous sacrifices to assist them. If a person needs care, the solution is to provide that care and offer support and respite to their families, not help them die.

Unfortunately, the media often perpetuates harmful stereotypes about disability and suicide. Movies like “Me Before You” and “Million Dollar Baby” depict suicide as “the right thing to do” if you have a disability. After Maggie’s spinal cord injury in “Million Dollar Baby,” her physical and mental state are worsened by poor medical care and family members trying to take advantage of her, but instead of holding those individuals accountable, the film has Maggie die by assisted suicide. In “Me Before You,” Sam kills himself despite being educated, successful and having found love, because he says being disabled is living “half a life.”

Half a life? What kind of message do films like these send to people with disabilities, our loved ones and those who are able-bodied now but will one day become disabled? The series “13 Reasons Why” was widely criticized in the media for depicting a suicide in graphic detail; why don’t the numerous films that outright glorify suicide because of disability receive the same level of outrage? They suggest that life with a disability is not worthwhile and “death with dignity” is the honorable choice. But this is false. There are millions of people with disabilities in the world proving there is dignity in disability. We live in the community working, volunteering, building families and making friends. We travel, create art and play music, compete in sports and so much more. We face discrimination, but we rise above it in big and small ways every day.

I challenge everyone who can’t imagine how life could be worth living with a disability to think about why they feel this way. Is there something you love to do that you believe you couldn’t do with a disability? If you’ve become disabled and are struggling with depression, is it related to something you loved but can’t do anymore? If so, why can’t you do that thing, and is there a possible solution?

As a society, we tend to blame people with disabilities for what they can’t do, rather than looking at physical barriers, negative attitudes and systemic problems. If you’re a double amputee who loved to ski before your car accident, but none of the slopes in your area have adaptive equipment, your legs aren’t what’s missing. If you can’t find a job because you need to work from home and occasionally go to medical appointments, you’re not the one who’s inflexible. If you’re a wheelchair user and just want to visit your favorite clothing store, but the building has steps to get in, you’re not what needs to be fixed.

These problems are not caused by our disabilities — they are the result of discrimination and lack of inclusive thinking. We have to stop blaming ourselves for other people’s failures to respect even our most basic rights. When we stop turning blame inward, when we stop looking at ourselves as broken, we can begin to see our value. We begin to see what we want to do, what we can do, what we must fight for the right to do. We can build inner strength to win the battle against low self-esteem, depression and suicide.

I can’t tell you that life with a disability will ever be easy. I can’t say you won’t have moments, days, weeks of feeling depressed and anxious and wondering how you’ll get through. But I can say I believe it is worth it. My disability has closed some doors, but it has opened many, too. It has made me a stronger person. Occasionally it has made me want to die, but far more often it has made me want to live. It has shown me the value of life, and of how much a person can accomplish despite enormous challenges. So believe in yourself. Believe in your loved ones who have disabilities. You have love to give and you are deserving of love, no matter how your body looks, no matter how your mind works, no matter how tired you may be or how much pain you may be in. You matter. Live on.

For disability-specific suicide prevention resources, check out the Live On campaign.

Getty image by Ssplajn


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