A frequent response to suicide is to call the act of ending one’s life selfish. A person who commits suicide, this line of reasoning goes, only ultimately cares about him or herself at the expense of family and friends who are left to grieve in the wake of a horrible tragedy. By the same logic, the nearly 40,000 Americans who commit suicide each year, and the thousands more who attempt it, are self-centered.
Suicide a Sign of Mental Illness, Not a Character Flaw
But is suicide really selfish? Experts in the mental health field say “no.” They say this view is misguided and only reinforces the age-old stigma of suicide by eclipsing the real cause of this tragedy: mental illness. In fact, mental illness accounts for more than 90 percent of all suicides, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And, this reality hits closer to home when considered next to the fact that one in four adults suffers from mental illness.
Just about every 13 minutes someone dies from suicide. Chances are that up until their fateful choice, they have been afflicted by some form of mental illness such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. The suffering of mental illness, unlike other potentially life-threatening medical diseases, remains an often hidden, misunderstood and stigmatized sickness, despite its prevalence in society. Consequently, victims of suicide and their families are often left to deal with the complexities of mental illness and its tragic fallout behind closed doors.
De-Stigmatizing Suicide and Mental Illness
Thomas Joiner knows about the great personal costs of suicide. His father killed himself when Joiner was in graduate school. Joiner has since devoted himself to studying the phenomenon, having authored most recently the book Myths About Suicide. In an interview with National Public Radio, Joiner counters the common belief that suicide is selfish. Acknowledging that such views are understandable, he goes on to explain that a suicidal person in the throes of their sickness is actually thinking that they are a burden to others and that their death will be “worth more” to those around them than their being alive.
“Now, if you ponder that sentiment,” Joiner tells NPR host Neal Conan, “that’s not selfish at all. In fact, if anything it’s the opposite. It’s very selfless…let me make a key point about that idea that’s in the mind of suicidal people. That idea is mistaken, but the tragedy, one of hundreds of many tragedies about this event—or this phenomenon, rather—is that the suicidal person doesn’t know it’s mistaken. They think the idea is true, and it spurs their fatal behavior.”
In other words, mental illness causes erroneous and unhealthy thought patterns that over time can lead to suicidal tendencies. These thought patterns are not a result of selfishness. They are the result of disrupted mental functioning that is an outgrowth and symptom of a disease.
The seriousness of mental illness, according to Joiner, ranks up there with heart disease, cancer and strokes, and should be regarded in the same category (as a potentially life-threatening disease). When a depressed person comes to believe that they are a burden to their family and friends, and that they are worth more dead than alive, the prospect of killing oneself can also with time seem less and less scary or taboo. The “collision” of these two dynamics—a sense of utter worthlessness and little or no fearful inhibition about the prospect of killing oneself—leads to suicide, Joiner says.
Mental Illness Is Treatable
If suicidal thinking is wrong-headed, it is because in actuality the person is deeply loved by family and friends, and because they have a sickness that in a vast majority of cases is treatable.
If you are suicidal, or know a family member or friend who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If your life or that of a loved one is in imminent danger, dial “911” or go to your nearest emergency room.