How (not) to talk about suicide

Last month, I saw a really terrible photo on Facebook of a sign on a bridge that said “Suicide doesn’t take the pain away, it just passes it to someone else.”

Initially, the most frustrating part of seeing this sign for me was that you can talk about any death at all in this way! Really! When someone dies, the still-alive people who loved them are hurt by it. But, because the stigma surrounding mental illness is so strong, we especially love blaming the dead person when they’ve died by suicide. (I mean, didn’t they read the sign?!)

I almost ended that last sentence with “…we only blame the dead person when they choose to die.” But that’s not true either! Terminally ill — physically ill — patients choose to stop treatment all the time, accepting death as an inevitability. And they’re seen as brave and selfless when they do it, writ large.

But when someone dies by suicide, it’s the exact opposite: selfish, intentionally inflicting pain on loved ones, “taking the easy way out.”

Let’s go back to the beginning of that sign for a second. “Suicide doesn’t take the pain away.” Think about this language we use to talk about other terminally ill patients who have died: “At least they’re not in pain anymore.”

So death “takes the pain away” for them, but not for mentally ill, suicidal people? At best, this demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how mental illness works. “Suicide doesn’t take the pain away” compounds guilt on guilt on guilt and not much else. And when so much of mental illness so heavily relies on feeling burdensome to others, to the point that removing oneself from everyone else’s lives is seen is preferable, why wouldn’t it take the pain away — from everyone?

In life, mentally ill people are told to smile more, that’ll fix us. Exercise more, that’ll fix us. Pay a ton of money we may or may not have for therapy and medication, that’ll definitely fix us. There are all things that seem to be in reach for someone not going through it.

So we tell ourselves: “Hey, yeah, I could feasibly go exercise right now!”

But then, inevitably: “Wait…I’m too depressed to do that.”

And then we feel guilty for letting something invisible like depression interfere with such a “simple fix” for our illness.

And then maybe someone does die by suicide after hearing all these “tips.”

And maybe among the mourning of their sudden passing, these questions emerge: What could they have done to better themselves so this didn’t happen? How could I, the still-alive person, have fixed them?

Because the guilt doesn’t just get tossed back to the person who died by suicide. Humanity at large is so goddamn terrible at understanding mental illness that the survivors’ guilt following a suicide actually includes the question “What could I, personally, have done to ensure this didn’t happen?”

When the answer, realistically, is…probably nothing.

If mental illness wants to take someone, it’ll take someone.

(If physical illness wants to take someone, it’ll take someone.)

We like to think we have more control over mental illness — and maybe, in some ways, we do — but for the above reasons, our logic is often skewed.

I’ll clarify now that what I’m not doing here is advocating for you to let your mentally ill or suicidal friends die because it’ll probably happen anyway. Intervention is important, and when executed correctly, can save lives. If you’re worried someone is headed that way, there are still things you can do to support them that aren’t invasive and gross (see: “Exercise more!”).

A few examples:

  • Talk to them yourself.
  • Go physically be with them, if they’re in crisis.
  • Offer to take them to the hospital, to call their psychiatrist or therapist, to set up an appointment somewhere, etc.
  • Call a local crisis response team who’s trained for this (NOT the police, who are very rarely properly trained for crisis intervention).
  • Also: If you’re going to send someone the number for a hotline, make sure you’re doing so in conjunction with the above, and not instead of the above. Sending someone a hotline number who is in no state to talk to anyone, much less a stranger, can come off as cold and uncaring. Take into account that the vast majority of hotlines can call the police without your consent if they deem it necessary. (For the record, Trans Lifeline does not.)

All this said, if someone does die by suicide, no matter how close to you they are, do you know whose “fault” it is? Because it’s not theirs. It’s not yours, either. Mental illness is fucking garbage. You know all those bracelets and shirts and stuff with “fuck cancer” on them? Fuck mental illness, too. It’s all mental illness’s fault.

Anyway! Support those who struggle with mental illness, help break down the stigma surrounding it, and try to make this world a better place for those people, because understanding and a willingness to learn and proper intervention is what’s going to prevent even more suicides, not a guilt-trip sign on a bridge.

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