Speaking of Suicide … Within Limits

I don’t want to encourage people to kill themselves. I also don’t want to give advice on ways to die by suicide, or to advertise the supposed virtues of suicide.

Can you blame me?

Some people do blame me. Hundreds of people have submitted to this website comments that could be construed as pro-suicide. And I don’t publish all of them, because my mission is to help prevent suicide, not promote it.

Risky Comments about Suicide

There are two different kinds of pro-suicide comments:

First are the outright dangerous: the comments that exhort a specific person to kill himself or herself, provide detailed how-to descriptions of how to end one’s life, ask for information about to painlessly kill oneself, or seek a partner for suicide.

Then there are the comments from people in abject despair and misery who state they will kill themselves. Typically, they go on to explain in detail why suicide is the best (or only) option for them.

The overtly abusive or dangerous comments are an easy matter for me to decide. I reject publishing them.

What I struggle with are the very painful, very depressing, and very bleak narratives of hopelessness that serve to justify the writer’s choice to die by suicide. In these comments, there is no request for help – no allowance, even, that help is possible. There is nothing constructive, only a bleak announcement of one’s eventual, or even imminent, suicide.

My Limitations in Responding to Pro-Suicide Comments

Ideally, I could respond at length to each dysphoric commenter, engage in a conversation about the pros and cons of suicide, help the person to come up with other ways besides death to solve their problems, try to infuse the person with hope, and help the person rekindle a desire to live.

This ideal is hampered by two major obstacles:

First, the conversation I described above is what happens in psychotherapy. It would be impossible, not to mention unethical, to provide psychotherapy in this forum.

Second, even if I could provide therapy in this forum, I couldn’t provide it to everyone who submits comments here. There simply are not enough hours in the day, given that I also have a full-time faculty position, a part-time psychotherapy practice, a family, and personal needs that involve sleeping and off time.

So I mainly offer resources and information when I respond to a comment. This is why every page on this website states at the very top, in red, “Counseling is not provided on this site” and provides the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).

On the rare occasion when someone submits a comment announcing an imminent plan to die by suicide and providing identifying information, I call the authorities to request intervention. But people seldom leave enough information for me to do anything to prevent their suicide.

Possible Next Steps for Readers’ Comments

This state of affairs leaves me with three options for the pro-suicide comments that do not fall into the territory of obviously abusive or dangerous:

  1. Accept no comments at all.
  2. Edit or, if necessary, altogether reject comments that unilaterally present suicide as a solution.
  3. Publish the comments extolling suicide without any changes.

Ridding the site of comments is not, to me, a tenable option. Many people post comments about their doubts about suicide, their experiences of healing, and other topics that can inspire hope. More than one person has remarked in their comments that the site – and sometimes specific comments by readers – saved their life.

Pros and Cons of Publishing Pro-Suicide Comments

As for comments that are not hopeful, publishing people’s narratives of their pain, hopelessness, and suicidal wishes can be helpful. Many people are terribly isolated. Some find connection here, in the comments sections. And they are able to say to others what they cannot say to themselves: You matter. Things can change. You are not to blame.

Healing also can occur when a person reads others’ terribly sad and hopeless comments and no longer feels so alone in their own misery, which paradoxically may give them a degree of hope. There’s also value for non-suicidal people who can learn from suicidal people’s stories and experiences.

Still, vulnerable people – including children – visit this site and read the comments. I worry about the potential for harm when reviewing a comment that describes in vivid detail the appeal of suicide. In general, I follow the blogging guidelines put forth by Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.

A Permanent Comment for a Temporary State

It’s not only that the pro-suicide comments might confirm a vulnerable individual’s conviction that they should kill themselves.

That’s certainly a big concern, but it goes deeper than that. When readers leave comments describing their painful, seemingly hopeless existence and vow to die by suicide, these comments freeze in time an aspect of experience as if it represents the commenter’s immutable truth.

The words on the screen will never change again. But suicidal individuals’ lives often do change.

