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We Need to Talk About Suicide, Not Sidestep It

In recent years, advocates have been working tirelessly to destigmatize mental health issues, but it feels like there’s one area that’s still off-limits. To me, it feels like it’s still taboo to talk openly about suicide (both before it happens and afterward). I live with chronic suicidality due to depression and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and it’s something I wish I was able to discuss with the people in my life without feeling shame or discomfort.

Decades before I was even born, a great aunt of mine died by suicide. Her obituary in the local paper listed the cause of her death as cancer (at the request of my family). I understand that at the time, suicide was still viewed as something shameful to the survivors left behind. My relatives didn’t want to be judged in any way by her death and wanted to handle it privately. But this ended up leaving a shadow of silence across my family — like even the subject of her life is still too delicate to broach, let alone how she ended her life.

I’m the first to admit there have been some improvements when discussing suicide in the media (especially with the use of trigger warnings or hotline information being given), but I’m still disheartened every time I hear the phrase “committed suicide.” Typically, the word “committed” is used when someone has perpetrated a crime — it shouldn’t be used in terms of this type of tragedy. Even when well-known people die by suicide, it feels like people discuss it with an air of judgment instead of compassion.

While we might be a tad more open to talking about suicide as a society, as someone who deals with thoughts of suicide all the time, I’ve seen firsthand how uncomfortable it makes people. I completely understand why — people are often completely unsure of how to discuss the topic, especially if they’re worried about upsetting the person or saying the wrong thing. But what tends to happen (in my experience at least) is that people just avoid talking about suicide altogether. When someone is suffering, it’s easiest just to sidestep it — stick to small talk or surface-level conversation. I get why this happens, but for me, I end up feeling like I have nowhere to go to discuss my darkest thoughts (with the exception of therapy). I don’t ever want to make people feel uncomfortable (or put myself unnecessarily at risk for hospitalization), so I’m guilty of avoiding the topic as well. But then I think of how freeing it was for me when a friend did reach out recently to ask me how they could help. It feels like when I am finally given the opportunity to open up about these types of thoughts with loved ones, I feel so much more accepted and at peace with myself.

When I can talk about suicide with my therapist, I feel seen and understood. My deep pain has a voice and is greeted with compassion toward how much despair I must feel in order to consider ending my life. I’m lucky I have someone who can meet my pain instead of turning away. But I don’t think everyone has the opportunity to speak about the darkest things in their head. How much better would we all be if we could share the dark along with the light? Talking about suicide with a person doesn’t mean you’re encouraging them to take their own life — it’s simply providing an opening for them to let a little of the pain out, to not walk alone in it every day.

Maybe it would have helped my aunt to have someone to confide in, to fully understand her pain. It’s too late for her, but it’s not for me. I hope that one day we can all get to a point where feeling suicidal doesn’t mean people will turn away from you, but instead, that they’ll lean forward into the pain with you. Who knows how many lives could be saved by the simple act of someone being there to listen when your mind is telling you there’s no hope?

Photo by Gwendal Cottin on Unsplash