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You're Wrong If You Think Suicide Is 'Selfish'

And you’re just as wrong if you think the subject should be swept under the carpet.

17/04/2017 6:45 PM IST | Updated 18/04/2017 1:04 PM IST
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Arjun Bhardwaj made sure that people paid attention when he died. But even as India tried to make sense of the young man's "how-to" video on suicide and his attempt to live stream the act, there is a thought that everyone is forgetting. No, it's not the thought that the deceased person is selfish or a coward, nor is it the pity they feel for the family who has to now deal with the alleged selfishness, cowardice or malice that fuelled the suicide. These thoughts are in abundance when you read YouTube comments, Facebook posts, or eavesdrop on a conversation about suicide. The thought that we are forgetting is the hopelessness and despair that drives someone to believe, with such certainty, that there is no other way out.

Humans are instinctually resilient—we do whatever we can to survive. Taking our own lives does not come naturally or easily.

Suicide is an uncomfortable subject in most cultures. Particularly in a culture as collectivistic as ours, we often hear undercurrents of shame interspersed among condolences. The reputation of the family is often at stake, which thwarts open dialogue on the subject. It is not an act that should be encouraged in any form, of course, but it is a little hypocritical that in our culture, ascetic forms of suicide are revered as final acts of religious self-sacrifice, while suicide due to crippling depression is viewed as a sin, and until a few weeks ago, was even punishable by law. This double standard harms our ability, as a culture, to view people who are suicidal as individuals in dire need of help and compassion. Instead, what we constantly hear is shame and stigma, or even worse, we hear nothing at all due to our discomfort about addressing suicide.

"What a selfish thing to do," is one of the most common reactions to suicide. We are quick to judge character, as we speculate about how easily the decision was made, leaving behind friends and family in a state of insurmountable misery. What we are doing then, arguably, is addressing our own grief rather than that of the person who committed suicide. Is that not selfish of us? Humans are instinctually resilient—we do whatever we can to survive. Taking our own lives does not come naturally or easily. This realisation should give us an understanding of the desperation and helplessness that someone feels on the brink of suicide. Calling suicide selfish or cowardly helps no one, because we are left misunderstanding the person who is gone, and we continue to do nothing because we believe that the act is inherently despicable and not worthy of help.

There exists a ubiquitous misconception that talking about suicide, particularly to naïve, impressionable youth, might plant the undesirable idea in their minds. Research shows that discussing suicide does not increase a person's likelihood of attempting it. It's quite the contrary actually—by talking about suicide with an individual who seems to be at risk, you could give them an impetus to disclose their ideations. The chance to speak up could reduce the isolation and loneliness that go hand-in-hand with suicidal feelings. We are so avoidant of talking about suicide, but we don't realise that while we are trying to prevent the seed from being planted in the person's mind, there is already a tree that is growing unchecked.

Research shows that discussing suicide does not increase a person's likelihood of attempting it. It's quite the contrary actually...

If we know someone who has attempted suicide and survived, the discomfort is further magnified, leading us to engage in hush-hush conversations with others, rather than breaking the silence with the survivor. Our silence further sends survivors down the path of isolation, which might have been what they were trying to escape in the first place. Instead of asking the person about the attempt or the mental state that led to it, we tip-toe around it and ask general questions, pretending we're talking to someone recovering from minor surgery. It's about time we learn how to follow the solitary "How are you feeling now?" with the nonjudgmental "I am here for you if you want to talk about what led to you attempting suicide."

We alienate people with mental health concerns by projecting our non-accepting views on suicide. The state of mind in which suicidal people are, often reflects convoluted beliefs such as "Everyone will be better off without me," or "I am just a burden to my family," or "No one will be affected if I die." As long as we continue to misunderstand this state, we will prevent ourselves from being truly supportive of those in need. By adding shame and stigma to suicide, or by altogether avoiding the subject, we risk losing people to suicide, without giving them a chance to feel like there is another way out.

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