In fact, even among the most hopeless and suicidal people, most feel differently in time. Most suicidal people do not kill themselves. Among people who survive a suicide attempt, the vast majority do not go on to die by suicide.

When someone posts here an absolutely hopeless and suicidal missive and then recovers, other readers will never know. Even as the person moves on, their words of abject misery and hopelessness remain unchanged for millions of people to see. This gives readers a warped view of hope and the possibility for change.

What Would You Do?

So this is my struggle. Pro-suicide comments, even those that are not abusive, have the potential to do harm to vulnerable people. Yet I also do not want to sanitize the forces that drive people to suicide or shut down the conversation altogether.

For now, I have modified the Comments Policy to state that comments will be edited or rejected if they meet certain conditions; please see the policy here.

I question if this is enough. I also question if it is too much. So I ask you this question:

If you ran a suicide prevention website, what would you do about comments that announce or describe a person’s decision to die by suicide?

 If you’d like to participate in the discussion, please leave a comment below. Oh, and please first read the site’s Comments Policy.

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Copyright 2017 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW. Written for SpeakingOfSuicide.com. All Rights Reserved.

Photos purchased from Fotolia.

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  1. I know that this is an old article, but I stumbled upon it while perusing your site. As a suicide attempt survivor, I find great help and encouragement just reading through the different articles. Today I am rather hopeless, tho I KNOW this is irrational. I want to die, but am certain that I will not die by suicide. Not yet anyway. That being said, I think it IS important to read others’ words as they struggle thru this. Goodness…. it feels like NO ONE understands how I could want to die. It is even harder to explain to someone that I want to die, but I know that I won’t try to die any time soon.
    I think that hateful or aggressive comments serve no purpose. Perhaps those people could be directed to a site or group for friends and family of people who have died by suicide.
    So far as the other comments you described are concerned… Perhaps post them with a note from yourself at the end. Perhaps encourage people to come back and record their thoughts at a later date.
    For me, things are different day by day and for the life of me I cannot figure out why one day I am perfectly content and the very next I want to die. I am not a danger to myself. I am getting the help I need… but it is a daily struggle. Sometimes seeing my thoughts in print help me see them more objectively…the same with seeing someone else’s thoughts… I often find myself offering comfort and encouragement… and this spills over into my own thoughts too.
    Im not sure that makes a lot of sense. Let me try again:

    I am able to read other’s thoughts of suicide and hopelessness somewhat objectively. When those same thoughts rear their deceptive heads in my own mind, I am sometimes able to offer myself the same comfort and encouragement I would offer someone else.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Kristyanna,

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and ideas here. I’m sorry you suffer with suicidal thoughts. It sounds like you’ve done a good job learning to be curious and compassionate about them, without acting on them. But it’s still hard, isn’t it? For many people, it’s a daily battle inside their head, and it can be exhausting.

      But you’re still here, and you’re helping others by sharing and, as you said, helping yourself, too. You’re exactly right that in helping others, we can internalize the message for ourselves. A powerful question from cognitive behavior therapy that I often ask therapy clients is, “What would you say to your best friend (or child, or partner) if they were having the same thoughts as you?” Always they can respond with compassion toward the other person. In summoning that compassion, they can learn to direct it at themselves, too – hopefully.

      Thanks, too, for sharing how helpful it is for you to read other suicidal individuals’ experiences. I still struggle with whether posting comments about one’s suicidal experience could do harm to other vulnerable people. But, like you, I think there’s value in connecting with others, even if only through words on a screen, and knowing that one is not alone.

      And, as you advised, I’d like to encourage you to come back here and let us know how you’re doing.

  2. Cristal Lewis says:

    if someone feels that talking about suicide will feel strange or even come off weird and you get nervous. I understand that something may come off as advice no matter what anyone say that person will do anything he/she feels they should do. But no matter how they if we start show more attention maybe some of the people who died could be here and because of something so little. we need to talk more about this issue and start focusing on our young children.

