Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Let's Talk About Suicide

A few days ago, someone I knew posted this link on Facebook, about a young freshman college student who took her own life. Commenting on the article, they had this to say:

"It's so sad to think that the pressures of college can lead to someone taking his/her own life..."

I was angry.

My first instinct was to respond with some impulsive, ill-thought-out comment. In my view, this was someone who did not understand suicide, did not understand the sheer tragedy and impact of it, and just how commonplace such occurrences are. I wanted to attack what I perceived as a sanitized, spoiled lifestyle, a lifestyle I could only imagine, so blissfully ignorant from such tragedies, where one does not think about it, where one does not know others

Then I thought to talk with someone else about it.

She pointed out to me that this person, like many people, likely does not have personal experiences with suicide, or with depression and suicidal thoughts. It's so anathema to me, knowing what I've gone through, to imagine someone else who hasn't been through such struggles, and when I see such people I get angry at what part of me perceives as a willful refusal to acknowledge the tragedy of it. It's not a willful refusal. Or at least, will is a small part of the larger picture.

The larger picture is that we don't talk about suicide. Not as a culture, not as a society, not as individuals. We push it to the recesses of our minds, discussing it only in the immediate aftermath of its occurrence, and then only briefly. Soon, far too soon, we push it back into the shadows again, eager to get on to happier, more comprehensible subjects.

Perhaps part of why we do this is our clinging to a distorted kind of logic--that if we don't talk about it, it doesn't happen. Or at least we can pretend it doesn't happen. Not to others, and not to people we know. Perhaps that's why suicides are often talked about in terms of how shocking and unexpected they are, because we constantly set ourselves up to be shocked by them.

It should have ceased to be shocking by now. Around 800,000 people or more commit suicide each year. It is the 10th leading cause of death worldwide. We should have moved on from being shocked by it. We should have started asking why it happens, what the people who commit it are going through, and how we can prevent it.

There are numerous causes of suicide, ranging from mental illness to substance abuse to medical issues. As for what the people are going through, rest assured that it is so severe, and so tortuous, that they believe their own death is preferable to it. Often they feel hopeless, often life ceases to be enjoyable or meaningful. They feel guilt, they feel like a burden, they feel like the world would be better off without them. Sometimes they are trying to escape from a tortuous scenario, like abuse or trauma. Sometimes they simply feel alone. Very often they feel a combination of many of these things. The truth of their feelings in the context of the world is not what matters.  What matters is that they are feeling it.

Preventing it is a complex matter, but it is not insurmountable. Obviously, there are larger policy and societal changes that need to be put in place, such as a more comprehensive mental healthcare system, and encouraging the media to take greater care in how it reports suicides.  Yet we as individuals also share the responsibility. Suicide is real, and we cannot ignore it. We have to be aware of warning signs. We need to make sure sufferers as well as ourselves know of resources to contact for help. 

Most of all, we need to not be afraid to confront it. We have to be willing to step forward when those we know are clearly suffering, and not try to avoid them in the hopes that the problem will go away on its own. We have to be willing to talk to them, to listen to them, and to try and help them, because so often they feel like they can't be helped.  For those of us considering suicide, we need to not be afraid to talk about it. We should not be afraid of talking about how we are hurting, or the thoughts going on in our head. We need to let others know when we're feeling overwhelmed, when we need some sort of bettering but can't find it.

These problems aren't reduced overnight, but we can begin to reduce them. That is what matters.

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