Suicide is a significant cause of death in many western countries, in some cases exceeding deaths by motor vehicle accidents annually. Many countries spend vast amounts of money on safer roads, but very little on suicide awareness and prevention, or on educating people about how to make good life choices.
Attempts at suicide, and suicidal thoughts or feelings are usually a symptom indicating that a person isn’t coping, often as a result of some event or series of events that they personally find overwhelmingly traumatic or distressing. In many cases, the events in question will pass, their impact can be mitigated, or their overwhelming nature will gradually fade if the person is able to make constructive choices about dealing with the crisis when it is at its worst. Since this can be extremely difficult, this article is an attempt to raise awareness about suicide, so that we may be better able to recognize and help other people in crisis, and also to find how to seek help or make better choices ourselves.
Here are a number of frequently asked questions to help raise awareness and dispel some of the common myths about suicide:
1. Why do people attempt suicide?
People usually attempt suicide to block unbearable emotional pain, which is caused by a wide variety of problems. It is often a cry for help. A person attempting suicide is often so distressed that they are unable to see that they have other options: we can help prevent a tragedy by endeavoring to understand how they feel and helping them to look for better choices that they could make. Suicidal people often feel terribly isolated; because of their distress, they may not think of anyone they can turn to, furthering this isolation.
In the vast majority of cases a suicide attemptor would choose differently if they were not in great distress and were able to evaluate their options objectively. Most suicidal people give warning signs in the hope that they will be rescued, because they are intent on stopping their emotional pain, not on dying.
2. Aren’t all suicidal people crazy?
No, having suicidal thoughts does not imply that you are crazy, or necessarily mentally ill. People who attempt suicide are often acutely distressed and the vast majority are depressed to some extent. This depression may be either a reactive depression which is an entirely normal reaction to difficult circumstances, or may be an endogenous depression which is the result of a diagnosable mental illness with other underlying causes. It may also be a combination of the two.
The question of mental illness is a difficult one because both these kinds of depression may have similar symptoms and effects. Furthermore, the exact definition of depression as a diagnosable mental illnesses (i.e. clinical depression) tends to be somewhat fluid and inexact, so whether a person who is distressed enough to attempt suicide would be diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression may vary in different peoples opinions, and may also vary between cultures.
It’s probably more helpful to distinguish between these two types of depression and treat each accordingly than to simply diagnose all such depression as being a form of mental illness, even though a person suffering from a reactive depression might match the diagnostic criteria typically used to diagnose clinical depression. For example, Appleby and Condonis write:
The majority of individuals who commit suicide do not have a diagnosable mental illness. They are people just like you and I who at a particular time are feeling isolated, desperately unhappy and alone. Suicidal thoughts and actions may be the result of life’s stresses and losses that the individual feels they just can’t cope with.
In a society where there is much stigma and ignorance regarding mental illness, a person who feels suicidal may fear that other people will think they are “crazy” if they tell them how they feel, and so may be reluctant to reach out for help in a crisis. In any case, describing someone as “crazy”, which has strong negative connotations, probably isn’t helpful and is more likely to dissuade someone from seeking help which may be very beneficial, whether they have a diagnosable mental illness or not.
People who are suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia or clinical depression do have significantly higher suicide rates than average, although they are still in the minority of attemptors. For these people, having their illness correctly diagnosed can mean that an appropriate treatment can begin to address it.