  3. HLS3 says:

    For all those that say killing myself would be selfish and stupid I say “what right do you have to judge me? You know nothing about the pain I feel and have for as long as I can remember. At 55yo that’s a while. I’m not living to make anyone else happy”. Second of all to my Mother. As innocent as it may seem the statement to “move on” referring to my Depression is one of several minimizing statements that I feel will be a major decision to end my life. This ignorance is key to my decision.

  4. Aiah says:

    Stacey, while I can appreciate both your passion for what you’ve chosen to do (your profession) and the pervasiveness of Western psychology’s values here in the West, the fact remains that science is non-evaluative. That a volcano erupts or not is neither good nor bad, nor “gloomy” nor “bright.” Such judgments are the province of a mind (and the culture nurturing that mind) based in large part on the objectives and desires of the individual. I mean to say by this that neither you nor any psychologist has ever provided (indeed, I maintain, could ever provide) empirical evidence that the values (of life, chiefly) you expound are objectively good or right. In the absence of rigorous demonstration that life has objective value, that choosing not to be is inherently “wrong” because it violates some universal (not cultural) principle (which it couldn’t be since humans have successfully done so throughout history), what we have is a set of cultural, professional, and individual values that happen to be prevalent in our culture. The problem, therefore, that modern psychology faces is that while it corroborates some empirical findings from cognitive neuroscience, the evaluative attestations of psychologists simply don’t ring true for very, very many of the world’s equally bright and insightful human beings. Worse, there is no empirically sound reason these judgments should be taken as right and true. And the population of people and scholars on the planet who feel so is growing, despite the success of modern psychology’s lobbying arm.

    Everything else is rather tangential. It is wonderful that people–religious counselors and traditional psychologists among them–care about others’ suffering. However, individuals, regardless counselors’ perspectives, should remain free to decide whether or not to seek counsel AND what kind of counsel. As a medical scientist and physician, I do agree there are statistical arguments to be made that some types of therapy appear to be more short-term helpful than others. But people should still be free to choose the type of therapy they find most appealing.

    What bothers scientists like me, though, is psychology’s penchant for ascribing human values and impressions (good, gloomy, wrong…) to phenomena which seem to transcend objectivity beyond statistical frequencies of tastes. It’s noteworthy that these taste-frequencies are notoriously culture dependent. Gloomy to a US citizen is not necessarily so to, say, indigenous cultures (isolated from the tastes influences of Western values). So above when you mention others’ “bleak narratives of hopelessness,” this is a cultural and individual impression, not an objective truth. True, some people do feel their lives cannot be turned around satisfactorily, but that is no more “wrong” than the fact that some pretty gazelle we like will be caught and eaten by members of a hunting pride of lions. We see this and think “gruesome.” We may even ascribe moral value to the animals (“bad” killing lions…), but these are all expressions of the way we feel about a phenomenon that is perfectly natural; our feelings are not universal objective truths. When the professional utters the phrase “bleak narratives of hopelessness,” there is more than an air of certainty and correctness accompanying the judgment simply because a professional has uttered it. And hence the ubiquity in the West of the jargon and values of modern psychology despite the wholesale lack of philosophical or, more appropriately, scientific validation of the inherent values (“good”) and ascriptions (a particular thing is “good”).

    You’ve argued in the past that one major justification for your feelings is your knowledge of others who had been firmly suicidal who, after treatment, expressed gratitude for having been stopped. And I have argued why such a justification isn’t valid. If it were, then this would circumscribe all sorts of freedoms modern Westerners enjoy to make potentially personally catastrophic decisions, not least of which in my own discipline of medicine includes patients’ rights to withdraw from treatment even when the physician is reasonably certain this will lead to a quick death. Others’ regrets are nowhere else considered valid justification for proscribing freedoms.

