Let's Talk About Suicide
The Golden Gate Bridge is one of my personal favorite landmarks, stretching out over the San Francisco Bay not very far from my hometown. I remember taking trips to the bridge when I was younger, seeing the red arches peak out above low-lying clouds, majestically basking in the sunsets of the bay. Back then I was in awe of its picturesque design, and even now, the sight of its rusty-colored cables reminds me of pleasant memories. But The Golden Gate Bridge, for all its beauty, is marred for many by the tragedy in its history. It is the “most-used suicide spot in the United States, second in the world,” and every year, people travel from near and far to climb over its ledge and never climb back (Smith). In 2017 alone, a record two hundred and forty-five people attempted suicide on the Golden Gate, and thirty-three of those people completed the act (Bannister). According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., with an estimated 44,965 Americans every year ending their own lives. However, the actual numbers are believed to be significantly higher, as suicide-related issues are chronically underreported due to the profuse stigma surrounding it. Even speaking about suicide, as I am with you now, makes many people uncomfortable, and like the example of the Golden Gate Bridge, we tend not to want to acknowledge ugly truths among prettier things. But suicide is a serious problem facing our nation and jeopardizing thousands of lives every day in the U.S. alone. We must do everything we can to help prevent it, and the first step is to start a public discussion about the topic in order to lessen stigma surrounding the issue and better provide aid to those contemplating it.
What is it like to be suicidal? It’s a perplexing question that frightens us as much as it fascinates us, particularly for those of us who have never experienced it before. We hear about people who die by suicide and wonder what possibly could have convinced them that it was the right decision; we spend hours questioning why anyone would choose something that so distinctly goes against our innate instinct for survival. Why kill yourself when there is so much to live for? In the face of this conundrum, many of us reason that the people who choose suicide are simply crazy, or attention-seeking, or perhaps just stupid. And, ultimately, most of us dismiss the question with the thought that suicide, by nature, is irrational, and we come to the conclusion that there is simply no explanation at all. But there is a reason we ask ourselves, “Why?” each time we hear of someone who has taken his or her own life. In fact there is an explanation, and it is vital that we work to understand it.
We are all shaped by our perceptions of the world, and each one of us sees it a little differently, depending upon our biology, psychology, and societal environment. Our perceptions allow us to interpret sounds, smells, tastes, touches, and sights and create from them the world as we know it—the bubble we live in known as our perceptual field, our understanding of reality. But the perceptual field has its limits, and with them an incredible ability to expand and contract, something we all experience every day. Think of the moment you’re cut off in traffic. Your heart rate might quicken, or your face might flush, and all you can focus on, all you can think of is the license plate speeding by, your thoughts consumed for a second by a blinding, burning haze of emotion before you take a deep breath, and your perception inevitably returns to normal. But imagine it didn’t. Imagine you stayed there, trapped in that narrow, dark place of collapsed perception. “That’s what it can be like to live with a mental illness,” says Mark Henick. “At least, that’s what it was like at the depth of my own mental illness,” something that led Henick to attempt suicide as a teenager. Edwin Shneidman, a clinical psychologist who is a leading authority on suicide, describes ten characteristics that are commonly associated with completed suicide, with the seventh being that “The common cognitive state in suicide is constriction.” Those who choose suicide often feel trapped by their own emotions and perceptual fields, stuck in a suffocated bubble of intolerable psychological pain. When this happens, it can become easy to desperately seek a solution, an escape, and in your collapsed perception find one nowhere expect in the cessation of consciousness. And amid a jumble of heightened feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness, the will to live that we are all born with can fade into ambivalence.
There is much that can be done to help those struggling with these suicidal thoughts, and evidence suggests that medical treatment and even simply talking about their feelings to listening, trusted ears are both effective treatments for helping prevent suicide. However, many of those struggling do not reach out to others about these issues for fear of judgment and even out of shame, due to the stigmatization of suicide and mental illness. “Because of the stigma… that still exists concerning mental illness, many people who need help do not seek it. Even though there is clear scientific data that indicates irrefutably that a physical connection exists with most mental disorders, many people still stigmatize others because they… hold on to the misguided beliefs of yesteryear that people with mental disorders are weak or just lack will power,” (Caruso). And there certainly exists a powerful mentality that becoming suicidal is a sign of weakness, a case of blowing manageable tribulations out of proportion.
