Honouring World Suicide Prevention Day

CW: suicide, suicidal ideation, mental health

Mental health with Emily Fry.

At the beginning of September, this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day took place – an annual event that seeks to start more conversations about suicide and how we can support those who are in distress and create a world in which fewer people die by suicide. The hope of this day is to not only raise awareness about suicide but to also, in starting these conversations, tackle stigma and foster a culture of greater understanding and due sympathy for those in distress. World Suicide Prevention Day is certainly something to be very positive about – it is incredibly encouraging to see the progress that has been made in such a short amount of time regarding how society views and responds to suicide. Despite this, there is still more to be done and there are still many misconceptions we need to address.

Up until 1961, suicide was regarded as a crime in Britain – arguably one of the most shameful and abhorrent acts of crime a person could commit. Surprisingly, Britain was actually one of the last European countries to decriminalise suicide, catching up with our European counterparts much later than one may expect. People were prosecuted with what was termed as “self-murder” where, in some instances, even those who had only attempted to end their life were prosecuted and imprisoned. In 1956, for example, out of the 5,387 suicide attempts on record, 613 individuals were later prosecuted. While most of these individuals were either discharged, fined or put on probation, 33 people were sent to prison and forced to serve a sentence. Suicide was then officially decriminalised in 1961 with the introduction of The Suicide Act. Even before this, however, there was a drastic shift in attitudes towards suicide across British society in which a more merciful and compassionate view of suicide rose to prominence. This general softening in public attitudes regarding suicide is widely referred to as the medicalisation of suicide by historical commentators, describing how a more sympathetic understanding of suicide gradually came to replace the cold, unfeeling perspective that had previously been shared by many. Rather than continuing to brand those who died by suicide or those who attempted to take their life as morally corrupt sinners, society finally began to acknowledge the suffering and distress these individuals experienced, realising that what these individuals needed was not punishing, but genuine care.

Since 1961, a great deal has changed in the way we think about suicide. As society has become increasingly secular, for example, we have finally disposed of the antiquated and harmful idea that suicide is the ultimate act of sin. More and more people have educated themselves about suicide and how we can best support those who are struggling. In spite of this, however, suicide is still largely treated as a taboo subject – one that is usually best avoided. Due to the overall unwillingness to discuss suicide openly and honestly, the misconceptions that surround it become all the more present. There are many misconceptions surrounding suicide, many of which seemingly contradict one another and add to the overwhelming stigma that often comes hand-in-hand with a person admitting they’re not ok. For example, while some believe that there is nothing that can be done to dissuade or help a person who admits to considering suicide, others believe that if a person is willing to talk about suicide, it is likely they are not serious about it at all – they are simply just attention-seeking. Perhaps the most harmful misconception surrounding suicide is that suicide is unforgivably selfish – the belief that it is an act that only the most self-centred, inconsiderate people would begin to consider.

The view that suicide is selfish is so far removed from the reality of what it is like for those affected by it and born from a complete lack of understanding about what it is like to experience suicidal thoughts.

The term suicidal ideation is most commonly used to refer to an individual having thoughts, ideas or ruminations about the possibility of ending one’s life. There are two types of suicidal ideation: passive and active. While the former occurs when a person thinks about not wanting to be alive without having any plans to see to this themselves, the latter describes when a person not only thinks about no longer being alive, but also has the intent of ending their life and has often made plans to do so. The main difference between the two lies in the fact that while passive suicidal ideation is generally regarded as a more temporary state, active suicidal ideation is seen as the point in which a person has reached the conclusion that they do not wish to live anymore and where they have made concrete and often detailed plans to see to this.

Personally, I’ve always found that the distinction between passive and active suicidal ideation something that, while proving a valuable assessment tool for medical professionals, has led to a rather problematic idea in which some people experiencing suicidal thoughts are allegedly struggling more than others. While one of these types of suicidal ideation is considered more dangerous, the other is often dismissed. Just look at the language that is used here: while ‘active’ implies a degree of severity that warrants more attention and implies that a person is serious about the act of suicide, ‘passive’ is rarely met with the same urgency, or the same understanding. Passive suicidal ideation is equally as distressing as active suicidal ideation for the person experiencing it – while there may not be any concrete plans in place, being tormented by thoughts about how much better off everyone around you would be in the event of your death, day in, day out, is an incredibly difficult thing to manage. Just because a person hasn’t taken that “extra step” and doesn’t have any formalised plans in place, does not mean that this person is any less of a risk to themselves and it certainly doesn’t mean that a person is in any less pain. Thankfully, this is something that is increasingly being acknowledged where many organisations are stressing that passive suicidal ideation is no less serious than active suicidal ideation. Not only is it likely that passive suicidal ideation can develop into active suicidal ideation, but it is also highly likely that people often experience both passive and active suicidal ideation.

I spent the best part of five years convinced that I didn’t deserve to be alive – from about the ages of 14 to 19 to be precise. During this time, I alternated between passive and active suicidal ideation. There were times I felt unable to think about little else other than my death: these thoughts completely consumed me until I felt so disconnected from everything going on around me. The only thing I was certain of is that I didn’t deserve to be alive. I cannot tell you just how much it hurts me to still hear people claim that to even so much as consider suicide is selfish. I can’t even begin to explain exactly what it is like to be in this mindset other than that your sense of reality becomes so completely warped that you are no longer able to see things objectively. Quite honestly, looking back now I know that I wasn’t in my right mind. I was convinced that the kindest, most considerate thing I could do was to end my life – to finally rid everyone around me of the burden that I had so obviously become. That is the thing that so many people fail to understand when it comes to a person’s motivations in regards to suicide: suicide is not something that is knowingly or consciously born out of the want to hurt those around us – it is not, in spite of what many teenage dramas would have audiences believe, a spiteful or petty act of vengeance that is lightly undertaken, and it is certainly not something that is motivated by a strong want to punish those around us. Rather, it is often seen as the only option a person has to finally free themselves of the severe feelings of guilt and shame they are riddled with.

The fact that so many people are still so quick to label suicide as selfish and that so many are quick to dismiss a person experiencing suicidal thoughts as attention-seeking speaks volumes. While we have made progress in our attempts to better understand suicide, we still have so much more to do. The main thing our conversations and our way of thinking about suicide is still lacking, above all else, is empathy. Rather than jumping straight to judgement and calling people selfish for having these feelings, it is time that we acknowledge that individuals experiencing suicidal ideation or considering suicide are in great pain. It is so vitally important that people experiencing suicidal ideation feel heard, rather than feeling judged – in doing so, we can save lives. Suicide is not inevitable; it is almost always preventable and we can help to prevent suicide by being kinder and educating ourselves.

To learn more about World Suicide Prevention Day, I would recommend looking into the work of the Samaritans, Rethink Mental Illness and the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) – all of these organisations work tirelessly to better society’s understanding of suicide and how we can support those who reach crisis point.

Image via Canva.

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