    I’ve followed this and other blog arguments on suicide very closely because despite my frequent requests that colleagues in psychology provide me empirical evidence substantiating their positions of what is right and wrong where humans’ personal and existential evaluations are concerned, not a single one–and some of them are among the most distinguished faculty and researchers in the country in your discipline–has ever provided it. More, recent publications have even illuminated the localness and culture-bound dimensions of psychology in general, demonstrating the lack of universality of psychological judgments. Every other scientist has to demonstrate that phenomena we’re discussing (a gene-linked trait or a microbial vector of some pathology) in fact exists first in order to establish a causal argument. Yet no philosopher or psychologist, or anyone else that I’m aware of, has ever shown a single objectively sound reason that “life is good,” or that there is such a thing as “good.” There are ways of seeing life in general and one’s life in particular. While you may not agree with the perspectives of many you confront, and while it’s your prerogative to censor or publish what’s submitted to your blog (and I agree that comments that threaten others should be censored), your freedom to judge others and their comments should not be misconstrued as a valid judgment of inherent rightness such as one might make of a scientific or mathematical argument.

    I want to be clear that I mean no offense. However, psychology, among the modern life value systems, has uniquely conjoined itself with the US legal system such that psychology’s pronouncements impinge on citizens’ personal freedoms. So long as this discipline, in the absence of universally valid proof of its arguments of cognitive or worldview pathology, is empowered to deprive citizens of rights and freedoms, then others like myself will continue to take it to task for the association among its assumptions its methodology of determining what constitutes “illness,” and its unjust legal entitlements over private citizens’ lives. Like everyone else, you’re free to believe what you want. But those beliefs should not be forced on all citizens as absolute truths.

    As usual, thanks for not censoring my contrary comment—for allowing respectful ideological dissent.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Aiah,

      Thank you for your very thoughtful, respectful, and thought-provoking comments. I need to consider them more, but I do have a couple immediate things to say:

      First, it seems to me that your complaint should be as much, and perhaps even more, with psychiatry than psychology. Psychiatry is the field that uses coercion and force in ways that others cannot, especially in terms of pharmacology and authorization of involuntary hospitalization. In many if not most states, only a physician can initiate the process for someone to be held involuntarily in a hospital.

      Second, I want to note that I am not a psychologist. I am a clinical social worker; my master’s degree and doctorate are in social work. I suspect that has no bearing at all on your argument, which seems to be more generally about the impossibility of proof in the social sciences … yes? But it is important that I not misrepresent my credentials, and failing to correct your assumption that I’m a psychologist would be misrepresentation.

      Thank you again for your rich contribution to this discussion!

    • Rudy says:

      “Like everyone else, you’re free to believe what you want. But those beliefs should not be forced on all citizens as absolute truths.”

      Where is your empirical proof that beliefs should not be forced on others? What’s so wrong with taking away people’s liberties? Can you provide an argument based solely on fact and logic as to why it’s wrong? It seems as if you are smuggling value judgments into your criticism.

  5. Chad N. says:

    I usually am told I oversimplify concepts such as this but I don’t believe this is as delicate. To me there are two basic forms of this, to use my own euphemism, “wish for an ending to your story.” The first is impulsive and emotional. i.e. “I failed my pop quiz, omg I want to die.” That is an extreme example to clairify the genre and by no means defines the bound to the other form. The second form is thought out and deliberate. i.e. “I have a terminal condition that definitively has no hope for improvement or mitigation and will unavoidably result in a long, painful and traumatic experience for both me and anyone that cares for me.” In these lights I don’t see a delicate balance. The first shouldn’t be supported and the second shouldn’t be degraded. I feel the problem we have is in people’s desire for simplicity they lump the two together. This view for judgement of the act seems to my limited intellect to apply to discussion of the act as well. I guess if I ran a website such as this I would attempt to discern which side of that spectrum the individual is most in. Maybe there is where the balance issue lies, not in judgment of the acceptability of the different froms but in the classification of the individual to them. In that instance I would likely do what you’re doing but with a slightly different division and hope that the effort is appreciated by those I’m trying to help. I for one do appreciate it.

