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.

Modern Thanatopsis

One of my favorite longform pieces I’ve ever read is about Madison Holleran, a young woman who died by suicide about halfway through her freshman year of college. It discusses how her Instagram feed served as a façade for her true feelings and experiences, so those who viewed it could see the type of life she wanted them to see. After reading it again more recently in light of the book about her that was recently published by the same author of the article, Kate Fagan, I ventured to her Instagram account. It likely has quite a few more followers than it did before she died: more than 14,000. As a result, many of the likes and comments below each photo are from people who didn’t know Madison, though her story had touched them, like it had for me, to the point that they felt they needed their voices to be heard.

That day, I clicked on one photo, a striking yet heavily-filtered sunset. After the caption, she had posted the hashtags #finals and #someonesaveme. As if on cue, the barrage of over-thinking, over-analyzing, began:

“The hashtags in this picture speak volumes.”

“Like that last hashtag. It wasn’t about finals.”

“God I wish I could’ve saved you and I never even met you.”

“You could have been saved!”

But what are these well-meaning people envisioning exactly? That they would take every (probably) haphazardly-posted hashtag so seriously that they might stage an intervention each time the common and often colloquial “someone save me!” appeared during finals week? That this young woman’s friends weren’t the type of friends she needed to help her fight her mental illness? That if these complete strangers been friends with her, she would still be alive today?

•   •   •

For me, going to Gonzaga University meant proving to myself that I could thrive not just outside my hometown, but far away from the state in which I’d grown up. Almost by default, all the friends I’d make would probably not be from California, but from states in the Pacific Northwest. And for the first few weeks, that’s how it was: my roommate was from Washington, a few other people I met were from the Seattle area, and even the Californians I came into contact with were either from southern California or way northern California – far enough from my hometown that in almost any other part of the country, they would have been from other states. We friended each other on Facebook, tagged each other in photos, and for a while, the illusion I’d wanted so badly, that I could leave my hometown and thrive, was intact.

When my depression that had been festering in some form since the beginning of high school got a lot worse very quickly, it wasn’t like I could let anyone back home know. Admitting that maybe Gonzaga wasn’t the right fit for me, that the friends I’d made those first few weeks of classes had found new friends, that I was more excited than ever for Thanksgiving break or winter break because those vacations came with a trip home, not only meant to me that I wasn’t happy, but that I might even be homesick. And admitting that I was homesick felt like a betrayal to the person I envisioned myself becoming in college: the person that was sad to leave campus because it meant leaving friends behind, who couldn’t want to get back to see those friends, and so on.

So even though inside I knew that being at Gonzaga meant fueling my depression – which wasn’t necessarily related to being homesick, but just being there – I kept up the charade on social media. I posted Facebook status after Facebook status about how excited I was for the next basketball game, how annoying the snow was, how prestigious the theaters downtown that I performed concerts in were. Every time a friend from home posted about their California college, the comment I posted would involve something about Washington, reminding them that I had left the state for no reason other than to justify my decision, to trick myself into believing I was happy.

Of course, I was drowning. But looking at my social feeds, aside from the occasional ambiguous sad song lyrics, even my closest friends from home (or the few friends at school) wouldn’t have guessed how bad my depression had become.

At the end of the fall semester of my sophomore year, after a lengthy hospital stay a few months before had essentially forced me to open up to people on both sides of my life – home and college – I was the most candid I had ever been online in a Facebook note I wrote titled “Ten Things I Learned in 2009”:

Never go to the emergency room on a Sunday night. Ever. Even if you have to. Wait until Monday morning or call an ambulance instead, so you’ll at least bypass the waiting room.

Reach out to someone who can help, even if it’s your professor. Even if they’re not technically allowed to handle the issue themselves, they’ll do everything they can and make sure that they hand you off to someone with whom you feel equally comfortable. Then after your issue is resolved, you can go back to your professor and become best friends and they will buy you coffee.

But while the hospital stay had taught me a lot about my mental illnesses and how to better address them, I wasn’t cured – and I will never be, as the clinical term for “depression that’s a little better now,” just like for cancer, is “remission” – but I still wanted everyone to think I was. Because even though many people had heard by then that things weren’t going well, all they’d have to do is read these items on this list and be content with the fact that things were, at least, better than they were.

In reality, for every #someonesaveme, there’s an #everythingisgoinggreat, and as much as we truly care about the people in our lives, by design, one of those expressions tends to outweigh the other in life, and one tends to outweigh the other after death.

•   •   •

It feels like after someone dies by suicide, everyone who knew them – and if their story extends outside of their immediate circles, everyone who wished they knew them – begins philosophizing about what could have been. If their friends had done this differently, then this would have happened instead. If they’d known the person better, had reached out to them at the right time, they might have been able to stop them. Much of this is a natural part of the grieving process and the guilt that comes with it. But for those who simply want to insert themselves into a stranger’s experiences, it can quickly become a circlejerk of living, often able-bodied people proselytizing that they knew what was best for this person they didn’t know. It can quickly turn into a whole new list of grievances for the ones who did know the person, further compounding their guilt: if so many strangers see their dead friend as “saveable” now, how could those close to them not have seen the signs before it was too late?

The further removed you are from a person who’s died by suicide, like the strangers posting comments on Madison’s Instagram, the easier it is to wildly speculate. It is easier to assign meaning to someone’s life, to the hashtags they post with a seemingly benign photo, if the person is no longer here. It’s a morbid game played only by those who see it as such – a true-crime mystery to unravel. It’s House trying to figure out who killed Kutner, when all the signs of a suicide are right there, so simple and therefore so easily ignored.

You can be intimately familiar with the signs of suicide, from personal experience or research or both, and still not foresee this outcome. You can pore through a friend’s social media history, wondering where something shifted, if something shifted, if something could have been done, if there’s something you should have noticed. If there was a singular way to define mental illness, then perhaps fewer people would see suicide as an option, but there isn’t. Because of this, so often in the wake of a death by suicide, there’s only an endless supply of questions left that can never be answered. But equally often, the most authentic realization one can have is when to stop asking these questions and mourn in peace.