Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson was asked by a young man ‘Why shouldn’t I take my life?’ To Peterson’s credit, he took the young man seriously and provided him with four reasons to choose life.
In summary, Peterson said
1) Anyone contemplating suicide should ‘think carefully through the consequences for other people.’
2) You owe it to yourself to explore all possible alternatives before you choose suicide.
3) Consider that your life has intrinsic value. It matters.
4) Don’t be so sure that your life is yours to take. You don’t own yourself the way you can an object – you can’t just casually bring your life to an end because, the fact is, suicide is wrong.
Most comments on social media were positive. They felt Peterson’s response was considered and reasonable.
A recent update suggests the outcome was favourable and the young man sought help. It is not clear what insight helped him the most.
Responding to people who are thinking about suicide is challenging and requires courage and awareness.
There are some obvious barriers to engagement.
There may be the mistaken belief that asking someone about their desire to end their life will push them to self-harm. This is not the case. People who are suicidal are often uncertain about where to look for help. In most instances, they value the opportunity to speak to someone they feel they can trust.
There may also be a fear of saying the wrong thing. Attitude is all important and a non-judgmental approach is best. Affirm the person, recognise their vulnerability, offer unconditional support and encourage help-seeking behaviours.
Peterson did well in communicating his response but is his advice practical or indeed possible.
For example, can we expect people who are suicidal to carefully consider the consequences of their actions?
Peterson is right when he says ‘suicide will absolutely devastate, in ways you can’t imagine, the people you leave behind.’
Nikki Gemmel is a best-selling author and a regular contributor to The Australian. In a recent article Gemmel tells of the pain and turmoil of losing her mother to suicide. She says,
“It’s a universal desire to be needed, and the loneliness of the suicidal act feels like a vicious rebuke. You’re not needed at the bleakest time of a beloved’s life. You couldn’t help them, couldn’t haul them free. If a parent dies by suicide, the feelings of rejection and abandonment never leave you, despite whatever pain they may have been in. You feel as though you weren’t lovable enough – to hold them in your world, to keep them with you; that they didn’t live you enough to want to stay. You could reach the wild places of their mind.”
People who are suicidal have feelings of self-loathing, hopelessness and isolation. They are conflicted about ending their own lives but are desperate to find a way of alleviating the unbearable pain. Suicide presents itself as the only option.
Peterson suggests that the person who is suicidal needs to put all this to one side and reflect on what their death might mean to those they love. I can’t see how this is possible.
We lost our son Adam to suicide in 2011. During his final days, he tried to assure us of his love. But he was in great distress. He was agitated and desperate and emotional. How could he possibly grasp what his death would mean to his family?
We had experienced loss before and had grieved but suicide grief is completely different. It is personal. For a father to lose a son to suicide is heartbreaking. Parents want the best for their children. They want them to prosper and live fulfilling lives. Suicide smashes any hopes and dreams you may have harbored. It is brutal.
When her mother died Nikki Gemmel received many letters from readers. One letter, from a mother, particularly resonated with her. She says,
“I tried to take my life with an overdose after the birth of my third child, with postnatal depression. The reason people suicide is simply that the suffering’s so great that you cannot bear it another minute. It’s as simple as that. You don’t think about the devastating effect it’s going to have on your loved ones because of the level of suffering you’re in…you don’t think of how it will hurt your loved ones, perhaps for life…”
Goodnight Mister Tom, written by Michelle Magorian is a historical fiction novel. Yet the themes of love and loss, happiness and sadness, friendship and separation are universal and timeless.
Young William Beech is evacuated to the country as Britain stands on the brink of the Second World War. His harsh and vindictive mother remains in London. William is sent to live with Tom Oakley, a sad and reclusive widower, who lives in the shadow of his own grief. Tom sees William as bruised, a child with physical and emotional scars.
William prospers under Tom’s love and care but must return to London when his mother tells him she is ill. William finds his mother unchanged but he has a new baby sister. In a fit of madness William’s mother locks him and his little sister in a closet and leaves indefinitely.
Tom is concerned for William and travels to London only to discover the gruesome reality. He finds William beaten, sick, and clinging to his dead infant sister. Tom removes William from the terrors of London and takes him back to the country. William’s recovery is slow due to the trauma he has experienced.
As the story progresses we learn that William’s mother takes her life. It is a tragedy, an unwanted end to a troubled life. We are not told the cause of her mental instability. It is reasonable to suggest she saw her life as a failure and lacked the emotional strength to care for her children. The equation is simple. If she ends her life her children won’t survive. So she abandons them.
It illustrates the point we are making, that people who are under considerable stress and emotional turmoil are unable to think their way through a situation rationally. Their mind is in overdrive. Their thoughts unhinged.
People with a mental illness are not capable of understanding or processing how their actions will impact on others. Their behaviour is not going to be altered by their sense of how others will cope.