Stigmatizing beliefs about suicide may stem from myths that suicide is a sign of weakness or wanting attention, or that the affected person has not thought about others or tried to get help.
Some of the things people say about suicide are true.
True, suicidal thoughts can be common, but experiencing these thoughts doesn’t necessarily mean someone intends to act on them. It’s important to recognize others’ feelings with compassion and to help them connect with potentially life-saving mental health services as appropriate.
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.
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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 may lead to this misconception.
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, such as
- 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.
It’s never easy to make sense of death, but it can feel particularly difficult when you’re left without answers and have little hope of gaining any deeper insight into a tragic loss.
Someone in this space may not see any way forward for themselves. As an outsider, you generally can’t comprehend this
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 may not be living through the same turmoil and pain, so alternate options might stand out more 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 do not talk about suicide or make attempts simply to seek attention,
The myth that suicide is selfish often pairs with another frequently expressed belief: Suicide
Some might point to the fact that the world is full of people who manage tough situations, 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 as they wait and hope 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.
Maybe they’ve tried the following
- 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 they 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 may not be 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 and 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 that many people who have suicidal thoughts
To people experiencing challenges with these feelings, then, suicide offers more than a way to find relief from unbearable pain. They may feel it also provides a way to make things easier for the people who continually weather their crises.
Despite some of the common myths you may have heard about suicide, it’s not a selfish act. Some of the myths that fuel this stigmatizing viewpoint include weakness, wanting attention, and others that are simply unfounded.
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.
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.