Some of the things people say about suicide are true.
Suicide can often be prevented, for one. It’s also not the only way to put an end to mental and emotional distress.
True, suicidal thoughts are common, but experiencing these thoughts doesn’t necessarily mean someone intends to act on them.
Other untruths about suicide remain far too prevalent. These false beliefs further stigmatize people attempting to navigate overwhelming pain, making it even more difficult for them to reach out and get support.
If you need help now
If you need someone to talk with in a moment of distress, trained, compassionate crisis counselors can listen and offer support with finding helpful ways to cope.
Here’s another myth you’ve probably come across: Suicide is a selfish act.
On the surface, this myth might seem pretty plausible. It suggests suicide happens when people experiencing great pain make the impulsive decision to die without considering how the people in their lives might miss them and regret their loss.
Yet, this understanding of suicide distills the complex factors contributing to suicide into near-nothingness. In the process, it does a disservice to people who’ve considered, attempted, or died by suicide.
Here’s a closer look at some of the assumptions that lead to this misconception.
This myth may, at least in part, relate to the feelings of guilt, loss, or anger experienced by people trying to come to terms with a loved one’s death by suicide.
It’s never easy to make sense of death, but it can feel particularly difficult when you’re left without answers and little hope of gaining any deeper insight into a tragic loss.
Suicide often happens during a moment of intense crisis, once someone has reached the limit of what they can bear. Any number of experiences can prompt suicidal thoughts, but a few common triggers include:
- shame, guilt, or a sense of worthlessness
- loneliness or social isolation
- serious health concerns
- severe mental health symptoms, including depression, post-traumatic stress, or psychosis
- hopelessness for the future
These feelings and experiences can cause pain so overwhelmingly intense that it drowns out any internal whisper of encouragement and washes away potential routes to healing.
Someone in this space may not see any way forward for themselves. As an outsider, you generally can’t comprehend this deeply felt distress unless you’ve experienced something similar yourself. So, losing someone you love to suicide can lead to confusion along with grief and regret.
These emotions are completely natural, of course. That said, it’s also important to acknowledge that humans, as a general rule, tend to experience challenges with uncertainty. Difficulty bearing the burden of not knowing can leave you lost in a maze of “whys” and “what ifs.”
What’s more, you’re not living through the same turmoil and pain, so alternate options might stand out clearly to you:
- “If only they …”
- “Why couldn’t they …”
- “I should have …”
This particular uncertainty that tends to accompany grief after suicide loss can drive the assumptions reinforcing the idea of suicide as a selfish choice.
We challenge four of these assumptions below.
Suicide doesn’t always reflect a desire to die, but rather, a belief that living with severe and long-standing pain is no longer possible.
It may take quite a while for someone thinking about suicide to open up about these thoughts and say they’re in crisis. When they do, though, you can take it for granted that they truly do want help.
If the pain they share doesn’t sound all that distressing or overwhelming, it might seem reasonable to assume they’re just looking for attention. This assumption, however, brings nothing but harm.
Everyone has a different level of tolerance for distress, first of all. It’s also possible they’ve only told you some of what they’re dealing with.
People don’t talk about suicide or make attempts simply to seek attention, but they do need your immediate attention and support. Writing off their attempts to get help as a ploy for attention instead of taking them seriously might only end up affirming their belief that no help is available.
The myth that suicide is selfish often pairs with another frequently expressed belief: Suicide suggests mental weakness, or a lack of emotional fortitude.
Some might point to the fact that the world is full of suffering and pain, suggesting that people with greater resilience and resolve simply “chin up” and make the best of their circumstances.
No two people respond to trauma, life challenges, and other sources of distress in the same way, and it never helps to make judgments about anyone’s internal world, lived experience, or abilities.
When you don’t have the full story, suicide can seem like a sudden decision, a thoughtless and rash response to a situation that would have soon improved. In reality, people often attempt suicide after careful consideration and planning. They might spend weeks, months, or even years working to keep the bulk of their pain at bay, waiting and hoping for things to improve.
While the problem that adds the final spark could seem relatively small from the outside, you may not be able to grasp the expanse of what they’ve carried for so long.
People do sometimes consider suicide before ever reaching out to a therapist or seeking support from another helping professional.
Yet, in many cases, people reserve suicide as a last resort, a final option when other efforts have failed.
- worked with multiple therapists, none of whom offered the support they needed
- tried every treatment recommended for their health or mental health condition, yet none led to improvement
- called or texted crisis helplines that proved less than helpful
- exhausted available resources to find work or change their living circumstances
- tried again and again to form friendships and romantic relationships, only to have none of them last
- attempted to share their feelings with loved ones but felt brushed off or misunderstood
Under the constant strain of lingering distress, it can become almost impossible to recognize the possibilities that remain. This tunnel vision makes suicide seem like not just a way out, but the only method of relief.
Make no mistake, many people thinking about suicide do consider this — very carefully.
Plenty of people who have thoughts of suicide do their best to shoulder their pain and make it through another day simply because they worry about hurting the ones the love. Eventually, though, they might find it harder and harder to keep going, especially when they believe they’ve exhausted their resources for support.
Many people also attempt suicide because they believe their continued existence only burdens the loved ones caring for them. In other words, they aren’t thinking about themselves when they make a suicide plan. Instead, they truly believe their deaths will improve the lives of the people they care about most.
You might reassure a loved one having thoughts of suicide that they aren’t a burden, that you want to offer help and support. During a crisis, though, they might have a harder time accepting this as truth. They might even feel guilty for putting you in that position.
Don’t forget, many people who have suicidal thoughts also live with depression. This mental health condition often involves feelings of shame and worthlessness, not to mention a general sense of hopelessness that things will ever improve or change.
To people experiencing challenges with these feelings, then, suicide offers more than a way to find relief from unbearable pain. It also provides a way to make things easier for the people who continually weather their crises.
Keeping one final myth in mind can go a long way toward preventing suicide: It simply isn’t true that asking someone if they’re having suicidal thoughts will make them think about suicide or inspire them to act on their thoughts. Quite the contrary, as a matter of fact.
When you ask someone about suicidal thoughts, you let them know they can safely share those thoughts with you. In short, you remove one barrier preventing them from getting help.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.