Aug 01 2013

This is not an okay way to talk about depression and suicide

Warning – I’m about to break the hive mind and disagree with a fellow blogger.

Chris Clarke has a post up at Pharyngula “On using suicide as a rhetorical strategy.” His post is in response to Hugo Schwyzer admitting that he had just spent a week at a psych ward after he committed himself. Chris refers to this as a “passive aggressive” reference to suicide, and paints Schwyzer as an attention seeking faker. Why?

“And as a consequence, anyone who’s been subject to that kind of emotional abuse is likely to find new examples of rhetorical suicide threats like the one above supremely triggering, even if they’re made in, say, overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” blog posts or what have you.

[...] But if the statements are made where more than one or two people can see them, in a NYMag article or on Facebook or Tumblr or LiveJournal, the safe bet is on “abusive manipulation.

Public suicide threats, whether direct or oblique, should be presumed at first glance to be forms of emotional abuse. If they’re direct threatening statements, the best helpful response, if you can use it safely, is “do you need a ride to the hospital?” If the person’s really suffering — and again, I have personal experience with both sides of this interaction — it may either get them the help they need or put things in perspective.”

As someone who just spent months working up the courage to write what could probably be described as an overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” public blog post about my severe depression, this punched me right in the gut. Who are you to judge how people who are “actually” depressed or suicidal really act? Who are you to judge whose depression or suicidal tendencies are legitimate or fraud? Do you really think you can figure that out through the internet and with no psychological expertise?

I don’t defend Schwyzer’s previous actions. But policing the behavior of depressed people, trollish assholes or not, makes it harder for those with depression to be open about our illness. The stereotype of “depressed people as fakers” is a horrendously common one. No amount of qualifiers about how this doesn’t apply to people who are “actually” depressed helps, because you’re still perpetuating that stereotype.

It’s the reason it took me years to admit my depression to any of my friends, because I was terrified no one would take me seriously and would just think I was an attention whore. And you know why I had that fear? Because some of my “friends” did just that.

It’s the reason it took me another decade to seek professional help from a therapist, because they convinced me I was actually a faker who didn’t need help.

It’s the reason why I didn’t ever talk about my chronic depression when I first started blogging, because I was afraid Christians would use it as a weapon against me.

It’s the reason why it took me months of courage to talk about my depression now, because I feared my internet haters would scour my blog and twitter feed for any comment that could be interpreted as “happy” so they could label me a liar. If Chris had published this post a week ago, I may have never opened up about what has been happening to me out of fear that’s how people would view me. And I would never have experienced the relief I felt from releasing that pent up emotion and hearing all of your wonderful support.

I know Chris has experienced depression himself, but that doesn’t make his comments okay. Even though Schwyzer may be despicable for what he’s done, despicable people can also succumb to depression. Depression is soul sucking, and I wouldn’t wish it on even the worst of my enemies. So when someone admits they just came out of a psych ward – which is reflecting on something that already happened, not making a threat about the future – my instinct is to give them at least a little bit of empathy. Not to question their motives.

Abusers threatening self-harm as manipulation certainly happens, and it’s a serious issue. No one should have to just suck it up when they hear “if you leave me I’ll kill myself” or something similar. I hope someone with more training in that area (Miri?) will comment on how to deal with it, since I do not want to give uneducated advice about it. I want to be able to have that discussion without perpetuating stereotypes. So at the very least, can we not dictate what’s proper social media behavior for those with depression?


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  1. 1

    I think Chris Clarke believes Schwyzer is a dishonest and abusive person, and therefore interprets Schwyzer’s statements as dishonest and abusive. This might be a reasonable assumption based on Schwyzer’s history, but CC framed his post in terms of generalities.

    It’s totally inappropriate to assume that anyone who publicly discusses their suicidal feelings is being emotionally abusive.

  2. 2
    The Mellow Monkey

    Reposting my comment from there:

    A bit of background before I start rambling about my thoughts here:

    1) My father killed himself with a gunshot to the head when I was a young teen.
    2) I have suffered from depression and experienced suicidal ideation frequently, having actually attempted suicide once (a failed hanging).
    3) I cut off contact with a friend of mine whose favorite way to control me was via threats of self-harm and accusing me of being emotionally abusive by not being available to her or having romantic relationships.

