Yes, I said the dreaded “s” word. Suicide: a taboo subject in our culture. We’re sometimes afraid to even mutter the word for fear of the reaction we will get from those around us. There are many stigmas associated with suicide. But those of us whose lives have been impacted by suicide have an opportunity, even a responsibility, to break the stigma by bringing awareness to society.
I think the first step is to banish the word “commit” when discussing suicide. It is my understanding this term came into use many years ago when it was deemed a crime to harm oneself. Now doctors realize there are many mental illnesses that contribute to suicide. In over 90 percent of cases where suicide is the cause of death, the individual has a history of mental illness. With suicide, the victim takes his or her own life—but they do not “commit” suicide. The victim has likely lived with a disease. I use the word “victim” because he or she did not choose to have this disease any more than another chooses to suffer from a physical disease. No one commits cancer. No one commits a heart attack. No one commits diabetes. No one commits depression. So why would we use the word “commit” with suicide? Instead, we need to say that he or she died by suicide, or that they have taken their own life.
Society has also led us to believe we will always know when someone wants to harm themselves. Many assume potential victims will do everything short of wearing a label to point out their depression. While there are a number of signs, some subtle and some more obvious, which indicate someone may be contemplating suicide, I also know firsthand that some preconceived notions about suicide can be wrong.
I lost my brother to suicide five months ago. We had a happy childhood. Our parents did everything in their power to make sure we knew we were loved. My brother went to college and had a ton of friends. He had a great job. He was married with children. He was the kind of guy who could light up the room with his smile, instantly bringing everyone joy. We knew he wasn’t at his happiest point in life, but he put on a good front. We never expected him to take his own life. Never. Not once did he threaten to take his own life prior to his death. Two days before his suicide, we were together and had a wonderful time. I did not have even the tiniest thought that he would go home and take his own life 48 hours later.
This, my friends, is sometimes the true picture of suicide. Some people in deep depression, like my brother, will only let you in so much. You may only be allowed to glimpse a small piece of the puzzle of their life, when in fact, they live in a world of hurt and despair deeper and darker than you might imagine.
Suicide does not discriminate. Yes, society has led us to believe there is a clear picture of those individuals who would take their own lives, but there’s not a checklist. Rich or poor, black or white, homosexual or heterosexual, single or married with children, Christian or atheist, upper or lower class … it doesn’t matter. Depression, the leading cause of suicide, also affects every walk of life. No one is immune to this disease, and we need to break this stigma as well so we can reach people wherever they’re at.
We’ve been led to believe suicide is the “selfish” way out, that victims of suicide have chosen to take their own lives because they don’t want to face their problems. I believe the vast majority of those who take their own life do not see it as a “choice.” They are in such a deep pit that they are unable to see beyond themselves. They can’t begin to understand how ending their lives will affect their loved ones. They truly believe the world will be a better place without them. I believe with all my heart that if my brother had been capable of looking outside of his pain and turmoil, he would never have taken his own life. He loved his family, and he would have never hurt us intentionally. We have to teach people that suicide is often the endpoint of an illness, and we need to find ways to prevent it.
Five months after my brother’s death, we are still finding missing pieces to the puzzle of his depression. That’s hard to come to terms with. I loved my brother with all of my heart, but my love alone was not enough to save him. Saving lives and preventing suicide depends on much more; it depends on treatment, on open conversations, on the desire to seek help, and on a stigma-free environment in which to do so.
We’ve all been touched by suicide in one form or another. As those who have survived, or as those who have been left behind, we have a responsibility to challenge the stigma associated with suicide. Educate your friends. Educate your families. Spread the word. Love each other. Be kind to one another. Please join me and help break the stigma.