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The Case Against Saying 'Suicide Is a Permanent Solution to a Temporary Problem'

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I have worked in suicide prevention and suicide grief support for a little more than a decade, and for the past year and a half, I’ve scanned hundreds of articles on this tragic subject. In the course of my encounters with what is said and written in communities across the country and on the internet, I have been subjected about a thousand times to the declaration “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” and I cannot hear it one more time without crying out: Please stop saying that!

I know it must seem like a clever and even a helpful thing to say (or else why would people have kept saying it, right up to the point where it has become nothing less than a cliche but with the power, I’m afraid, of an axiom). The declaration seems clever, I suppose, because it has the pleasant sing-song rhythm of an advertising jingle, like “I am stuck on Band-Aid, ’cause a Band-Aid’s stuck on me.” And it seems helpful because, of course, it is true: Indeed, suicide is a permanent solution.

But here’s why I argue that we should stop saying it:

The statement violates the age-old principle that what we communicate ought to be designed specifically with a focus on the audience for whom the particular communication is intended. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” might strike someone who is not suicidal as a clever statement, and it might be a helpful thing to hear from the point of view of someone who already believes (or is likely to be convinced) that his or her problem is temporary. But the audience for this anti-suicide ditty is, of course, people who are suicidal.

As Edwin Shneidman points out in his Ten Commonalities of Suicide, “The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution.” So emphasizing to a suicidal person that suicide is a permananet solution is as likely to be unhelpful — or even harmful or dangerous — as it is to be helpful.

The problem a suicidal person is trying to solve, according to Shneidman, is how to escape from psychache, which Shneidman defines as “intolerable emotion, unbearable pain, unacceptable anguish … [that] cannot be abated by means that were previously successful” (emphasis added). In other words, from the point of view of someone who is earnestly considering killing himself or herself, the pain from which suicide would provide escape is not temporary.

Even though the perception that the pain is permanent is not accurate, the strategy of trying to convince a suicidal person that his or her pain is temporary is as likely to be counter-productive as it is to be productive.

For one thing, a suicidal person might be irrational regarding the subject of whether his or her pain is permanent or temporary. Irrational might not be the right word for it, but what lies at the core of many suicidal people’s dilemma is that the usual cognitive tools we rely on — such as reason or logic — are not available to them in their battle with their dark, self-destructive thoughts. So relying on a logical explanation of the nature of their pain to “convince” them of something could be ill-advised both because it might be fruitless and it might be seen as argumentative (“Your pain is temporary.” “No it’s not.” “Yes it is.”)

In addition, saying, “Look, your pain is only temporary,” might minimize or negate the importance or validity of the person’s feelings, sending the message that he or she is wrong about the nature or value of the pain. It also might be taken as judgmental or condescending (the speaker knows what pain is really like, but the suicidal person is mistaken about it). Finally, it might oversimplify the ultimate solutions to the underlying problems that are causing the person’s pain, for the jingle suggests, in part, that if a person would merely believe that his or her problem is temporary, then all would be well.

Perhaps I think too much about this sort of thing, for in fact, I could write an entire post, as well, on the use of the phrase completed suicide. The field “invented” the phrase, so the story goes, to replace successful suicide because successful is a positive term describing a negative event (we don’t want to characterize a suicide attempt as being “successful” when someone dies and as “failed” when someone lives). But if the wordsuccessful has positive connotations, isn’t it starkly obvious that the word completed has them, too, just as much or even more so? We don’t say “completed heart attack” or “completed automobile accident,” we say “fatal,” and that’s what we ought to say with suicide, as in suicide fatality or either fatal or non-fatal sucide attempt.

It is true generally of all communication, but it is absolutely vital when it comes to messages about suicide that we think before we speak.

This post originally appeared on Suicide Prevention News & Comment in 2010.

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

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. 

Originally published: September 19, 2016
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