    I did worry about how Chris worded some things here, because they made me feel terrible about ways I’ve tried to reach out and seek help during my darkest times. I needed those outlets. Yes, I wrote on Facebook about just how bad I was suffering recently, in a filtered post to trusted friends. I believe I’ve written about my suicidal ideation in the Lounge, too. My father didn’t tell anyone before he killed himself and I wish, desperately, that he had. Maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe if he’d lived in a time with Facebook, being able to fire off a quick “I’m scared I’m going to hurt myself; could someone come over?” would have saved his life.

    Finding the line between crying out for help versus, say, calling up your friend in the middle of the night and forcing xir to stay on the line with you because you claim to have taken a bunch of pills and refuse to say where you are so someone can come help you, is not all that gray. There are ways that threats of suicide can be used as abuse and manipulation. They are absolutely horrible. I feel justified in never speaking to that person again because of the absolute fucking agony she put me through.

    So, I think that outlets need to be available to people. I need to be able to reach out to someone even when I’m physically isolated and I don’t know who to call and maybe the Internet is the best thing I’ve got. I also think that people who manipulate and abuse and terrorize others with threats of self-harm are assholes and are not only causing direct pain to those around them, but are making things far worse for others who may self-harm.

    The problem is that sometimes the people who are manipulating and abusing really are suicidal. They really are in pain. My friend really did take those pills. Just because someone is actually suffering doesn’t mean they have a right to harm others. It’s not the public declaration of suicidal ideation that’s the problem. There’s no need to suss out who’s really suicidal and who isn’t. The focus should simply and always be on harm. If someone is harming you–silencing you, threatening you into staying in a relationship, trying to isolate you from others, keeping you emotionally subservient, etc–you have a responsibility to yourself to walk away from the situation. Direct them to outside help, to other people to talk to. Be sympathetic, sure, but if staying in the situation is causing you harm, leave.

    And had I realized that as a teenager, I could have saved myself fourteen years of emotional abuse.

    FTR, later in the comments Chris said he wished that he had instead said something along the lines of my second to last paragraph. CC is good people and a good blogger, some unfortunate implications from a single blog post aside.

    The serious, disturbing flaw I see in the “give the benefit of the doubt” camp is that it’s leaving people open to abuse. My friend has actually hurt herself and really does have problems. That doesn’t make her emotional abuse OK. The line needs to be against harm, not whether or not you think they’re genuine in their suicidal ideation. People in pain can still be abusers.

  3. 3

    It’s interesting to me that ideologies and the broader political and social situation can become a focus or cause of some people’s mental health problems and sometimes result in behaviour that’s coercive or even criminal towards other people. I don’t know what I make of it except that it doesn’t seem rare.

  4. 4
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I posted on Twitter that the first thing you can do to avoid this sort of thing is to not post when you’re really angry. Chris Clarke was clearly angry when he posted. Then people replied to him angrily, and then he responded to them angrily, and stomped off in what appeared to be an overdramatic huff, using his mental illness in a manipulative way to make his critics feel bad about themselves and bringing the whole thing full-circle.

    Here’s the thing: I feel like CC was being manipulative AND that he’s 100% upset and feeling unfairly criticized and put-upon. The two aren’t remotely mutually exclusive. There’s some number of twisted fucks who consciously use claims of mental illness to manipulate others. There’s probably nobody who deals with their mental issues perfectly every single time. And then there’s the majority of us, people of generally good will and intent who are also capable of screwing up big time… and when you have mental illness, why would you possibly be LESS likely to fuck up?

    So I’m glad I didn’t say much, because I was pretty pissed off. Odds are anything I would have said would have been excessively cruel for its own sake, to try to make other people feel as upset as I felt. And that’s why I’m willing to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt, because I don’t have any reason to believe anyone is less fucked up than I am.

