TRIGGER WARNING: The following article discusses common suicide myths which some readers may find traumatic or triggering.
Though much work has been done to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness, suicide is still a controversial and somewhat taboo topic that many hesitate to talk about, even when necessary. Unfortunately, this has resulted in many harmful and incorrect misconceptions and myths about suicide. Spreading false information is not only insensitive to those affected by suicide, but it can make getting help even more difficult for those already struggling.
Before we dive into what makes these myths so untrue (and so harmful) and set the record straight, we need to make a note about language. You may notice that we will not use the phrase “commit” suicide. This term carries a lot of cultural and religious baggage that often gets in the way of people seeking out the help that they need. Language matters – and referring to suicide with terminology that carries such historical and cultural associations does not help to decrease the stigma surrounding it. We prefer to use terminology that are more objective – and less loaded – when discussing this difficult topic.
MYTH #1: Suicide is rare.
FACT: The stigma surrounding suicide remains so strong that many people maintain the false impression that suicide is rare. While the belief that something not often talked about is likely not a huge problem seems understandable, this is simply not the truth. Suicide is not rare. The fact is that suicide is the 9th leading cause of death in Canada, and suicide rates have continued to increase over recent decades. We can address this alarming increase by encouraging the conversation surrounding both suicide and mental health and continuing to improve access to mental health resources.
MYTH #2: People who die by suicide are selfish.
FACT: You may have heard from those around you that individuals who end their own lives are selfish for failing to think about how their deaths will affect their friends and family. The truth is, most people who are suicidal do think about how their decision to end their lives would affect their loved one’s lives. In fact, this very thought may have been what has kept them alive for as long as they have. It is not uncommon for those coping with suicidality to believe that their being alive is actually putting more stress on their loved ones. They often believe that by ending their own lives, they would rid their loved ones of the responsibility or burden of dealing with their mental illness. It is also not uncommon for suicidal individuals to feel so alone that they cannot believe anyone could possibly miss them – no matter how far this is from the truth.
MYTH #3: People who die by suicide have a severe, diagnosable mental illness.
FACT: While it is true that many people who either attempt, or die by suicide, had or continue to live with mental illnesses, they are not necessary for suicidality to exist. While coping with mental illnesses is often a risk factor for suicide and suicidal thoughts, it is also true that intense, situational distress can be linked to suicide. Experiencing a traumatic event, losing a loved one, losing employment, or going through any sort of relationship “break up” with a partner, friend, or family member, can all be incredibly stressful and cause enough pain to lead some individuals to either thinking of, or taking steps towards, ending their own lives.
MYTH #4: People who attempt suicide, or who talk about killing themselves, are just looking for attention and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
FACT: Most people who have tried to end their own lives really were trying to die. They may have felt that dying was the only way to escape their pain. Talk of having suicidal thoughts and expressions of hopelessness such as “I just can’t do this anymore,” or “my life is not worth living,” should always be taken seriously. Regardless of whether the individual intends to act on these dangerous thoughts, they are struggling and need support. Acknowledging this can save lives.
MYTH #5: Talking about suicide with someone that I’m worried about will only put the idea into their head and make things worse.
FACT: Many people fear talking about suicide, falsely believing that it will increase the likelihood of it happening. The truth is that so many individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts feel too afraid to talk openly about it. This then prevents them from reaching out to get the help they need. Though it may be extremely difficult, if you’re worried that someone you care about might be thinking of ending their lives, the right thing to do is to ask them directly and compassionately. Avoid using indirect or ambiguous language such as “are you thinking of doing something dangerous?” It is always better to say exactly what you mean. Something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been feeling down lately and I’m worried about you. Have you been thinking about suicide?” is more effective. By talking so openly about suicide, you give this person permission to talk about it with you. You communicate to them that they can go to you for support – and for too many, this may be the first time in their lives that they feel that they can be honest about what is going on for them.
When helping individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts themselves, or coping with the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide, it is vital that the information being spread is both correct and helpful. Suicide is not rare – and the more we openly communicate about it (sensitively and reasonably), the less stigma will surround it and prevent those who need help from seeking it out.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to any of the below resources.
Crisis Text Line: Text 686868
Crisis Services Canada 24/7: Call 1-833-456-4566, Text: 45645, Chat services: http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/en/#CdnSMSChat
The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386 or Text START to 678678