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What We Might Miss When We Blame Suicide Solely on Mental Illness

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I want to start by saying I am a suicide attempt survivor. I also live with bipolar. Sometimes I even suffer from it.

But when I had my attempt I certainly wasn’t blaming my bipolar.

I had recently been discharged from the U.S. Army after a catatonic episode and involuntary hospitalization, and after months of feeling like a failure to my family, suicide seemed like the only way out. Bipolar, in of itself, didn’t cause to me to attempt suicide, though. And I would have been deeply offended if that is all what people talked about. And I believe the same would go for many others who die by suicide. Not everyone, but certainly enough to provide an alternative to the mainstream narrative. My views may not be the most popular, but I’m told repeatedly that people with lived experience need to raise their voice — so here goes.

It really upsets me reading through stories of recently deceased celebrities like Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell and how “mental illness” or a “chemical imbalance” was the actual cause of their deaths. Not enough attention seems to be given to the fact that Chester was sexually abused for six years as a child, and spoke publicly about how abusing drugs such as acid, crack cocaine and methamphetamines was the only way he was able to cope. I believe it lets his abusers off the hook easy when the media can just point to “mental illness” and call it a day. It makes it seem as if the screwed up world we live in doesn’t at all play a part in why people want to die. There’s just so much more depth to these stories and they deserve better.

It doesn’t help when I see my peers furthering this misguided narrative. A few months ago I attended a suicide prevention conference and brought this concern up at a board of directors Q&A. I asked the board why so many advocates in our community place so much emphasis on  mental illness diagnoses and not enough on trauma and societal issues when coming up for reasons why people die by suicide. Not only was my question completely ignored, I was even laughed at by some in the audience. Thankfully, a few members came up to me afterwards to let me know that they agree with me, but that this issue is too politically volatile to be challenged at the moment. But I’m still left wondering why even asking the question is controversial. What’s so wrong with asking questions?

My hope is that this unbalanced focus on mental illness being the default cause of suicide will eventually ease and we can dive deeper into the roots of why so many people (in increasing numbers) keep taking their lives. Yes, many people who die by suicide were depressed, but is it fair to say the reason was always major depressive disorder? It’s more convenient and easier to sell to the public, but does it really tell the full story? Furthermore, not everyone believes that individuals who experience extreme emotional distress should be labeled as mentally ill, so it can actually drive some people away from reaching out for help because they fear being told their thoughts are “disordered” or “diseased” and end up involuntarily hospitalized as a result. When so many suicides take place inside a psych ward and immediately post-discharge, I think it is fair to raise this concern. Even without the threat of being locked in a psych ward, using these terms and paradigms can be offensive to individuals who choose to view themselves as anything but ill.

I know many suicide prevention advocates who attribute their suicidality to mental illness and I do not challenge their decision to do so at all. We should all have the freedom to use whatever language we feel best describes our own experience. That said, we shouldn’t rush to silence individuals who prefer to use their own language. Of course there may be exceptions, but overall we need to be more open to asking ourselves difficult and even uncomfortable questions in order to reach our collective goal of ending suicide. I hope that is something we can all agree on.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo via taehoon bae

Originally published: August 19, 2017
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