  5. 5
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Signing on with you, Jen. I’m in desperate straits right now. Seriously, desperate. I have $400 in my account, and rent is due, and as much as this is a cheapish city to live in, $400 isn’t half my rent.

    And this kind of post (CC’s, not yours, Jen) says to me, “Don’t ask for help from your fellow atheists, because they’ll see it as cynical manipulation,” because I’m in a serious bout of depression, and that self-imposed isolation means it’s hard to ask my friends, and I don’t really have any family, and doing the things I need to do, in the face of my chronic pain and depression, to get my self-employment to a level where I can eke out a living is HARD. I have no fucking teeth left, because dentistry is terrifying and triggering and expensive, and chronic pain makes me puke a lot (ask your friendly bulimic for what that does to your teeth).

    If we want to be a community that supports one another the way religion provides, there isn’t room for this kind of generalization. I agree that Schwyzer’s actions are frequently full of drama and self-pity, but I don’t see any benefit to society in viewing all depressives, or all people with suicidal ideation (which aren’t perfectly overlapping groups, either), as being manipulative shits who are only out for themselves by default.

    And we need to show we’re able to recognize the humanity in even our most ardent opponents, not because they’d do the same for us, but because we’re better than that. Or we want to be. Let them be full of hatred for us. Are we so insecure about our beleifs that we can throw them away because we simply don’t like someone? Even if they thoroughly deserve being disliked, even hated?

    So yeah, Jen. I’m with you. Didn’t feel strong enough to post any of this on that thread, but I appreciate your posting about it, so I could speak up somewhere that felt a little less…hostile to what I want to say.

    I believe Chris is a decent bloke, but I think he got this one wrong, and he’s having a hard time dropping the shovel.

  6. 6

    Well written, I agree with you completly.

  7. 7

    @CatieCat, you got a donation link? I love your comments, and posts over at Miri’s… Maybe she will take some donations for your rent? I’ve paid a little into tip jars for other bloggers, why not you!

  8. 8
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    I don’t yet, oolon, but I’m actually right this minute (because depression, y’know; if I let it slip for a day it won’t happen) starting a wordpress blog at Fullmetal Feminist, 鋼のフェミニスト, following up on the conversation with my fellow panelists from the chronic pain panel at FTBCon. No time like the present. The Secret of Now (that one’s for the Being Erica fans).

    So I thank you, and I’d be happy to have any help anyone can give. More over there, because I don’t want to turn this thread into a “let’s all talk about CaitieCat” thing.

    Just…thanks. Just asking helped. Thanks, oolon.

  9. 9
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I know Chris has experienced depression himself, but that doesn’t make his comments okay. Even though Schwyzer may be despicable for what he’s done, despicable people can also succumb to depression. Depression is soul sucking, and I wouldn’t wish it on even the worst of my enemies. So when someone admits they just came out of a psych ward – which is reflecting on something that already happened, not making a threat about the future – my instinct is to give them at least a little bit of empathy. Not to question their motives.

    People who’ve been abused get to deal with it in their own way. No one owes empathy to someone who’s voluntarily and willfully made a Complete Monster of himself (or herself – HI THERE EX-WIFE WHO DROVE DRUNK WITH MY DAUGHTER IN THE CAR), especially not with a cavalier dismissal of what that empathy may cost them. People who want to be shown compassion need to show it to others.

  10. 10
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    (For context: the point of the “ex-wife” comment is that I find the very personal implications of this kind of rhetoric for what I supposedly owe people who have already abused me horribly offensive and unacceptable, not that I expect her to be in the audience.)

  11. 11
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Done, for a start. fullmetalfeminist.wordpress.com. Last derailing comment, promise.

  12. 12

    …I never said you owe anything to your abusers. The whole point of my last paragraph was that we need to be able to discuss situations like yours without promoting stereotypes that hurt all depressed people at the same time, particularly about their social media usage. That’s all. I’m sorry you had to go through such a horrible ordeal.