Why do we all convince ourselves, both those who are suicidal and those who are not, that the external cause of our psychological trauma should determine our need for treatment, our allowance of pain? Why do we think, when we hear of someone with suicidal thoughts or even when we experience them ourselves, “Losing a job shouldn’t be enough to make a person suicidal”? “Going through a divorce shouldn’t be enough to make a person suicidal.” “Being bullied shouldn’t be enough to make a person suicidal.” Maybe we can challenge ourselves to consider that an inciting incident might have nothing to do with it. A fall from a tree will result in pain, but whether or not it breaks an arm depends on the porosity of the bone, the angle of impact. A bout of food poisoning will result in discomfort, but whether or not it induces vomit depends on the person’s immune system and the amount ingested. In the same way, a traumatic event alone cannot dictate whether or not a person will develop suicidal thoughts—this can depend on the person’s genetic vulnerability to depression, mood regulation of the brain, medications, and medical problems—and it’s absurd to say that a person’s suicidal thoughts aren’t valid because their external struggles are small (Harvard Health Publishing).
It seems cruel when we think about it to deny someone’s suffering as if torment were a prize to be earned. And, as much as we hate to admit it, we can’t eradicate pain by admonishing its presence, declaring it shouldn’t be there because a person is not entitled to experience it. We can tell ourselves all we want that those considering suicide should walk it off, but that isn’t going to bring anybody out of that dark, constricted place we call severe depression. And I think on some fundamental level we all know this, yet we continue to treat suicidal thoughts and the mental illnesses that give rise to them as if they were unnecessary—irrational symptoms caused by irrational people. Maybe in doing this, we’re only trying to rationalize a phenomenon that scares us, but all we achieve by calling the suicidal selfish, foolish, or weak is inadvertently holding them responsible for their pain. And specifically when those experiencing suicidal thoughts hold themselves responsible, their already-existing feelings of worthlessness and being undeserving of life are only exacerbated.
I think we can all do better. We are all hurt by suicide. Whether we are saddened by a statistic, grieved by the suicide or suicidal thoughts of someone we know, or stuck in that narrow field of perception ourselves, there isn’t any lack of heartache we feel because of suicide, so there shouldn’t be any lack of compassion either. We need to find a more effective way to reach out in order to help those at risk of suicide, and the first and easiest way we can do this is by decreasing the stigma surrounding it. When we hear about suicide, we shouldn’t treat is as some vaguely shameful issue that divulges fault, but an emotional dilemma that is all-too human. We should work to understand as best as we can what it is like to be suicidal, because an illness cannot be treated properly if it is not understood. And once we’ve begun understanding it better, we can start discussing it more often. If we reach out to each other about suicide in a compassionate, public way, those who are suicidal can feel safer reaching out to others too. Suicide can less and less be a conversation for hushed voices and behind closed doors and instead a frank and honest discussion out in the open. It might at first be a little uncomfortable to speak candidly about a topic that scares us, but it will raise awareness of the issue and allow those at risk of suicide to talk to others about their suicidal thoughts—and suicidal thoughts should never be something a person has to experience alone.
Suicide—as an event, as a health concern, as a discussion, even as a passing thought— is a heavy burden to bear. It is a thick, black cloud hanging over our heads, casting a long shadow over human existence—a physical testament to the alarming fragility of the human mind, that sometimes we are broken beyond repair. It’s certainly not the topic of your average dinner party conversation.
It is an ugly truth among prettier things, and optimism tells us to avoid acknowledging it at all costs. But there is a difference between seeking to understand the state of being suicidal and seeking to experience it. In fact, if done properly, it is the awareness, and not ignorance, of suicide that allows us to better avoid becoming suicidal ourselves. And we must think about it, we must talk about it, we must sit with it, we must get to know it as well as we possibly can if we are ever to lessen stigma and make it better. So yes, the weight of suicide is a heavy burden… but it is sharing a burden that makes it easier to carry. And it seems fitting that in order to help prevent suicide, the constricted, cavernous, darkened void of collapsed perception needs only to be brought into the light of day.
Kendall Millett is a co-founder of The Oxford Comma and one of its acting head writers. She is a teen homeschooler and a Gold Key regional Scholastic Art & Writing Awards recipient. She is based in the Bay Area.