People who experience suicidal thoughts aren't selfish

People who experience suicidal thoughts aren't selfish

March 24, 2022

After I tried to take my life, I was lying in a hospital bed and was told by well-meaning loved ones that my condition was negatively affecting other people’s lives and relationships – that what I’d done was selfish.

It felt like I was being punished for being ill. But because of my state of mind at the time, I accepted their judgement without putting up a defence. 

I immediately fell deeper into depression, knowing that I was causing more misery.

But as I look back now, I feel anger and deep disappointment that my situation was seen as creating problems for other people. The implication being that I was selfish to do what I had done.

The suggestion that suicide is acted on impulse, without caring for others, is a complete fallacy – an old-fashioned judgement of character, not care. It perpetuates the troublesome ideas that those suffering aren’t ill, but weak or cowardly.

I didn’t have the opportunity to run away from my problems. I was just 13 when I first thought the world would be better off without me.

I started taking antidepressants at 18 after my mother died and I started university. Sadly, the prescription felt like a foregone conclusion; a medical necessity after after everything I’d been through in my difficult childhood.

I was rushed to hospital and quick thinking from the paramedics saved my life

The drugs take the edge off my dark moods, mute those feelings of harm, and get me through the day relatively unburdened by the very worst thoughts.

But five years ago, aged 21, I faced a grim stew of life’s dilemmas – work, money, love.

So I tried to take my own life, but while I waited for death, my mind was swirling with every possible emotion. A few moments passed and I suddenly started convincing myself this was not going to be my last day on Earth, so I called for an ambulance.

I was rushed to hospital and quick thinking from the paramedics saved my life. Later that night, I felt guilty for wasting their time. Whose life could they have saved had I not been so selfish?

I thought I was causing a nuisance for wanting help to save my life. But this isn’t what our attitude to suicide should be. Instead of believing we are a burden, our natural reaction should be to care.

There is a waxing and waning effect for those who suffer suicidal ideation. It comes in waves, often unpredictably. It’s not a switch to be turned off or a condition easily wiped away.

Five years of hard recovery, medication and talking therapies, and I’m still not perfect. Nobody is – and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

It isn’t selfish to feel so sorrowful

But I don’t agree with anyone who says that ending your life is selfish, cowardly, unfair.

To attach selfishness stigma to suicide makes therapy and recovery much harder to work through. This is because, no matter how hard you try, suffering through every hour-long therapy session, your progress will always be measured by other people’s judgement of you.

With each new mental health campaign comes a new slogan, yet all of them grow from the same roots – destigmatising open discussion about mental health and illnesses.

Improving people’s understanding of what makes people want to die would make those suffering from suicidal ideation feel more supported, and crucially, believed to be experiencing such despair.

Part of this ongoing vigour for public mental health awareness must be a recognition that people often feel so unhappy they would rather be dead.

We can’t expect people with chronic suicidal ideation to spring into optimism when nobody is trying to understand them. Sadly, too many of us turn to dark thoughts.

It isn’t selfish to feel so sorrowful. The better conversation to have would be to discuss what’s needed to come back from the darkness. The coping strategies and treatments, the safe spaces, the loved ones who genuinely comfort us, rather than those who would call us cowardly.

Uncoupling selfishness from the discussion of suicide would transform the rhetoric of mental health.

Instead of being talked down to like a patient in a straightjacket, we would be cared for like human beings with mortality worth looking after.

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