“Suicide is Selfish” – the Myth.
I am a survivor of suicide. It still feels strange making that statement.
I went on a ‘Care of the Trainee’ course with the Royal Air Force, and no, that isn’t why I attempted suicide! During the course one of the topics for discussion was suicide. It was handled relatively well by the military staff, who are familiar with the briefing material, but I sensed a reticence from the other attendees to talk about it. Perhaps it’s the stigma or the ignorance around the subject. Perhaps it’s the social taboos surrounding the event. Either way, I was shocked when one of the audience claimed that suicide was a selfish act. It made me angry, it made me question their right to be in attendance but it also made me question myself.
I personally don’t talk about my suicide attempt a lot these days. I’ve reached the point where it feels like a lifetime ago. I didn’t make a plan and I had no perspective of time during the event. It just ‘was’. My depression wasn’t the result of a life changing occurrence, it was the simple fact that my brain got poorly. It wasn’t working properly.
Everyday we talk about ‘sinuses’, ‘flu’, ‘sore ligaments’, ‘sprained ankles’ etc. but we hardly ever talk about ‘broken brains’. But thinking about the law of probabilities and considering that the brain is just another organ, why wouldn’t it break, or get poorly, or be ‘sprained’? Anyway, my brain was definitely non-operational. No one could tell me why it wasn’t working which needless to say, was one of my biggest frustrations. The dichotomy of being an alpha male but also a modern man, means that while I can accept that others with Mental Health issues need support, I struggle to see myself as someone with ‘Mental Health’ issues. Subjectively I can see how bizarre that is; especially considering that a physical health issue originating from a rugby injury would be considered a badge of respect. So why isn’t a mental health injury a right of passage? I can promise you, it’s a lot more gruelling to deal with.
There were times during my depression when I felt very alone in my sadness and there were times when I felt lost and confused. The trouble with depression and suicide is that no one knows what to say, even the patient. No one knows how to react. So they smile and wave and attempt distraction… but they never ever say the word. The survivors, it seems, are often left to survive on their own.
I experienced endless waves of emotion in the days, weeks, months and even years living with this invisible black cloud. The “whys” kept me up at night, causing me to float through each day in a state of perpetual exhaustion. Why was my brain broken? Why had depression picked me? Why couldn’t I just pull myself together? Why couldn’t I jump into a cockpit and help the Squadron out? Why couldn’t I function normally? Why me? Why do I feel so guilty and helpless and alone and worthless and angry and cold and scared and such a burden on everyone I touch.
Sometimes, I cried, without reason. Sometimes, I sat perfectly still watching the waves crash down on Rhosneigr Beach, hoping for a sign of some kind that I was on the mend. Sometimes, I silently scolded myself for not seeing the warning signs. Sometimes, I bargained with God or anyone else who might be in charge up there. Let me get better.
Yes, I experienced a range of emotions before making peace with my lot, accepting the sadness and just being ‘depressed’. But one thought that never ever (not even for one second) crossed my mind was this ill-informed opinion that suicide is selfish. Suicide is a lot of things, but selfish isn’t one of them.
Suicide is a decision made out of desperation, hopelessness, isolation and loneliness. The black hole that is clinical depression is all-consuming. Feeling like a burden to loved ones, feeling like there is no way out, feeling trapped and feeling isolated are all common among people who suffer from depression.
People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the people left behind. It’s selfish to leave children, spouses and other family members behind, so they say. They’re not thinking about the survivors, or so they would have us believe. What they don’t know is that those very loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases. But the soul-crushing depression that envelops them leaves them feeling like there is no alternative. Like the only way to get out is to opt out. And that is a devastating thought to endure. In the same way a damaged liver can no longer play a central role in all metabolic processes in the body, the damaged brain struggles to fight suicidal thoughts.
Until you’ve stared down that level of depression, until you’ve lost your soul to a sea of emptiness and darkness… you don’t get to make those judgments. You might not understand it, and you are certainly entitled to your own feelings, but making those judgments and spreading that kind of negativity won’t help the next person. In fact, it will only hurt others and potentially your own chance of survival in the future.
As the world mourned the loss of Robin Williams, people everywhere were left feeling helpless and confused. How could someone who appeared so happy in reality be so very depressed? The truth is that many, many people face the very same struggle each and every day. Some will commit suicide. Some will attempt. And some will hang on for dear life. Most won’t be able to ask for the help that they need to overcome their mental illness.
You can help.
Know the warning signs for suicide. 50-75% of people who attempt suicide will tell someone about their intention. Listen when people talk. Make eye contact. Convey empathy.
Check in on friends struggling with depression. Even if they don’t answer the phone or come to the door, make an effort to let them know that you are there. Friendship isn’t about saving lost souls; friendship is about listening and being present.
Reach out to survivors of suicide. Practice using the words “suicide” and “depression” so that they roll off the tongue as easily as “quiche” and “milkshake”. Listen as they tell their stories. Hold their hands (well, maybe not in the crew room – awkward!). Be kind with their hearts. And hug them every single time, even if that’s in the metaphorical sense.
Encourage help. Learn about the resources in your area so that you can help friends and loved ones in need. Don’t be afraid to check in over and over again. Don’t be afraid to convey your concern. One human connection can make a big difference in the life of someone struggling with mental illness and/or a survivor’s guilt.
Men remain around three times more likely to take their own lives than women in the UK, but we must pay attention to the risks in both genders. In total there are on average 6,000 successful suicides per year in the UK; 30,000 in the USA.
Will you start talking about suicide and depression? Will you help to smash the stigma?