7 Myths About Suicide

The recent tragedies of Kate Spade's and Anthony Bourdain's suicides—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.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #34

The media frenzy is starting to settle after the tragic suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. 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.

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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.

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 let's help!.

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. 


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.