What You're Really Saying When You Say that Suicide is "Selfish"


I’m still thinking about the Chet Hanks suicide thing from last week and the various responses to it that I saw online. Specifically, I cited two comments that referred to suicide as “selfish.”

“Selfish” has to be one of the most common adjectives people think of when thinking about suicide. Those of us who are involved in mental health advocacy could probably rant at you for hours about how this word perpetuates the stigma that mental illness and suicide carry in our society, how useless and counterproductive it is to accuse a suicidal person of being “selfish,” and so on. In fact, if you get nothing else out of this post, I hope you reconsider using that word to describe suicide if you’ve done so before.

But I can understand where this sentiment comes from. While everyone loses loved ones at some point in their lives, relatively few people experience suicidality first-hand. For this reason, people understand the latter situation much less than the former. Faced with the thought that someone you love might kill themselves and put you through all the resulting grief just because of some inner turmoil that you can’t see or understand, it makes sense that you might feel that suicide is selfish.

At the same time, though, conceptualizing suicide as a “selfish act” sends the message that people somehow “owe it” to their loved ones to stay alive despite immense emotional pain. When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.

I don’t mean to discount the grief that people feel when someone they love commits suicide–that’s real, valid, and deserves attention. And, obviously, I believe that people should not commit suicide. But I believe that because I also believe that people can recover from the pain that’s causing them to consider suicide, not because they owe it to others to live.

What all of this comes down to is that most people do not (and perhaps cannot) understand what actually goes through a suicidal person’s mind. Maybe they assume that suicidal people are just sad the way all of us sometimes get sad, except maybe a bit more so. (I honestly don’t know how mentally healthy people think about suicide because I haven’t been one for a while.) It would indeed be rather selfish to put your friends and family through so much pain just because you felt sad one day.

But that’s not how suicide works.

The way I see it, the tragedy of suicide is not (or is not only) the fact that an individual’s suicide also hurts others. Rather, it’s that the individual could have found a way to heal, be happy, and live out the rest of his or her life. Calling suicide a “selfish” thing to do erases that latter tragedy and implies that our primary purpose in life is not to create a meaningful and worthwhile life for ourselves, but to keep our friends and family happy at all costs.

Our first priority should be to convince those who want to take their own lives that those lives are intrinsically valuable and should be preserved for their own sake. Only when they’ve accepted that premise can they even begin to think clearly about their obligations and interactions with other people.

Telling a suicidal person that suicide is “selfish” only reinforces the guilt they already feel. People should choose to live because their lives feel worth living to them, not out of a sense of obligation towards others.

Note: Since this is quite a sensitive topic both for me and probably for many readers, please try to be especially careful with your comments. I reserve the right to delete any comments that I feel may trigger people, even if they’re completely on-topic.

Comments

  1. says

    It is indeed totally absurd and paradoxical to call suicide selfish.
    Thinking of suicide could help us realize that we are in the end totally free and totally alone. Maybe that is the purpose of those thoughts? To liberate us from trying to be what others want us to be? To realize that we can be selfish as much as we want, that we even have the right to die, and that therefore we have the right to live exactly as we want?

  2. katedonovans says

    “most people do not (and perhaps cannot) understand what actually goes through a suicidal person’s mind”
    THIS.
    Can we just repeat it ad nauseum until everyone gets it?

  3. says

    “When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.”

    Yep. That. Exaclty.

  4. Amy says

    To me, it is not the word selfish that is troubling (and I once had to be hospitalized for severe depression). The real problem is that a lot of people do not think one step further: “I wonder how much pain it would take ME (healthy person) to act in such a selfish way”.

  5. says

    This is so timely for me, thank you! I work at a high school and we were talking about this exact topic on Wednesday. I was trying to convey to my students this exact sentiment and not doing very well. So, thank you!

  6. Thomas Pickwick says

    I think your take on it is interesting, and sensitively written.

    My brother tried to kill himself a few years ago, and it tore everyone in our community apart–not just friends, family, and neighbors. While he was in the hospital, people we’d never met and still don’t know would come by and offer food or comfort, often shedding tears as they walked up. That showed me that there’s a link we have with each other just from being human; I really can’t imagine that anybody could be correct in thinking that “nobody would miss [them].” I think suicidal people simply are unable, for the moment, to accurately judge that question.

    When I went through a period of suicidal thinking last year (not my first,) it was actually thoughts of the above, and the intangible web of people of which I’m a part, that stopped me from jumping off that bridge. I really did think it would be a selfish act, and I didn’t want the last thing I did on this earth to be to give a painful tug to that web, hurting all those other people again so shortly after my brother had.

    But I think your way of thinking about it might be healthier, and will give it some thought. Thanks for writing this, and I hope it helps other people who are in the depths or have been there.

    • Thomas Pickwick says

      “simply are unable” should be “sometimes are simply unable”, or else my post contradicts itself. :(

    • says

      Thank you for commenting and sharing all of that. I’m glad both you and your brother are still here. :)

      The thought of my family is what once stopped me, too. I don’t think that’s unusual. But I started trying to think about it this way to help cope with the guilt that I still feel over having even had the thought. I think that the spectrum of selfishness vs. selflessness and the spectrum of wanting to die vs. wanting to live are two entirely different spectra, if you know what I mean. It’s impossible to conflate one with the other, as in selfishness = wanting to die and selflessness = wanting to live. The thinking of a suicidal person can’t be reduced to those terms, I believe.

      Thank you for reading.