  13. 13

    I think a lot of people think they know Hugo because they have read a lot of nasty blogs and comments about him or a blog he wrote that they disagreed with. Maybe they think he’s a monster, because he shared with the world a failed murder-suicide attempt during his darkest days struggling with mental illness and addiction. We all like to say that we are allies for those with mental illness. Does that mean we accept everything someone with a mental illness does? No, but we don’t punish them for the rest of their life when they come out the other side and ask for forgiveness and make a better person of themselves. Do we mock and attack them until they break again?

    Was Hugo always right? I disagreed with him, but he would listen and have a thoughtful conversation. He could take criticism. Did that one blog you read make you hate him so much that you discounted him completely? I seriously doubt you disagreed with everything he said. He had a large body of work. He wasn’t the horrible feminist people said he was. Did you disagree with him so much that he deserved to harassed into being suicidal and have his wife and children suffer?

    We love to judge. Have you ever talked to Hugo about his past, his depression, his suicide attempts? Do you really know Hugo? I know that I tried to. The person that people talk about is not the person I know. The lack of empathy for the longtime harassment he dealt with is astounding to me. Us! Some of us that have really suffered from harassment. And here we are gloating that someone has been beaten down and off the Internet. I’m disappointed in the community I love doing everything they can to destroy someone’s livelihood and blaming the victim. He’s just seeking attention? Who are you to say?

  14. 14

    I have to say it. I don’t think Chris would have made that post if it had been anyone other than Hugo Schwyzer. I think he took the opportunity to slam someone he doesn’t like, someone who is unpopular in the crowd that he runs with, and he made some unfortunate generalizations in his haste to bash Hugo Schwyzer, again.

    And even on that level I found the post in bad taste. Whatever Schwyzer’s faults, he has endured an extraordinary amount of abuse in the past year or so. And I’m not taking his word for it- it’s all out there on the Internet. I’m honestly surprised he hasn’t broken down sooner. And then for Chris to zero in on a single line in that exit interview and make some (to my mind) wild and completely unfounded implication about “manipulative” behavior… it didn’t sit right with me. It’s not just Chris (or Schwyzer) of course- I’m just so tired of sickeningly toxic internet takedown culture.

    To emphasize: I don’t think Chris is a bad guy, at all. I just think he made a mistake. No big deal.

  15. 15

    Well this post has hit home, my beautiful young niece killed herself yesterday (Thursday). Her last Facebook post was apparently an “I don’t know why I bother” comment. It is not cool to apply a values based generalised negative connotation on the warnings any troubled person may give out.

  16. 16
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Oh, brive, that’s awful, my deepest sympathies. The poor girl.

    To everyone, something someone pointed out recently, that there’s a move afoot to shift away from “committed” suicide as a phrase, as we tend to “commit” crimes, and thus there’s a built-in nudge of blaming in using “committed”. Suggestions I’ve seen as a better term include “completed”, “achieved”, and “decided on”. I like the first and last of these better than the middle one.

  17. 17

    Thank you for your thoughts. I purposely chose the harsh form I used as its fits the raw emotions we are all feeling now. With my children we are using “took her own life” as a forthright consequences based description and lead into the topic of mental health.

  18. 18
    CaitieCat, getaway driver

    Oh, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to criticize your usage at all, I think how you said it is perfectly reasonable, and not using euphemisms is a good choice, especially with children.

    I specifically meant just the “committed suicide” phrase as a more general comment. Sorry for the confusion, I should have been more clear.

  19. 19
    Anthony K

    brive1987: I’m so sorry for you and your family.

  20. 20
    Alison Cummins

    The sad thing about all this umbrage and fuss about whether people are “really suicidal” or “manipulatively suicidal” is that it Doesn’t Matter for the rest of us. Our response should be the same whether or not we can read minds.

    1) Protect yourself. (Put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others with theirs.)

    2) Like Chris said, take the threat seriously. If someone is “really suicidal” then they need help. By taking them seriously they may start to realize it’s serious, and take themselves seriously as well. Hyperbole and a Half’s latest had a bit in there about not taking her own suicidal thoughts seriously until other people did. On the other hand, if someone is “manipulatively suicidal” then they need to be called on their bluff. So, yeah, talk about whether someone is safe right now, this afternoon and how to fix that.

