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Please Stop Saying Suicide Is Selfish

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I am a suicide survivor. I have made two attempts and survived. I have also lost my mother, my father, my paternal grandmother, an ex-husband and a few friends all to suicide.

Dealing with the multiple losses has left me at times in a state of fear that I must be a magnet for death, which I think is probably a natural response in some ways. However, upon the loss of my mother in 2008, I chose to channel my grief into doing something in the mental health field and becoming an advocate for mental illness, addiction, and suicide prevention and awareness. The catapult into psychology was brought on not just because of all the death, but because of the psychiatrist’s words when I told him my mother had taken her own life.

He said, “That’s the most selfish thing she could have ever done!”

immediately ended the session and walked out, realizing this man, who’d been in the psychiatry profession for over 25 years, had no idea what he was talking about. In that moment I knew I would do everything I could to change the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness.

Suicide and selfishness have been synonymous for far too long in our society; it’s almost like we think we can guilt people into staying by saying they’re selfish. If we demonize them and make it a shameful act, we think they won’t do it. Or if we tell them they’ll end up in hell, they won’t do it. The reality is people are suffering and continuing to take their lives. I’m here to change that language. I’m here to say that suicide is not selfish, it is a response to pain.

A person who dies by suicide typically is not thinking about how they can be selfish; they are thinking about how they can end the pain they are enduring, and most of the time they perceive they are creating pain for others. They want to end that, too. Those are not selfish thoughts.

Often people want to place blame on the ones who have attempted or died by suicide because it is easier than dealing with the pain of the loss. It is easier to be angry and find fault with them than to admit they were sick. People experiencing mental illness who have lost hope are at the greatest risk for suicide. They are dying inside. They’re sick. The last thing they want to be told is how selfish they are for feeling the way they feel. The ones who have left us might have done so because they felt they had no other choice. They did not know how to survive any longer. They are not selfish.

I was not selfish for being terrified that my pain would never end. I had lost all hope. I was not selfish for not understanding what was wrong with me. My mother and father were not selfish for losing their battles to addiction and taking their own lives because they didn’t understand what was wrong with them (mental illness left untreated for four decades).

I survived and sought help. Many people do, and that continues to give me hope. You, the person reading this, please know there is hope. There is help available for you or someone you love who may need it.

I know my statements are bold, and quite a few will probably want to argue or point to instances where suicide could be construed as a purely selfish act. Please let me make something clear — I am not advocating for people to die by suicide, I am advocating for people to understand that suicide is not a selfish act when dealing with someone who has severe mental illness.

I would like to start the conversation about how to prevent suicide, how to help people find hope from one second to the next, how to find the treatment necessary when suicidal thoughts permeate the mind. We can break the stigma attached to suicidal ideation by being open to talking about it, instead of shaming people into silence.

Originally published: May 26, 2016
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