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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Petruck

How We Talk About Suicide: Stop Using the Word "Selfish"

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, so I wanted to share a post I wrote for a site that has since closed. Some of you will have read it already, but I think a conversation about suicide is necessarily, and sadly, an ongoing one.

Since I read Brené Brown’s book about shame I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), I have felt like the world is a brighter place. Which may sound like a contrary statement: “I’ve learned about shame, and now I’m happy!” But recognizing how shame plays out in my daily life and the lives of people I care about was both eye-opening and healing.

Around the same time, I stumbled upon an oft-used phrase: “Suicide is a selfish act.” It bothered me, though I wasn’t sure why. Then I came across it twice more, and I have a rule of three—if something nudges me three times, pay extra attention! When I did, I realized what bothered me. “Suicide is a selfish act” is an incredibly shaming statement.

To me, one of the most important, if not the most important sentence in Brown’s book, is:

"You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors."

In fact, attempting to shame someone into changing a behavior has a deeply negative effect. There may be an appearance of change for a while, to please the one shaming, but internally the soul crumbles a little more each time.

That’s how I think of people who are considering suicide: people whose souls are crumbling. Depressed, anxious, fearful, sad…people who are beginning to think the world would be better without them. Or feel utterly hopeless that the world is a place where they belong. People with very little self left.

Isn’t it dangerous and outright irresponsible to tell those people they’re selfish, too?

In researching how to help someone who is suicidal, I was struck by how similar the advice was to Brown’s approach to developing shame resilience—empathy, courage, compassion, and connection.

Here is a link to comprehensive information, and I wanted to include this section directly:

When Talking to a person who is Suicidal:

  • Be yourself. Let the person know you care, that he/she is not alone. The right words are often unimportant. If you are concerned, your voice and manner will show it.

  • Listen. Let the person unload despair, ventilate anger. No matter how negative the conversation seems, the fact that it exists is a positive sign.

  • Be sympathetic, non-judgmental, patient, calm, accepting. Your friend or family member is doing the right thing by talking about his/her feelings.

  • Offer hope. Reassure the person that help is available and that the suicidal feelings are temporary. Let the person know that his or her life is important to you.

  • If the person says things like, “I’m so depressed, I can’t go on,” ask the question: “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” You are not putting ideas in their head, you are showing that you are concerned, that you take them seriously, and that it’s OK for them to share their pain with you.

  • If you are not comfortable with hearing certain information about suicide from your loved one, please encourage the individual to seek help, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-8255, or a local mental health agency, clinic, or hospital.

  • You or your loved one also may text 741741, and a crisis worker will text back immediately. Many people, especially younger folks, do not like talking on the phone and are more comfortable texting. It's a free service to anyone in the U.S. run by The Crisis Text Line.

Let’s never again say, “Suicide is a selfish act,” and remove it from our national dialogue forever. Instead, let’s continue to practice empathy, courage, compassion, and connection. It will not only benefit those considering suicide, but also ourselves.

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