Russell Fascione is a member of the Active Minds Student Advisory Committee.
“Like… I get that it’s not the person’s fault really but… suicide is pretty selfish when you think about it.”
Instantly, it was like somebody lit that spark in my mind that never fails to ignite my passion for mental health advocacy. For me, there’s something about stigma that turns an ordinary passion into the sort of fire that you can just see in someone’s eyes.
The above sentence was said to me (paraphrased, of course) a couple of years ago. I was tabling with a fellow Active Minds member and a friend of hers had joined us to hang out. I think we were tabling about suicide, which is why the subject came up.
My immediate reaction when she said this was to be offended. Did she really have the nerve to say that while we were tabling about suicide prevention? Once I took a step back from my emotion I realized that she didn’t mean to insult anyone. She probably didn’t understand how stigmatizing it can be to label suicide as “selfish.” How could I expect her to understand when the topic of suicide is so seldom discussed in our society?
“The thing about suicide is….” I paused, not wanting to offend her or make her think she offended me, “Even if we can call the act of attempting suicide selfish, the person behind it is not acting out of selfishness… if that makes sense.”
I could tell she was truly listening to what I was saying, so I continued. “When someone is so far into that dark place that they want to end their life, they might not be thinking about who their actions are going to hurt. Maybe they are in too much pain to think about it. And even if they are aware of how it might impact their loved ones, the desire to end their pain may have become too great to bear anymore.”
If I remember correctly, that’s about all I said. I could’ve gone in-depth about the known risk factors for suicidal behavior. I could have explained how feeling like a burden (a common experience of those contemplating suicide) might make someone think that they’re doing their loved ones a favor by taking their own life, which might completely negate any feelings of selfishness or guilt that they might have had. However, I could tell she was really considering what I had just said, and I didn’t want to go too far and overwhelm her.
The notion that suicide is selfish is something I had spent a great deal of time thinking about.
When I was 14 I felt so incredibly guilty for wanting to die, because I knew that if I killed myself my family would be devastated. For years, that guilt and the selfishness that I felt for thinking about suicide kept me from reaching out for help. All of the stigma about suicide–much of which I had internalized–had me convinced that it was better to suffer in silence than to have someone else think what I did: that I was selfish for wanting to die. I’ll never know for sure if that guilt had pushed me closer to the edge or further from it, but I do know that I’m grateful to be alive.
Make no mistake, I didn’t lose any respect for this acquaintance because of her statement, and there was no animosity created between us. In fact I’m glad she said what she said, because it reminded me that the stigma we need to face is not just in the media and our larger social systems, but in the people around us who don’t even realize that these ideas are stigmatizing.
It’s one of the things that make the work that we all do as Active Minds members or in other advocacy settings that much more important. I also realized that it was important for me to listen and understand where she was coming from too, because a one-sided conversation is not a productive conversation, especially in the pursuit of social change.
Being part of the social movement against mental health stigma can be difficult and discouraging, especially with the seemingly endless sea of misinformation and disrespect shown in various media outlets, but it’s worth it. Thinking back, it makes me happy to remember how respectful and thoughtful that conversation was. It gives me hope to know that “fighting” the stigma doesn’t have to be a fight, sometimes it’s as simple as a conversation.
I wanted to share this story here because I hope to see a day in which we can completely put to rest the idea that victims of suicide are selfish, weak, or otherwise bad people, and think instead with empathy by making an effort to understand what someone might be going through if they are contemplating suicide.