When I worked in suicide intervention more than one person asked me how in the world we talked people out of committing suicide.
We didn’t talk anyone out of committing suicide. That wasn’t our job. Our job was to keep people engaged and talking long enough to get them help; to get another person on-scene and in the room with them; to get someone physically with them who could ensure their safety and monitor their wellbeing.
There’s no such thing as talking people out of killing themselves.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I know there are folks out there who are pretty harsh when it comes to suicide. Many think it’s cowardly, selfish, misguided, wrong, a sign of failure, and/or a sin. No one is going to argue anyone out of those opinions. I imagine it’s a gut reaction borne of innate self-preservation.
I would be lying if I said I don’t understand suicide on a deeply personal level and not only because I worked with the mentally ill population for over a decade. I understand it because I don’t remember a time after the age of twelve when I haven’t had suicidal thoughts — from intense to fleeting. In my experience, being suicidal is a lot like addiction: while one might overcome their addiction and stop using, they will always be an addict. Similarly, while one might overcome suicidal ideation and stop wanting to die, they will always have a suicidal predisposition.
There are myriad reasons for every act people commit, including suicide. It’s pointless to talk as if we can ever know for certain why a person took their own life. The decision is as complex and particular as we are all individual.
I can say this from personal experience: sometimes we get exhausted.
For many of us, life is a constant mental and emotional struggle. (Maybe it’s a constant mental and emotional struggle for us all.) Life is a fight that has us battling daily. For some of us, the fight takes its toll. We get exhausted. We get tired. We don’t have any fight left in us. We no longer feel the fight is worth fighting.
This isn’t to say suicide is acceptable, normal, or right. It’s to say suicide is understandable, human, and personal. There may be nothing more personal than suicide.
Stigma has us all clamoring to paint suicide with the convenient “mental illness” brush. The depression brush. Sadly, it’s not that simple. Some take their own life because they are in unbearable pain from a terminal disease. Some take their own life because they can’t face consequences. Some take their own life because they can’t cope. Some take their own life because they want control.
The mental illness brush—the depression brush—isn’t always applicable. Convenient maybe but not always applicable. That brush also ignores one glaring reality: there are people who commit suicide because their mental health is improving or because they have become sober. Increased stability can lead to increased insight which can lead to increased self-criticism. Sobriety can alleviate self-medication which can unbury overwhelming symptoms.
If the suicide of Robin Williams shows us anything it’s that even someone who seemingly has it all can suffer and suffer immensely. The human condition is inescapable. Wealth, fame, and high regard don’t shield anyone from being human. No one is immune, not even the man that provides the most laughs.
There are some things we can all do about suicide.
We can hope that in a moment of suicidal ideation someone will reach out; however, many do not. I rarely (if ever) ask for help for any reason. I would be one of those individuals who did not reach out. It’s not my personality or nature. I would probably leave a note, but I would not reach out.
We can be understanding and exude empathy rather than judgment. We can refuse to stigmatize suicide. We can acknowledge it as an unfortunate reality made possible by the human condition. We can admit our own struggles and not hide behind pride, secrecy, or self-imposed shame.
We can learn about suicide. We can educate ourselves about the indicators and how to intervene. We can be willing to ask people—bluntly—if they are having thoughts about suicide. We can offer support, help, and a human connection, since those at greatest risk are those who will not seek out others.
We can remember how even someone that has achieved sobriety or greater mental/emotional stability can be at risk and remain mindful of that fact. Unobtrusive and supportive, but mindful.
There are also some things we can all do if someone does commit suicide.
We can respect their freedom to have done so. We can grieve, we can be regretful, we can be mad as all hell. But, we can also recognize that—just like us—they are human. They deserve dignity and respect. They weren’t a problem in need of solving or an issue in need of fixing.
We can realize we couldn’t have saved them or talked them out of taking their own life. We can refrain from blaming ourselves or feeling guilty. We can accept their personal choice, even if we don’t like it, agree with it, or understand it.
We can be unashamed for them. We can talk about it. We don’t have to hide it or shroud it in secrecy.
We can remember them. We can love them. We can cry. We can laugh. We can go on living.
We can pray that one day—hopefully far in the future—the world will miss us as much as we miss them now.
Like Robin Williams, we can be human.