  6. April says:

    I think this requires a delicate balance and I feel like you are doing as good a job as one can do to balance concerns about harm with openness in your comment section. As a reader whose suicidal thoughts often correspond with feelings of isolation and being alone in my suffering, reading even bleak comments sometimes reminds me that many others suffer as well, which is both a sad thing and a strangely reassuring thing. Hearing others’ stories often helps me. And yet to be honest, I have had times on this site when too many bleak or bitter comments in a row felt overwhelming and I needed to stop and leave the site to take care of myself. But I have not found more philosophical discussions (even pro-suicide ones) felt as triggering for me personally. Hope this helps some.

  7. Becky says:

    I’m quite surprised you have no comments on the Michelle Carter trial. I don’t get it. Don’t most teenagers know to contact a parent or responsible adult about that stuff? Most people prosecuted for supporting someone to kill him or herself get a slap on the wrist.

    I used to feel more guilty and ashamed about being suicidal until I read Conrad’s texts.
    This is a blog by expert witness for the defense Dr. Breggin.

    https://breggin.com/the-michelle-carter-case-archive/

    Eager to read your future posts on advice for people with chronic physical pain as suicide is a huge problem in the chronic pain community… And it’s completely preventable!

  8. Tore Nielsen says:

    It all sounds sensible to me. I agree that there might be some worth in discussing the philosophical side of death and suicide, but this comment section probably isn’t it.
    I’m glad you’re not entirely shutting down ‘venting’, even if this isn’t a place for counseling. Babbling a bit about your despair can be a bit of a relief, in my experience

    • mic says:

      Where is the place to discuss the philosophical side to suicide, if not here? Because almost every other online platform for the discussion of suicide censors any kind of non-platitudinous response which acknowledges the unfortunate reality that it is not possible to find a satisfactory solution for 100% of people who experience suicidal ideation.

      A lot of suicidal people do think about the philosophical side of the equation, and would feel patronised if those views were censored here on the presumption that all suicidal people are fragile and need to be cossetted, as they are on almost all suicide discussion forums. I think that a lot of suicidal people (myself included) draw solace and strength from knowing that there are other people who share a similar outlook. Especially those of us who feel isolated from our peers in real life.

  9. Stacey, thank you for sharing your thought process in deciding how to handle pro-suicide comments.

    I will be sharing this post with my consultation group and also with my students in BlogStart for Therapists.

    I appreciate you leaving commenting open on your posts for all of the reasons that you stated above.

    And, I also appreciate that you remain sensitive to and take actions to prevent pro-suicide commenting.

    It’s unfortunate that those individuals leaving such comments may be in so much pain that they may not be able to recognize the ripple effect that their comments and even their deaths can have on others.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Tamara,

      I appreciate your supportive comments. Really, I appreciate them – and you – very much! And thank you for sharing the post with your groups.

      It really is a challenge knowing how to navigate the pro-suicide comments, which, as you note, typically come from a place of deep pain. I know some bloggers/therapists avoid accepting comments altogether to bypass this challenge.

      I do intend to keep accepting comments. I also will continue considering ways to minimize the potential for harm, while also, when possible, not silencing and further shutting out those in pain.

      Thanks again!

  10. NOT IMPORTANT says:

    I DON’T THINK THAT IT IS THE RIGHT OF ANY ONE TO STOP SOME ONE FROM COMMITTING SUICIDE I AM FOR THE RIGHT TO DIE FOR HEALTH REASONS AND THAT INCLUDES EMOTIONAL AS WELL IT IS SELFISH FOR ANOTHER PERSON TO MAKE SOME ONE GO ON AS IF THEY KNOW HOW MUCH PAIN ANY ONE CAN TOLERATE

  11. mic says:

    I think that allowing room for the philosophical discussion of suicide (both sides) can be very cathartic and edifying, even for those who are propounding in favour of the right to die. I post on one of the very few forums on the internet that permits users to discuss philosophical arguments in favour of the right to die. Almost every other suicide forum on the Internet has a “happy thoughts only” rule, and the result is that the suicide-related threads just seem to be a case of users taking turns to espouse the same tired and insipid platitudes with each other (“suicide is NEVER the answer”, “please make an appointment with your doctor”). This is very alienating for people such as myself, who are unabashedly pro-choice in their beliefs, and as such are of little use for me. In contrast, I find that being allowed to be open about my own philosophical views (I’m not too interested in discussing my own personal circumstances) makes my suicidal despair easier to bear, because it helps to ameliorate feelings of social isolation. I see that you allowed my previous ‘pro choice’ remark to be published, and I am grateful for that. Hopefully you will not decide to make the rules more stringent to silence the ‘pro choice’ side of the argument