  7. Maxwell says

    I’ve always been a proponent of suicide as a method of last resort. If I knew I wouldn’t have access to enough food for an indefinite amount of time, I would probably kill myself rather than endure starvation. If I went deaf, unless I was confident science could restore my hearing in a timely manner, I would kill myself. If I had severe chronic pain, I would probably kill myself. Et cetera.

    But the problem is that people oftentimes kill themselves when their suffering is in fact transitory and treatable. Depression is, except in severe cases, treatable, and thus should not be grounds for suicide.

    • says

      What you’re saying is very true logically, but the problem is that for people with mental illnesses, it doesn’t make sense to say that depression “should not” be grounds for suicide. Of course it shouldn’t be. But to them it doesn’t FEEL like their suffering is either transitory or treatable. Much of the time, they feel certain that it will last forever. What’s important is to get them out of that state rather than claiming that they “should not” be considering suicide.

    • Jane says

      If you went deaf, you would go through a (possibly difficult) period of adjustment, and then your happiness would return to previous levels. You’re losing sensory ability, not enduring great pain. It’s not what typically drives one to suicide. (Also, there may be deaf people reading these posts, and not appreciate their deafness being compared with suicidality).

  8. Sunatic says

    Been there, almost done that, and I can honestly say that the “selfish” argument irritates me not only because of all the points already presented, but because I had thought it through several times and yet it held almost no weight in my decisions.

    What went through my head then? I had very little hope regarding my future, many times I downright feared it. The thought of having to live that way for perhaps 70+ years more (yeah I crashed into depression pretty much straight out of adolescence) was horrifying. I was luckily in therapy and on medication I thus had small glimmers of hope of my life maybepossiblyperhaps getting better. But if all else failed, I could just… leave. That’s what suicide was for me then – a perfectly valid option. Everyday enough for me to consider the technicalities of it. And having one more option – even if it was the final, irreversible one – gave me strenght.

    I knew I would be missed, but I wasn’t very close to a whole lot of people then, and the possibility of upsetting distant relatives wasn’t on high priority in my reasons not to. I knew that people would grieve, and that they would also keep on living themselves. I was actually more afraid of hurting the feelings of my PETS. They would have no concept of depression and suicide. They would not understand why their owner suddenly disappeared and never came back. So yeah, maybe that’s my introvercy speaking, but the feelings of my cats mattered more in my choice to keep living.

    I’m much healthier nowadays, but still not very good at tolerating suffering. I’m a visual artist, and if I, for example, lost my sight with no hope of it getting repaired, I’m sure suicide would become a valid option once again. It has completely lost its taboo status to me.

    • says

      Thank you for sharing. I think it’s important to consider the fact that some people really don’t have close friends or family, and I can only imagine the harm it would do to tell such people that they’re “selfish” if they want to kill themselves–thus reminding them that they may not have anyone who will miss them.

      That’s why I think it’s especially important to give those who are considering suicide INTERNAL reasons not to do it, rather than external ones like “people will miss you.”

  9. says

    I think people have the right to do what they will, except when they have deliberately brought children into this world when there is such a thing as birth control. Then it’s selfish to kill yourself. In all other cases (including accidental procreation), no. Sometimes life is unbearable. It just is. I’ve been there and have isolated precisely so few would miss me, so I would have the freedom to go or stay. The only thing that’s kept me alive some days is “wait 24 hours”.

    • says

      There are many philosophers who would agree with you on that, such as Pliny and Schopenhauer. The psychiatrist Thomas Szasz would as well.

      I would, however, argue with your supposition that birth control is freely available to everyone who may need it, but that’s a separate issue.

      • says

        Yes. Which is why the caveat of accidental procreation is so important. If anyone is forced to have children when they don’t want them, it isn’t their choice and they cannot be held responsible for any consequences.

        • says

          Ah, for some reason I misinterpreted that to mean that accidental procreation is included in the cases you can’t commit suicide. My bad.

  10. says

    I really hate the “selfish” trope. First, it entirely misses the point. Suicide is not about selfishness; it’s about being at a point where suicide is literally the least harmful option. At the times where those thoughts have come to me, it has been as an alternative to killing other people. It was an expression of my desire to avoid harming other people; the very antithesis of selfishness.

    Suicidal thoughts are normally a response to not having any other way out. You don’t think like that unless you’re stuck in a corner. You’re at a point where this is the least bad way to resolve whatever is hurting you. It’s not about being selfish.

    Secondly, what the fuck is wrong with being selfish? A certain amount of selfishness is healthy. Without it, you wouldn’t last five minutes. Indeed, when people are accusing suicidal people of being selfish, they’re being selfish. Is your emotional pain of losing a loved one to suicide more important than the pain that drove them to do it? Asking someone else to live through pure hell to spare you emotional pain; how is that not selfish?

    It’s one thing to be sad that a loved one has died or worried that one might take their own life. It’s quite something else to heap more shit on top of people who already have more than they can handle. The “selfish” trope is entirely counter-productive. Even if it works to drive someone away from suicidal thoughts, it does so for all the wrong reasons. They will stay alive despite feeling like crap, not because they no longer do. Instead of guilt-tripping people into staying alive, you should help them find reasons to want to stay alive or get them to someone who can.

  11. mandy says

    hello, I have read all your messages and I tried to take my life last year in September and a religious friend told me I was selfish and so self absorbed. I was very upset and I still am. I am writing a paper now for school and I don’t think its selfish at all. I thought about all the people I would miss and who would miss me, but no longer living because of the other people who have treated me horribly and tried to take my life from me made it seem easier to do it myself. I don’t think im depressed but I am a very angry person and suicide is something I never thought I would attempt. I think about it all the time and I don’t feel selfish at all. im just really hurt and emotionally drained.

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