This past month, we lost two influential celebrities to suicide. Many people often ask, “How could they do that?” or “They seem to have everything, why would they do that?” Although these are all too common questions after a suicide, often these questions point to crucial misunderstandings about suicide and, in some cases, mental health. The language we use needs to change while we increase our understanding of suicide.
You see the two words together very frequently – committed suicide. Two situations where we tend to use the word commit is when there is crime or sin involved. You commit a crime or commit a sin. If we can change the phrase to “died by suicide” or “took their life,” we can remove the blame and guilt associated, start to look at the causes of suicide, and begin to understand the complexity. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported that 54% of people who died by suicide were not known to have a mental illness diagnosis (2). Suicide is rarely a result of a single factor as found by other CDC research: “Relationship problems or loss, substance misuse; physical health problems; and job, money, legal or housing stress often contributed to risk of suicide.” While mental health can certainly still play a role in a suicide, it is important to note that not everyone going through the above situations and/or dealing with a mental health condition will think about suicide (2).
Suicide is also widely viewed as a selfish act. But, when it comes to asking those that have attempted, it is obvious they feel a strong sense of burdensome and think what they are doing is selfless. “In interviewing people who have survived [a] suicide [attempt], what becomes apparent is that suicide in the moment that they attempt to enact it, seems to them a very logical solution to their problems,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University Medical Center. “Most often their problem is feeling profoundly unworthy, profoundly depressed, and profoundly burdensome to others. What seems irrational from the outside in their mind is, in that moment, completely rational. And this thought of being a burden is a recurring theme that comes up again and again.”(1)
Another question that often surfaces around the time of a suicide is the question of “How did they do it?” Many become absorbed by the method and want to know how someone ended their life, especially media sources that want to boost ratings. What’s important after a suicide is informing without sensationalizing. What this allows for is a celebration of their life and focuses on what they did while they were alive instead of how their life ended. Also, this can minimize chance of contagion and copycats.
When dealing with a suicide loss, it’s essential we take care of ourselves and our own thoughts. Suicide has a large ripple effect and those that were close with the person lost can also be at risk of suicide themselves. Often, we look back on the hours, days, and months leading up to the death and think about what we missed or what we could have done. While we may never understand why someone dies by suicide, we can remember them and keep our good memories to help cope with the pain of the loss.
If you are dealing with a suicide loss or know someone who is and want more resources, please reach out at LOSS@thekimfoundation.org.
Janae Shillito, Community Relations Director, The Kim Foundation
Janae Shillito has been with The Kim Foundation since February 2017. She holds two science degrees with her alma maters including the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Janae’s love of volunteering and helping those without a voice created a strong desire to become a part of the non-profit world. In her spare time, she enjoys anything crafty, reading a good book, and being outside with her husband, Cory, and Rottweiler, Hank.