The Soapbox: Calling Suicide Selfish Is Selfish

Selfish (adj.): Lacking concern for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

Death is not profitable or pleasurable. It’s just nothing. It’s just not suffering. It has nothing to do with benefiting or not benefiting oneself or others. Saying that someone was selfish for having committed suicide is like saying that it was selfish of a person caught on fire to scream in agony.

When the topic of suicide is brought to the table, my primary concern isn’t to address people who have suicidal ideation. Everyone else is already doing that: They say, if you’re depressed or thinking about suicide, please seek help.

To a depressed person (speaking from a lifetime of experience), that piece of advice sounds hollow. Of course we know to seek help. Most of us already have. Sometimes that’s not enough. It’s easy to say “Please seek help,” then wash your hands of the situation and feel like you’ve done your duty. “Please seek help” is to mental health what recycling is to the environment — the way to contribute without inconveniencing yourself too much. I’ve seen friend after friend on Facebook say “if any of you are depressed or suicidal, please seek help,” and it’s frustrating because I want to respond, “Don’t you think it’s sort of telling that you don’t know whether or not your friends are depressed?”

It’s still better, though, than the equivalent of people who contemptuously don’t recycle and just throw everything in the trash because they DGAF — the people who say “suicide is selfish.” “Please seek help” is bad enough: it’s your friends and loved ones telling you, basically, that it’s on you to figure out how to fix yourself. It feels like (emphasis on ‘feels like,’ I know that is not your intention) they’re saying that if you don’t seek further help at their behest you’re being irresponsible and deserve or should expect your misery. But “suicide is selfish” goes a step further: You’re not just at fault for making yourself miserable, you’re somehow also liable to be at fault for everyone else’s misery, too.

“Suicide is selfish” always comes off to me as a way for people who feel guilty to project that guilt onto a person who is suffering tremendously. And, frankly, if you’re the kind of person who says that suicide is selfish, you should feel guilty. All you’ve done for people who are depressed and suicidal is scornfully tell them that they’re bad people. You could do more. Even saying “please seek help” is at least on its surface a way of looking out for people who are suffering, regardless of the actual helpfulness or outcome of saying it. You’ve had worse than no effect on the well-being of people who suffer from depression; you’ve had a negative effect on them.

And for what? A sanctimonious sense of superiority? Who does it benefit other than you to tell someone that their depression and suicidal ideation is selfish?

Depression is intensely isolating. If it’s not isolating because you feel like a worthless sack of shit who doesn’t deserve the company or love of others, it’s isolating because it happens so quickly and with no apparent stimulus and while everyone else seems to be doing just fine you’re sitting around feeling like food tastes like cardboard and there’s no point to anything. Or it’s isolating because people are telling you you’re fine and you’re like “I am definitely not fine” and you’re just wondering if you’re the only person on Earth who can see that. Or it’s isolating because the people who love you have no idea what to do with this human lump who won’t stop crying or sitting around staring at the wall and you have no idea what to tell them, and more than anything, you would like to figure out what to do for yourself instead of having to give them instructions and make sure that they feel OK about the fact that you don’t.

That’s why I don’t address people who are suicidal or depressed when the issue comes up. I want to tell them that it’s all right that they feel horrible and leave them be. Instead of instructing them — How useful is that? We live in a culture in which everyone is well-acquainted with the concept of therapy — I want to instruct the people who love them.

Don’t freak out about the fact that someone you love is depressed or suicidal. If they say they want to kill themselves, tell them you’re so sorry and ask if it would be all right to give them a hug. Freaking out makes the conversation about YOU and how it upsets YOU and not about how they are upset in a much more serious way.

Don’t immediately drive them to a hospital and pawn them off on doctors. The hospital is a lonely place that takes you away from the life you live and the people you love, and being put in a psychiatric ward has longstanding legal ramifications.

Instead, stay calm. Tell them that you’re there for them, whatever they need. Be physically present when they are at their worst. It sucks to be around a depressed person, but it doesn’t suck anywhere near as much as it does to be depressed. Help them to calm down and feel kind of normal. Once they’re feeling kind of normal, gently breach the subject of how they want to go about getting help. Let them make their own decisions and plans about their medical care and help them to follow through on those plans.

In other words, be involved with them, because that is concrete proof that they are not alone, no matter how isolated they feel. Have faith in them — have faith both that their horrible feelings are justified and that they will do what they need to do to feel better. That faith is a motivator.

Don’t tell them what they are or what they should do. Tell them that, whatever they are, they are loved.

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler. You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.