Suicide is one of the most difficult subjects for any of us talk about. Add to that fact that I am a surviving family member of a suicide victim, and that I am a psychotherapist whose role is to prioritize and promote personal safety and suicide prevention, and this subject becomes a hard swallowing, throat lump forming, and eyes cast downward type of conversation piece.
But today, I choose to write about it. I choose this because most recently, with the suicide of successful and beloved designer, Kate Spade, the subject of suicide seems to be on the minds and in the mouths of many. Most troubling to me is that I have heard many cringe worthy, fictional statements about suicide that promulgate myth wrapped in a judgmental, condescending package. I rationalize that if harmful and misleading suicide information is being disseminated, I have, from my unique platform, a basic humane responsibility to attempt to reframe the issue of suicide in order to expound on the subject through a hopefully enlightening, loving, and factual lens.
Below is a list of fictional statements that I have personally and professionally been witness to:
FICTION: Suicide is cowardly. It is much harder to stick around!
FACT: Suicide is a heartbreakingly painful decision and those who choose it do so with tremendous strength, usually after enduring extensive mental, emotional, and sometimes physical pain. Labeling suicide as a cowardly act underscores the strength that suicide victims have utilized to survive as long as they have, and to make their single, most painful final decision to end their suffering.
FICTION: Suicide victims are selfish. They never think about how killing themselves will impact their family and friends.
FACT: Quite the contrary, suicide victims almost always think of loved ones before the suicide act. However, usually due to depression and social isolation, they often suffer from a low self-value and decide that their loved ones will have better lives without them in it. Suicide victims often commit suicide as an act of perceived selflessness (which is, understandably, a very difficult concept for survivors to understand and/or accept).
FICTION: Speaking about suicide causes incidents of suicide to spread.
FACT: Research has proven that this is not the case. Speaking about suicide opens the door for those who may be feeling hopeless, helpless, isolated, or depressed to discuss their thoughts and feelings freely, thereby reducing social stigma surrounding their symptoms, allowing those who are suffering to feel increased connectedness, and introducing the possibility of arriving at adaptive solutions to their problems.
FICTION: Suicides often occur suddenly and without warning.
FACT: Most suicides occur after a number of verbal and behavioral warning signs. Knowing the warning signs is vital to suicide prevention. Please visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/how-we-can-all-prevent-suicide/ for a list of common warning signs.
In families that operate by keeping secrets from each other and from the outside world, warning signs can be especially difficult to notice and openly discuss. This family dynamic is often found in strictly religious communities as well as in more affluent communities due to pervasive social stigma surrounding perceived individual differences and the threat of damage to one’s social standing and reputation. If you or someone you know lacks support because of a family dynamic surrounding secrets and shame, it is important to become connected, or connect others, to those who offer unconditional support, such as trusted friends, employers, teachers, community members, or mental health professionals.
FICTION: When someone decides to commit suicide, you cannot change their mind.
FACT: This may be the most dangerous myth of all. While we are not to blame when suicide victims commit the act, we all have the power to support and actively champion suicide prevention. One of the reasons for this is because suicide victims often ruminate over committing suicide for a long time before actually carrying out the suicide act. Those contemplating suicide are likely to hint at their intentions verbally (‘You would be better off without me’, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t see the point. Nothing will change for me.’) and behaviorally (giving items away, refusing to make future plans, neglecting themselves). By spreading awareness of the warning signs, and offering compassion and non-judgmental support to those who are struggling with hopelessness and despair, we CAN prevent suicide, often without even being aware of it.
What does non-judgmental support look like?
Below are some examples of what TO say vs. what NOT to say:
“I don’t want to be here anymore”
What not to say: “Of course you do!” This response is argumentative and lacks interest and empathy.
What to say: “Why do you feel that way?” This response creates safety and conveys genuine compassion.
“I wish I just wouldn’t wake up in the morning”
What not to say: “Don’t say things like that! You should be grateful for what you have!” This response is critical and judgmental (‘should’).
What to say: “It sounds like you are feeling really down right now. How can I support you?” This response interprets underlying emotions and offers unconditional support (be careful to keep interpretations general to avoid wrongful assumptions).
“Everyone would be better off without me”
What not to say: “Oh come on. You know that isn’t true I don’t know why you say these things!” This response denotes impatience (‘come on’) and is dismissive.
What to say: “I know I wouldn’t be. You are so important to me, I wonder why you don’t think so?” This response reveals honest care and opens the door for safe discussion.
“I hate my life”
What not to say: “how could you hate your life? Don’t you know that life is precious?!” This response sounds more like a lecture than support.
What to say: “Something really painful and challenging must be happening for you now. Can we talk about it?” This response is accurately interpretive and lacks judgment, creating a safe opening for discussion.
Saying the words “today, right now, recently, now etc…” appropriately can be helpful for those struggling with suicidal thoughts. It suggests that their feelings of despair are temporary, which is important as those contemplating suicide often maladaptively believe that their problems and feelings of hopelessness are permanent.
If you or someone you know has been contemplating suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for 24/7 support.
Each of us in unique and special. Nobody can ever be replaced.
You matter, and you are loved.
This article is written in loving memory of my brother, Daniel Friedman.
To read more about Daniel, visit our legacy page.
Elana Friedman, LCSW, CCTP