  12. The Dragon says:

    Stacy, it’s an interesting quandary we find ourselves in, isn’t it?
    My forum is neither explicitly pro-life or pro-suicide, but I do find myself asking that any member who is considering suicide stop and look real hard at the permanence of their actions and the effect that their actions will have on others.

    I’ve had to make the same decisions you’ve had to make. When someone logs in and is determined that suicide is their only option – and then can explain WHY it is the only option we talk with them until they “go away.”

    My forum serves an entirely different purpose than your blog. It really hurts – and sometimes it hurts deeply – when a member determines that it’s their time. (Remembering SIASL, who was in such pain that he couldn’t find any relief. Articulate, outgoing and loved by everyone who knew him. In my mind he had valid reasons to “catch the bus”, but I still miss my friend.) I have determined that, for me, being as non-judgmental and helpful is my role.

    Yours, on the other hand, is obviously to help those who are suffering from deep depression, among other problems, find that there is a way out of this “vale of tears” that doesn’t include “catching the bus.” Knowing how I feel, at my distance from the member of the forum, when one of them kills themselves – I can’t imagine the impact on you when a client can’t seem to find their way and suicides.

    Your task, it seems, is to help and to guide – as such any pro-suicide bias would be completely out of place. As you well know, compassionate listening is the most important part of communication and then trying to guide us out of this hell is the next step … and one I see you doing well. Thanks//al

    • Nightsong says:

      As an assistant administrator to Dragon’s forum, I too have worried about this. But I have to go on my own experience. When I found the site and started writing how I felt, other people said they had felt the same. I wasn’t someone to be “fixed”- I was accepted even though I was suicidal and they gave me the respect to make my own choices. I can’t say how much this helped me!!

      However, as was noted above, ours is a forum. While it doesn’t always happen, there are times when people we had feared gone came back and told us they were doing better; or had gotten better but find themselves feeling suicidal again. It is not always a static post where you don’t see how life evolves, which is a primary difference.

      As for comments, I’ve done the same thing as both you & Dragon, depending on how I “read” the post/comment- sometimes I’ll give resources if I feel they’re wanting help, other times I’ll sit in empathy with them and hope that listening is what they need, and yet other times I will try to intervene if possible. (That wasn’t someone on CSS, Dragon.) It’s a tough judgment call, and unfortunately I don’t think that any sort of standard response would meet the needs of you or the original poster- although it’d be a lot easier if it could!

    • Becky says:

      The Dragon, what forum is that?

  13. Cassie says:

    As someone who was chronically suicidal for 25 years and in therapy for 20 of them, ironically, one major factor that shifted my thinking was being in an online forum with people who felt the same way. Because my previous knowledge of suicidal people were those who were briefly suicidal but were now grateful to be alive, I assumed anyone who felt as I did was already dead. This increased my despair.

    A forum is ongoing as opposed to one-time comments; however, this is also true of anti-suicide comments. Today, I’m writing hopeful words, but tomorrow I might be in the dumps. It helps people who are suicidal and those who care about them to know both sides.

    Personally, if I wrote about how horrible I was feeling and my comments were blocked, I would take it as yet another invalidation of my existence. Sometimes just the chance to vent about the desire for suicide lessens the desperation.

    As for protecting vulnerable visitors to the site, perhaps it would be useful to add a warning at the top of the page with the helplines that comments might be triggering and do not necessarily reflect the views of the site’s creator.

  14. Johnny Ray Berg says:

    I am not going to tell you what to do and I am studying for the ministry in this area of concern. I can pray more effectively when I review someone’s story no matter how sad or bleak. Pray and follow your heart.

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