    We can benefit from knowing how to respond effectively in these situations. Many of us are depressive, meaning that many of us have experiences with friends, relatives and lovers who are depressed. Depression can be a bond but it can also be destructive of bonds. It affects our ability to reason in ways that may be hard to argue with. And lots of people with depression also have other things going on that may or may not be directly related to being depressed (for instance, being drunk, self-pitying manipulative assholes) but that the depression can mask. Chris doesn’t seem to have a lot of clarity on how to respond effectively but is not completely wrong either, about offering a lift to the hospital.

    I have a close friend who has multiple health problems. They are real and not at all imaginary. Because of who we are, our relationship could easily be dominated by a sick/helper dynamic and I don’t want that, so I try to avoid the topic entirely except on a strictly pragmatic level. (Do you need a lift to the hospital?) Having to be careful about dynamics is a separate topic from whether someone is “really sick” or not. Chris seems to be confusing them. The rest of us don’t have to.

    And yeah, I know about not wanting to let down the side. I was careful about who I let on to that I was depressed because I didn’t want people to think that it was my alternative lesbian lifestyle that was causing it. And I wasn’t even a blogger.

  21. 21

    CaitieCat, no please I didn’t want to derail this important thread, there was no intended criticism of you, only poor expression on my part. yours was a important point about not implicitly judging with the term “commit”. We are similarly trying to use non judgemental language.

    Thanks AnthonyK, I just hope my (sad) anecdote adds to the view that there should not be gneralised criticism of troubled people.

  22. 22
    John Horstman

    What I’ve never understood is why there’s this persistent meme that seeking attention is somehow bad. It can be annoying when overdone, sure (spam, for example, or someone who derails every single conversation to talk about hirself), but in most of these cases, it’s easily avoided. (Don’t want to give Schwyzer attention? Then just fucking ignore him; as far as I’m aware, he’s not running around to hundreds of other people’s blogs and harassing them or sending spam e-mail or other messages. Someone putting a post on hir own blog/feed/wall/whatever is only attention-seeking to the extent that the person is already granted attention. Don’t want to deal with a friend who interrupts everyone to talk about hirself? Don’t hang out with hir.)

    As for this:

    No one should have to just suck it up when they hear “if you leave me I’ll kill myself” or something similar. I hope someone with more training in that area (Miri?) will comment on how to deal with it, since I do not want to give uneducated advice about it.

    The proper response is, “Okay.” It’s not your job to save someone from harming hirself, and it’s especially not your job when that person treats you like shit. I agree completely with The Mellow Monkey (#2).
    (To contextualize my opinions, I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, fluctuating between intense depression and hypo-mania; I’ve been suicidal more than once, though my depression takes a form where I withdraw, so I’m unlikely to make any Facebook posts or call anyone, whether to talk about how I’m feeling or something else.)

  23. 23

    And even on that level I found the post in bad taste. Whatever Schwyzer’s faults, he has endured an extraordinary amount of abuse in the past year or so. And I’m not taking his word for it- it’s all out there on the Internet. I’m honestly surprised he hasn’t broken down sooner. And then for Chris to zero in on a single line in that exit interview and make some (to my mind) wild and completely unfounded implication about “manipulative” behavior… it didn’t sit right with me.

    I did too.

    It was a shitty thing to do and not just to Schwyzer. I didn’t see Chris’s response to criticism because after I read the post I was too disgusted to bother with the comments. But if Improbable Joe’s description is accurate, then I hope when he cools down he can apologize, because he really, really should.

    Not that what I think matters, but that post was distasteful enough for me that I would not be able to read anything from him without this post tainting it. I’m certainly not the only one to be really put-off by it, so in the general sense I think it kind of is a big deal. He fucked up and his reputation as a blogger will probably suffer for it. For those of us that enjoy reading his posts and are familiar with him- we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but imagine if that was the first thing of his you’d read? Would you bother going back? He would have ended up in my “asshole never to be read again” bag and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that. And that sucks.

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