Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed what many of us already suspected: Suicide is rising at an alarming rate. The statistics speak for themselves. The suicide rate has risen 25.4 percent since 1999 across the United States and by more than 30 percent in 25 states. Now more than twice as prevalent as homicide, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the general population and second among those aged 15–34. Along with a seemingly endless string of high-profile celebrity suicides—Tim Bergling, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Aaron Hernandez, Chester Bennington, and Chris Cornell, to name a few—that have thrust the issue into the spotlight, these developments have left many Americans desperate for answers.
Though research on suicide is wanting, explanations for the alarming trend abound: insufficient access to mental healthcare, access to guns,corroding social fabric, a weakening social safety net, and increasing income inequality. CDC data identifies several factors contributing to suicide: relationship problems, problematic substance abuse, difficulties with one’s work or finances, loss of housing, legal troubles, physical health problems, as well as recent or impending crises.
Still, I can’t help but wonder: Is it possible that there is something about the way our culture treats suicide and the factors that contribute to it that may exacerbate the very problem we are trying to fix? I think there is. I’m not a physician or psychologist. But I am the daughter of a man who suffers from a chronic, severe mental illness and struggles with suicidal ideation on a regular basis. And I’m afraid that in a well-intentioned attempt to understand and cope with suicide, we’ve developed a cultural attitude toward it that is at best passive and, at worst, fatalistic.
13 Reasons Thinking
Perhaps the best example of this is the hit Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, a show that expedited consumption and intensified the message of the eponymous young-adult novel. If you haven’t seen it, the first season walks us through a series of tapes recorded by a teenage girl named Hannah Baker detailing the reasons she took her own life.
The show has been criticized for a number of reasons, most of which are beyond the scope of this article. Pertinent here is the fact that the show is built on the premise that someone's suicide can be attributed to one—or in this case, thirteen—specific "reasons." The problem, of course, is that there is no "reason" for suicide; there is no circumstance or event for which suicide is the appropriate or right response. To be sure, Hannah endures some horrifying difficulties and trauma—bullying, stalking, betrayal, rape—all of which can help us to understand why she made her unfortunate decision. But a decision that is understandable is not necessarily right, reasonable, or inevitable.
To be fair, in the final episode of the second season, the show attempts to distance itself from the idea that Hannah’s decision was a good one. Hannah’s mother reveals a list of “Reasons Why Not,” of which there are eleven, that she found among her daughter’s belongings. “She came up just short,” she laments to her daughter’s friend Clay, “But she left so many out. You know that, don’t you? You know that no matter how many reasons there might be why, there are always more why not.” I can appreciate the sentiment. Still, her logic suggests that the justification, or lack thereof, for suicide can be determined by a pros and cons list, leaving open the possibility that suicide is a reasonable response to someone’s circumstances.
This kind of fatalistic thinking can take on other forms. For example, in my own conversations with (well-intentioned) people on the subject of suicide, the act is often explained away as merely the symptom of an untreated—or unsuccessfully treated—mental illness. It goes without saying that mental illnesses are real diseases with observable effects on human behavior. But can they totally destroy a sufferer’s free will? I’m not sure that we know, and in the face of uncertainty, we ought not assume this is the case. Why? Because to say that someone struggling with a mental illness ultimately has no agency over their behavior is to rob them of one of the most powerful means of combating it.
Do not misunderstand me; I do not mean to suggest that suicidal depression ought to be combated with nothing but willpower and fresh air. I’ve encouraged my father through numerous interventions over the years, ranging from therapy and medication to institutionalization and electroconvulsive therapy. Indeed, it is because of my exposure to and appreciation for these things that I know how vital the will is to their success.
Different and the Same
Following one line of our culture’s current thinking, suicide is viewed as a reasonable response to hardship. Following another, suicide is not a decision at all, but a symptom of a disease of which the individual is a helpless and passive sufferer. While at first glance these perspectives appear at odds with each other, they represent two sides of the same coin, each holding that suicide is the natural consequence of one’s circumstances—trauma on one side, and illness on the other.
It is simpler, and in some ways easier, to think of suicide in these ways, but it is also dangerous, as it treats the suffering person as an irredeemable victim of circumstance. And if we want to combat the suicide epidemic, this is precisely the messaging we need to reject. Yes, severe mental illness has the potential to cloud a person’s judgment, and it is a very real factor for people who take their lives. But the proper response we should maintain for those still living is that people have power over their circumstances.
My father has expressed his struggles with suicidal ideation countless times over the years. I can tell you that these expressions generally take on one of two forms. In the first, my father reasons that his life is so miserable, his circumstances so irreversibly dejected, that suicide is the most desirable option he has. And yet as often as he has expressed a desire to end his life, he has also expressed a vivid fear that he will. These are both lies perpetuated by his own mental illness. Never would I give credence to his notions that suicide is the right or inevitable course. Always, I insist that suicide would be the wrong decision, and one that he has the power not to make. To suggest anything else would be dishonest.
The mental-health field supports this for good reason. It’s why we read warnings on medication labels and hear the public-service announcements saying “tell your doctor if you have suicidal ideation,” and “call the hotline at 1-800-273-8255.” The goal is to make these announcements loud and clear in advance of someone having thoughts on suicide, because if they have been trained to identify the thinking as problematic, they are empowered to seek help before entertaining it.
To be clear, the anguish, fear, suffering, and psychological torture plaguing those who’ve committed suicide can, by greatly clouding their judgment, diminish or eliminate their responsibility for doing so. But for those of us struggling still, we ought to be supporting, not diminishing, the capacity of the individual to resist suicidal temptations. It is possible to acknowledge the real and—for most of us—unimaginable burdens of those who struggle with suicidal ideation while resolutely insisting that there are no circumstances that justify or necessitate acting on it. It is possible to empathize with those who have made the unfortunate decision to end their lives while acknowledging that the decision was the wrong one. By doing so, we can grant those struggling with the temptation—for whatever reason—greater freedom to resist it.