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7 Myths About Suicide

The recent tragedy of Robin Williams's suicide—and the ensuing media storm—raised awareness of suicide as a mental health issue, but also generated a lot of misinformation. This week, the Savvy Psychologist cleans up after the headlines.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 29, 2014
Episode #034

Page 1 of 3

The media frenzy is starting to settle after the tragic suicide of Robin Williams. Some of the coverage, I was happy to see, was sensitive and compassionate, while some was just plain irresponsible, sensationalistic, and full of specific details-- all of which can put vulnerable people at risk, and perpetuate misinformation.

So, this week on the Savvy Psychologist, we’ll set right 7 myths about suicide.

Myth #1: People Who Attempt Suicide Are Just Trying to Get Attention / It’s a Cry for Help

Fact:  Most individuals who attempt or complete suicide—over 90%—are suffering from a mental illness. Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug dependence, or often a combination of a few of the above, can set the stage for suicide. Even though his sobriety was intact, Robin Williams was reportedly suffering from severe depression. 

Framing suicide as a method to get attention paints those who are sick as manipulative, when in fact, they are simply really ill. In addition, even if a suicide attempt is a cry for help, it means they need help--so help.

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Myth #2: Suicide is Selfish

Fact: Suicide is a horrible thing for a family to be left to deal with, and those left behind will never be the same. But when someone is severely depressed, he thinks the world would be better off without him. 

A triad of despairing emotions lays the groundwork for suicidal thoughts: hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness. Hopelessness says, “Things will never get better. This will go on forever. Don’t even bother trying.” Helplessness is paralyzing: you see no control over your own life—things just keep happening to you that make you feel worse and worse. Worthlessness says, “And you’re a total failure of a human being. anyway. Your life is a waste.” 

This despondent trio shouts so loudly that any whispers of hope, efficacy, or worth get drowned out. Many individuals who commit suicide truly believe they are doing their family a favor. 

I know it’s hard to see it from this perspective. But if you’ve ever suffered from severe depression or been suicidal yourself, you probably get it. 

Additionally, if you’ve been left behind by a loved one’s suicide, you probably were (are) bewildered and angry. It’s easy to say the person who committed suicide is selfish, because he or she hurt you so much. Under your anger, however, is probably a broken heart. Attend to healing yourself and others left behind to the extent you can, rather than lashing out.

Myth #3: Don’t Ask Someone You’re Concerned About if They’re Suicidal, Because it Might Encourage Them

Fact: If you’re worried, be frank. Ask, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” And then? Listen. I’m willing to bet it will be the first time she’s been offered the time and opportunity to unburden her thoughts. 

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