Suicide Isn’t A Choice, It’s A Symptom

CW: This post will frankly and extensively discuss death by suicide and suicidal ideation.

I want you to stop for a moment and think about the words you use to describe suicide.

What do you say about someone who’s killed themselves? That, for a start. You say they committed suicide; something along those lines. Almost all of the words you use will carry this core, fundamental idea: it is something the person does to themselves.

Today it’s World Suicide Prevention Day, and I’d like to tell you a secret about suicide: it’s not something we do to ourselves. It’s something mental illness and trauma force us to do to ourselves.

This might not be surprising to you as a concept. But you might also still think it’s the responsibility, or fault, of the person for “taking that way out”. Let’s explore why that isn’t the case, and what it means for the issue as a whole.

Suicidal ideation is not healthy.

In a healthy brain, there are plenty of thoughts that occur. Not all of them are positive. It is normal and within a healthy range to have some negative thoughts. But in people who are mentally unwell, you get patterns of unhealthy thoughts. Thoughts like I am a worthless piece of shit who deserves nothing. Or the world would be better if I did not exist.

These are not healthy thoughts. Worse is the way in which they occur, because these thoughts are recurring and cyclical – they trap you in. They come constantly, without much reason, and they become the foundation for our cognitive existence. Unhealthy thoughts are the primary symptom of a huge number of mental illnesses – perhaps even most of them.

Remember that we’re not talking about a simple desire to die, here. But we’re also not talking about anything simple at all. Where, for example, is the line between suicide and euthanasia?

Well there’s a reason that people considering euthanasia have to go through a lot of therapy – to make sure their reasoning doesn’t come from unhealthy thoughts like this. As to how you identify whether the desire is unhealthy or not? Well, you want a professional for that, and I’m not a professional. What I am is someone who still, today, experiences suicidal ideation.

And I can tell you without a doubt that the thoughts I have are traumatic, and they are not mine in the truest sense, and I do not want them. But they still come. Even now, where I am much healthier, they still appear. They are a symptom and they are not my fault. Why is it important to say this?

Because the more blame we apply to suicide victims, the harder it is for people to talk about feeling suicidal.

It’s hard enough to admit you are experiencing thoughts of suicide. It’s even harder to talk about it when your experience of suicide is condemnation of victims of suicide for ‘their actions’. As if it was within their control. But mental illness takes away your control.

Not completely. It’s not responsible for everything, and it can’t be used as the scapegoat for everything (and yes, I’m thinking about shootings in the US here, where there are many factors just as much to blame as mental illness, if not more). But we’re not talking about the entire breadth of mental illness, we’re talking about suicide specifically, and suicide happens when you have lost control of your will to live.

Because it has been taken from you by those thoughts, which are, and yes I know I’m beginning to repeat myself but this is important, created by your mental illness and not your choice.

It doesn’t just affect victims too, but people who are experiencing suicidal ideation. For years and years I thought that my brush with suicide wasn’t worth talking about, because it was just in my head. Physically, all I had done was take a couple of steps forward. But the intent and the thoughts were traumatic, and I still now struggle to cross roads or stand at train platforms because of it.

If I had been able to talk about that earlier, to accept the gravity of what I was experiencing, I could have gotten more help.

(You can read more about my own experience here, in an article I wrote for Medium earlier this year).

And the words we use to describe suicide reinforce all of this.

Go back to those words we thought of at the beginning. Killed themselves. Committed suicide. These all carry intent and blame.

I used to say those, for years and years, and now I don’t. Instead, I say died by suicide. And I’ll be the first to admit that it’s clunky and I often slip up and it’s hard to remember to use it. But using it has genuinely helped me come to terms with the significance of my own experience with suicide. Something that for years I brushed off.

It’s enabled me to talk about it, to confront it, to go on a course where I learned how to intervene when someone is threatened by suicide (which is something that, at another time, I want to talk about more).

So if you do one thing this World Suicide Prevention Day, I want you to think about how you talk about suicide. Because it’s not enough to talk about it. We’ve got to create a world where people are able to talk about it without fear of recrimination. The fears their illness is giving them are already overwhelming.

I know it’s hard, because when something terrible happens we desperately want someone to blame. Sometimes it’s easier to blame the person, who it seems to you has been so selfish. But it wasn’t them. It wasn’t their fault. And I know it sucks to blame an illness, but we do that comfortably with other things. You would never think ‘it’s her fault for losing her battle with cancer’. You just wouldn’t.

I want a world where we don’t think that about suicide, either.

If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone – even if you haven’t got a plan for it. Even if it’s just a thought. Because it’s never just a thought.