Suicidal thoughts are reasonably common. Something like 3–4% of adults think about suicide at least once within a given year.
Suicidal thoughts can happen for many different reasons. It is common for people with such thoughts to have a sense of hopelessness and a desire to escape from unbearable feelings. The person may not be able to think clearly enough to find another solution, and may believe suicide is their only way out.
Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet, philosopher, historian and commentator. She wrote the book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against it in response to the suicides of two friends. The book is a plea from the heart for people contemplating suicide to consider the historical arguments that promote life and encourage perseverance when everything seems too difficult.
People with suicidal thoughts know what death has to offer. It is seen as a solution to the debilitating psychological pain and confusion. What is needed are compelling arguments that promote staying alive. Some arguments are grounded in religious thinking while others reflect a secular outlook. What Hecht strives for is an anti suicide narrative that is accessible to all and motivates people to hang on to life.
The arguments presented, while timely for any person feeling ambivalent about life, may not be appropriate in a crisis situation where more practical and targeted interventions are called for.
(1) Our actions do matter
Humanity is profoundly interconnected. We are dependent on each other for our very survival. People are social beings and are not meant to be alone. We thrive when we feel connected and supported by each other, and we suffer when connection and support are not available.
Hecht invites us to reflect on the well known words of poet and writer John Donne.
“No man is an island, entire of itself: every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Hecht also quotes the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides who lived in the 12th century. Maimonides addressed the problem of how insignificant we can feel as individuals. He suggests that every person brings a unique something that either benefits or diminishes their community.
“One should see the world, and see himself as a scale with an equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed the scale is tipped to the good – he and the world are saved. When he does one evil deed the scale is tipped to the bad – he and the world are destroyed.”Moses Maimonides
Hecht develops this argument further. She says,
“The human world is held together by our optimistic trust that life matters to others and that the things we do in concert with others, even just living, are invested with that meaning. With a suicide, what is taken away is not only the person’s presence but also their faith in life mattering, their hope in life, and their attachment to the future.”
(2) Contagion is real
Hecht draws attention to the simple fact that sociological studies have found evidence that a person taking his or her own life increases the likelihood of another person doing so. The term used to describe this phenomenon is suicide contagion which refers to the process whereby one suicide or suicidal act within a school, community or geographic area increases the likelihood that others will attempt or die by suicide.
People impacted by suicide fall within the geographical, psychological and social orbits of influence. They are described as the ‘Circles of Vulnerability’. The model helps to identify those who may be potentially more at risk of suicide contagion than others.
Suicide has the potential to challenge our commitment to life and undermine our resilience. Suicide fractures our sense of well being. The fault lines appear and our confidence to handle the challenges of life compromised.
Hecht highlights some of the settings in which suicide clusters are likely to occur – the family, indigenous communities, the police force, and military veterans, to mention a few. She provides many examples of increased risk. Hecht writes,
“A recent study from John Hopkins University showed that children (eighteen years old and younger) of suicide victims are three times as likely to complete suicide at some future point, compared with people who reach eighteen with living parents.”
Hecht goes on to say,
“If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence: it helps keep people alive. By staying alive, we are contributing something precious to the world.”
(3) The profound impact on those left behind
The consequences of suicide are not only that one person is dead, that a precious life has ended, but it’s also a tragedy for the people left behind. Anyone who has been bereaved by suicide will need no convincing of the profound and long lasting impact of a suicide.
The grief process is always difficult, but a loss through suicide is like no other, and the grieving can be especially complex and traumatic.
Hecht lays down an ultimatum.
“I’m issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself. When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community.”
When my son Adam died I felt the ‘wrenching damage’. Suicide shakes your whole being physically, emotionally and psychologically. I discovered there are no quick fixes. The pain is intense and endures. It is not easy learning to live with your loss.
(4) You owe it to your future self to live
Suicide not only robs your community but also your own future self, Hecht writes, a future self that may yet overcome seemingly insurmountable pain.
Hecht appreciates that many people are asked to endure incredible hardship and suffer lasting pain. She recognizes the courage needed to stare down the dark forces in our life and to endure. She says,
“Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay. Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun.”
The suicidal person may believe their situation is unique and that they are alone in their struggle. The reality is everyone goes through difficult periods in life when the wonder and joy dissolves before our eyes. We lose sight of our place in society and our value to our neighbour.
“None of us can truly know what we mean to other people, and none of us can know what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere.”