People who die in tornadoes are so selfish. They have people who love them, people who will be hurt terribly if they die. Yet they die anyway.
People who die in tornadoes are thinking only of themselves. They take the easy way out when they refuse to overcome the storm. They don’t care that their death shows others that not everybody can survive tornadoes.
Obviously, I am being absurd. Yet substitute the word “suicide” or “suicidal crisis” for “tornadoes,” and I have summed up arguments of those who say that suicide is selfish.
“How could she abandon her children like that?”
“He was only thinking of himself.”
“Her suicide sends the wrong message to others.”
Suicidal forces are a storm inside one’s head. The harsh winds of a tornado – and the debris they kick up – batter the body. The pain accompanying suicidal forces batters the mind.
But…People Choose to Die by Suicide
It might seem that choice sets apart suicide and tornadoes. People choose to end their lives. Nobody chooses to have a tornado demolish their home.
The mind is deceptive. What appears to be a choice often is not truly a choice. Otherwise, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder could choose to stop experiencing obsessions and compulsions. People with schizophrenia could decide to turn off the voices they hear. And so on.
Forces outside the person’s control cause the person to “choose” suicide. Those forces happen. Nobody chooses to experience so much pain, loss, trauma, or mental illness that they feel compelled to die by suicide.
But…Most People Survive a Suicidal Storm
It is true. Thankfully. Almost everyone who experiences suicidal thoughts – even most of those who survive a suicide attempt – make it out of the storm alive. They recover. Many thrive. It is a reason to celebrate. Life goes on, and their loved ones need not be hurt by their loss.
It is not that those who survive a suicidal storm are selfless. For whatever reasons, their suicidal thoughts become less intense. They get good help from professionals or people they know personally, or their mind offers some relief, or some other change occurs that helps them to resist suicide’s forces. It’s not personal. It’s health.
But…Concern for Others Does Stop Suicide for Some People
Some suicidal people vow never to act on their suicidal thoughts because “It would devastate my parents” or “I could never put my children through that.” It is wonderful that those individuals’ concern for others helps them resist suicidal thoughts. I hope they take advantage of that. However, it is wrong to presume that those who fall victim to suicide did not have concern for others.
In his book Myths about Suicide, the psychologist Thomas Joiner writes of the movie star Halle Berry, who says she halted her suicide attempt by carbon monoxide poisoning when she thought of how her suicide would hurt her mother. It is a mistake to compare those who die by suicide with those who survive, Dr. Joiner writes:
“It is a mistake because those who die by suicide have experienced a rupture in their social connections, and thus ideas like ‘my mother would be distressed if I were gone’ do not occur to them, not because they are selfish, but because they are alone in a way that few can fathom.”
But…I Got Through It for the Sake of Others, So Why Can’t They?
Perhaps you felt suicidal in the past, and you did not hurt yourself. Perhaps to resist suicide, you thought of those you loved, and the thought of hurting them hurt you.
Be careful not to expect others’ experiences (or resources) to be like yours. The suicidal storm is different for everyone.
Suicidal thoughts can be a whisper or a shout, a suggestion or a command, an idea or an obsession. Some suicidal people have fleeting suicidal thoughts a few times a week. For others, suicidal thoughts intrude loudly every day, throughout the day, without relief. Other people fall in between to varying degrees.
What worked for you might not help another. Sometimes, the difference between a suicide victim and a suicide survivor can be just one thing, like finding a good therapist, starting a medication that works, or simply waking up one morning and inexplicably feeling better.
Something else might make the difference between living and dying, something unknowable. Your own suicidal experiences do not reveal anything about another person’s.
But…Is Suicide Selfless?
Contrary to being selfish, many people who act on suicidal thoughts do consider the welfare of others. The problem is, their considerations are distorted.
“I am a burden to those who care about me.”
“They’ll get over my death and be happier once they can move on.”
“I can’t bear to put my parents through the pain of watching me fall apart.”
I have heard those statements, and many more like them, in my work as a psychotherapist. Right or wrong, many suicidal individuals truly believe that others would benefit from their death. As Dr. Joiner notes in Myths about Suicide:
“Ideas like ‘my mother will be better off when I am gone’ are primary. These are the antithesis of selfishness.”
I would not go so far as to say that people trapped in a suicidal storm are selfless. Instead, they are victims of their mind’s deception.
The concepts of selfishness and selflessness simply do not apply. Suicide’s victims are neither selfish nor selfless, just as it is not selfish or selfless to die due to a heart attack, cancer, a car wreck…or a tornado.
© Copyright 2015 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com.
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