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By: Mary Hoofnagle, M.A., NCC, LPC-Intern
When I first heard Robin Williams died by suicide, my first instinct was that it offered a natural opportunity to discuss suicide awareness. But I had already been working on a completely different post, and I wondered if writing about suicide was truly the best way I could honor the life of this man, father, husband, friend, and artist. So I decided not to.
But then I started to notice something. Through the veil of social media, many people were sharing outrage and disgust at his death. This broke my heart. And opened my eyes. Though I can’t say I’m exactly surprised by the reaction. After all, we criminalize suicide with the very language we use. Many will still say someone committed suicide. But suicide isn’t a crime. It’s a tragedy. There is so much that popular culture misunderstands about suicide. And so I decided that writing about suicide is a way to honor Robin Williams, his family and friends, and everyone who has lost their own life or a loved one to suicide.
Before I dive into these misconceptions, I’d like to emphasize one very important point:
Suicide is not simple.
So please, before you try to boil down someone’s life and struggle with depression to any simple explanation or statement. Take a minute and think about these five misconceptions about suicide.
- Survivors are the real victims of suicide. Being the loved one of a person who has died by suicide certainly isn’t easy. But saying they are the ones who really suffered and that the deceased is just selfish or cowardly misses the mark. When someone is suicidal, he or she isn’t trying to punish others or make their lives difficult. In fact, the opposite is often the case. Individuals who suffer from depression often feel like a burden to their loved ones and that the lives of family and friends would be easier and better if they weren’t around. To understand this on a more personal level, read one survivor’s story.
- Bringing up the topic of suicide can make someone more likely to do it.Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away. If you think someone you love may be thinking about suicide, ask. Don’t ask, “Are you OK?” That’s vague and easy to side step. Be direct, “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” This offers an opportunity for the person to talk about his or her struggle and feel less isolated. Be sure your response doesn’t isolate someone further. Be accepting of these thoughts. Don’t dismiss them as dramatic or less intense than they are. Let the person know it must be scary to feel that way. Tell the person you are in this together. Find resources together. Stay with the person until he or she can see a professional. Here is a PSA with suggestions for what to say and what not to say. It is designed for teens, but you should respond to an adult with suicidal thoughts in this accepting and supportive manner as well.
- If someone you know to be depressed or suicidal seems happier, everything is OK now. When you notice a sudden change in mood it may be a warning sign. It is common for survivors to say they feel shocked because their loved one’s mood was happy in the days before suicide. This actually isn’t as perplexing as it seems. Depression is crippling. Depression is isolating. Depression is all consuming. Depression is not something that you can control. When you suffer from depression many people will urge you to “snap out of it.” Someone struggling with depression wishes more than anyone else that he or she could cross arms and blink like I Dream of Jeannie to turn it off. Imagine you live day in and day out with these feelings you can’t control. For years. When you do the things you love, they no longer bring you joy. They no longer make you forget the depressed feelings. One day you think, “If I’m not alive I don’t have to feel this way. My friends don’t have to worry about me anymore.” Suddenly there is relief. Suddenly you might feel like smiling again. This is can be the experience of people who have decided suicide may be the answer they are looking for. So, if you see a sudden shift in mood, it could mean someone has finally made this decision. In fact, get familiar with all the signs, and don’t be afraid to ask and reach out to someone.
- Suicide is the easy way out. For individuals living with depression, there is no easy way out. Once someone gets to the point of contemplating suicide, it’s not because it feels like the easy way out, but because it seems to be the only way out. But that still doesn’t make it easy. Depression is messy and complicated and an intense struggle. Made even more complicated by the stigmas our society attaches to depression. I could try and explain this, but I could never do so with more clarity and compassion than Kevin Breel does in this TEDx video.
- All the person needed was ______. Religion… to talk to someone… to practice gratitude… the right medication… yoga… counseling… Fill in the blank with anything you can think of. I’ve heard all these suggestions for a simple fix. But again. Depression is far from simple. Depression is a disease that takes people from us the same way cancer does. It can be mild, or all consuming. Sometimes treatment is effective and sometimes it isn’t. People can be predisposed to it from genetics, or it can be induced by any number of circumstances, or even come on for no apparent reason at all. The sooner we understand and accept depression as an illness that isn’t in the control of the individual who experiences it, the sooner we will move toward acceptance of individuals with depression and embrace them.
Love others. Love them unconditionally even if you don’t understand them. That is the most healing balm of all. And if you don’t know how to support someone, seek out resources for yourself and help others find resources. Below are a few to get you started. Additionally, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment. We also have more information about depression counseling on our page.
Or call: 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)