This week’s post is by Joel Kobren, who is not alone in holding some passionate views on the language around suicide. He has told his personal story here.
(Please note that there may be a delay in moderating any comments, as the editor of this site is out of the country through mid-October.)
Talking about suicide is counterproductive.
At first blush, this statement appears to be completely misguided. Bear with me here.
Before a suicidal event, the focus seems to be on reducing stigma or preventing deaths. After a suicidal event, however, come the questions: Why did he/she do it, what was so terrible, did they really think this was the best solution, did I miss something, and so on.
The common thread in these questions appears to be the concept of choice. There’s the idea that a person who takes their own life, or tries to do so, did it purposefully and voluntarily. This is a sad and destructive point of view.
Let’s start with the current thinking around suicide, then let’s see how we can change it.
Stigma, or prejudice, is probably the biggest deterrent facing the people who are searching for help. The language around suicide has already blamed them and made their thoughts and feelings their fault, their choice. But nothing could be further from the truth.
In general, we can say people look down on, and judge, those who have had a suicidal experience. Typical comments refer to weakness, selfishness and cowardice. And then, of course, there is the inevitable question, “How could you do this to me?”
Let’s look at the vocabulary associated with suicide. People kill themselves, try to kill themselves, commit suicide. attempt suicide, fail at suicide, are successful at suicide. All are troublesome.
Then you have what might be the most confusing term. It is often suggested to patients as they start their recovery that if they look on the internet under “suicide survivors” they will find support groups and resources. But these are grief groups for parents, siblings and other family and friends.
Here is what’s troublesome about the term “suicide survivor.” With cancer, heart disease, liver failure and so on, the survivor is the person who is directly affected by the health problem, who lives it and sometimes dies from it.
By taking on the role of “suicide survivor,” the bereaved accept the role of “victim” as well, since they are inexorably connected. You cannot be a survivor without being a victim.
And to be a victim, there must be a perpetrator.
Would that perpetrator, then, be the very person for whom they grieve? As I said, a troublesome term.
However, we all know that the true culprit of a death by suicide has yet to be revealed.
But we have a pretty good idea: Research has stated that more than 90 percent of the people who die by their own hand do so while suffering from mental illness.
So a death by suicide is not a choice. It is a result.
And in that case, doesn’t it make more sense to use language that takes the responsibility, the blame, from the victim and puts it where it belongs: with the disease?
When the term “suicide” is one day replaced with a less blaming term such as “fatal depressive episode,” we have started to recognize the true nature of the event. It demonstrates that what has happened is not an assertive act but the product of a disease.
We begin to acknowledge the absence of intent, and we recognize the overwhelming darkness and hopelessness that defines such an illness at that advanced stage.
When we replace “killed themselves” or “committed suicide” with “had a fatal depressive episode,” we start to see the horror of the mental illness that took our son, our daughter, our sister, our brother, our husband, our wife, cousin or friend.
And we can reduce the stigma, we can open a real dialogue, we can stop blaming our loved ones and ourselves and get to the tasks at hand – understanding, healing and prevention.
My mother died of cancer only four months after her diagnosis. Only four months. She was progressively feeling more tired, more easily winded, and generally just “not right.” But the idea of going to a doctor was just not comfortable for her, and besides, where could she find the time?
Not even my father could get her to go to the doctor, so she died. Did she choose to die? Of course not. But she did choose to not go to the doctor until she could no longer ignore the changes that were happening to her. But was her death really her choice? Without all of the facts, can you really make a rational choice?
It’s been said that if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly bring it to a boil, it will cook and die, but, if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out.
After a car accident, you are immediately aware of the need for medical attention. But when things happen slowly, gradually, over time, much like it is with some cancers or mental illness, it can easily be overlooked. It gives you plenty of time to talk yourself into believing that it’s not that big a deal. Maybe it’s just small changes in behavior or just signs of getting older.
It’s easy to ignore the things that can take our lives, because we don’t want to hear that something may be taking our lives.
No one should ever feel the need to wonder why, feel responsible for, blame the deceased for, search for something we know is not there. We die of illnesses. Sometimes we die of illnesses that no one saw coming.