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We Need to Stop Treating Suicide Like It ‘Fits in a Box’

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

With World Suicide Prevention Day coming up on September 10, I’ve been thinking a lot about the conversation around suicide in our society. In many ways, I’ve been able to see the progress we have made in even just the short time I’ve been alive. But some days, I’m still absolutely blown away by how much it is still so stigmatized and misunderstood. One conversation, in particular, that has slowly gained attention is the discussion around active and passive suicidal thoughts. Many times, that discussion is centered on what passive suicidal ideation is and why it needs to be approached differently compared to active suicidal ideation.

And don’t get me wrong, that is an important conversation. I experience passive suicidal ideation, I’ve written about it, I am acutely aware of the stigma around it and the awareness that needs to be brought to it. I’m so glad more people are having this conversation.

That being said, I haven’t seen the conversation around active suicidal thoughts change much at all. It still feels highly taboo, stigmatized and misunderstood. We might be talking about suicide more, but I don’t feel our response to active suicidal ideation has changed in any significant way. The immediate response to confession of suicidal thoughts is still hospitalization, calling 911 or the police or telling a trusted adult. And yes, sometimes those are the necessary actions, but I wish people would slow down enough to treat the person struggling with these thoughts like a human being.

Please do not do those things without telling the person. Don’t go behind their back. Please take the time to have a conversation with the person first. I understand suicide is something that often causes intense panic in people when it is mentioned, and often these things are done out of concern or love, but by treating it like this dangerous thing you need to get rid of or “fix” — can you imagine how that makes the person struggling feel? How that might deter them from reaching out in the future? We are not bombs that are going to go off at any second. We are people who are in immense pain, and we need a friend.

The other side of this conversation is the fact suicidal thoughts occur on a spectrum. It doesn’t just jump from, “I have fleeting thoughts about wishing I wasn’t here anymore,” to, “I have a plan, intent, means and a timeframe for dying by suicide.” There is so much in-between. And I cannot overstate the importance of understanding that. Because once people learn the range of suicidal thoughts, we can start adjusting our responses to appropriately support the person.

People who struggle with constant suicidal thoughts or have attempted suicide in the past may experience it differently. I’ve dealt with daily suicidal thoughts for years, and I still struggle with it. It took me a long time to find a therapist who understood how I experience them. For me, dealing with them daily isn’t a reason for hospitalization. And as I slowly began to trust this therapist more, I started opening up about some of the darker sides of my suicidal ideation. I told her about a suicide note I haven’t been able to throw out. I opened up to her about the fact I do have a generic suicide plan — and we talked about how that’s something I’ve had for years. We talked about how I don’t have the intent to follow through on anything, nor do I keep any means of doing so in my environment.

And not only did she respond unlike any past health professional ever had, but she also validated my experiences. She explained to me how a lot of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who deal with frequent suicidal thoughts have generic plans. This can be because in our past, we used it as an “escape plan” from our trauma — and at the time, having that actually helped us survive. She explained how keeping a suicide note was similar — I keep it as a “backup” or “just in case” because so much of me still feels like I need to have an escape ready. Often, my body is still stuck in trauma.

Now, if I had told those things to the average person (someone who didn’t know me well or didn’t have training in suicide), it would likely be labeled as active suicidal ideation very quickly. And the response would probably follow suit. Police, hospitals, etc. And I know too many people who have been traumatized by their experience with police and hospitals, myself included.

So, with World Suicide Prevention Day coming up, please take some time to learn more about this topic. Suicide doesn’t fit in a box, and we can’t treat it like it does. But, we can offer support. We can listen. We can be a friend. We can help people get connected to resources. We can remind people they matter. We can show we care. And I think you’d be surprised just how life-saving those things can be.

P.S. In no way do I blame or hold any hard feelings toward people in my life who have responded in the aforementioned ways. I know people respond like this because they care, and they’re just doing the best with what they know. That being said, I hope this is insightful and helpful. And a huge thank you to the people in my life who have stood by me and supported me through my struggles with suicide. Thank you for reminding me why life is worth living.

Photo by Satit Wongsampan on Unsplash

Originally published: August 19, 2021
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