In the vast repertoire of human actions there are few as disturbing as suicide. As such it is too often viewed as a stigma, a crime against the community as much as a crime against oneself.
If we were to be honest, the act of self-destruction is repellant to us for two basic reasons: It is a violation of both our primal sense of self-preservation and the moral principles which mold our personal and religious views. In the past, people who committed suicide were considered damned for eternity and unworthy of a Christian burial. In the present, conversation on this topic becomes hushed and tentative, while a written piece must strive to avoid a tone that is either too condescending or too lenient.
But many of these perceptions of suicide are, at best, misinformed, and at worst, malicious. In reality, suicide is a fatal symptom of a number of mental or emotional disorders.
Self-destruction has become a tragic result of the last decade’s descent into war and financial chaos. Last Sunday, Trib editor Karen Peterson wrote on the paper’s efforts to handle coverage of a recent young woman’s suicide with sensitivity and transparency. In another column, Nicholas Kristof highlighted the discrepancy between combat deaths and suicides by veterans, the latter of which occurs a staggering 25 times more often than the former.
There’s simply no denying that we continue to tiptoe around the topic of suicide, but would it hurt to have a more open discussion? It just might shed a little light on the dark corners of our collective psyche.
For example, let’s compare suicide with cancer, another major killer. Like cancer, suicidal tendencies are brought on by factors both known – PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues – and unknown. Like cancer, the symptoms that often lead to suicide are nondiscriminatory: Celebrity is certainly no defense, as famous figures such as Ernest Hemingway and Curt Cobain can attest; stoic war veterans have suffered and perished at their own hands in great numbers (an ironic end given the billions spent to protect them in the war zone); countless others fight a daily battle against the “black dog,” as Winston Churchill described his own crippling bouts with depression.
Whether a person dies from cancer or suicide, the word victim should not be followed with an asterisk. In the case of suicide, this altered perception fails to consider that each of us has a unique tolerance threshold, and the inner battle against one’s own demons can be far greater than the risks inherent in combat, or in the body’s struggle against a life-threatening illness.
I did not always have this perspective. As a young police officer my reactions were a mixture of pity and loathing. Over time, however, I found myself dispensing street-level psychoanalysis to a long line of people with mental and emotional problems. They included a man with one leg over the roof of a building and a knife at his throat, numerous young girls with fresh slash marks on their wrists, and more than a few young men whose attempts to overdose were met with a vomit-inducing regimen of charcoal lavage.
I consider these people fortunate. They each had the opportunity to meet with a mental health worker at the emergency room and a second chance.
Those who chose to walk in front of a moving train, who hung themselves in a dark basement or who swallowed a bottle of narcotics and died alone had no second chance.
It might seem easy to pass judgment on such deeply troubled people. After all, weren’t they betraying the trust of a loved one or taking a coward’s way out of a difficult situation? The answer, as Atticus Finch reminds us in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is that we would need to “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In my short exposure to these individuals, their empty gazes and broken spirits were enough to make me withhold judgment.
Perhaps suicide is so difficult to process because it is a paradox. Despite our innate will to live, our mental wiring that will consider just about any action to keep us alive, people from every walk of life and from every country in the world continue to make it their final act. That it is treated as a stigma only serves to make it more difficult to prevent.