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.
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.
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.
Myth #4: Individuals Who Commit Suicide Must Have Wanted to Die
Fact: Individuals who commit suicide wanted to end their pain, which is not the same thing as wanting to die. Anecdotal interviews with surviving jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge find that many changed their minds in midair. The most-quoted is a survivor named Ken Baldwin, who recalls that, at the moment he jumped from the bridge in 1985, he "instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”
Again, if you’re someone who’s been left behind, framing it this way—wanting to end their pain—may not make things better, but may make their actions more understandable.
Myth #5: If You Try to Protect Someone by Taking Away His Method, He’ll Just Find Another Way to Kill Himself
Fact: Prevention works. Speaking of the Golden Gate Bridge, the iconic orange span is the #1 suicide location in the Western hemisphere. In 2017, 39 people jumped from the bridge. However, plans have been approved for a $200 million suicide barrier, due for completion in 2021.
Doubters might say that future jumpers will just go elsewhere. Not so: a 2013 meta-analysis analyzed data from 22 previous studies to see what happens when protective structures like safety nets or fences are built on bridges, viaducts, and cliffs. The result? While there was an increase of suicides at nearby structures without nets, the overall suicide numbers dropped by almost a third.
So that’s prevention. But what about those who attempt, but are stopped? Won’t they just try again later? Surprisingly, no. A classic 1978 study tracked 515 people, from 1937 to 1971, who were saved before they jumped from—again—the Golden Gate Bridge, and found that 90% were alive, or had died from natural causes, even decades later.
And while you might not be able to build a bridge-sized net on your own, one thing you can do to prevent suicide among those you love is to keep guns out of your home. A 2004 study found that men with guns in the home are more than 10 times as likely to die from suicide than men without guns in the home. And a classic 1986 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that for every time a gun in the home kills an intruder in self-defense, 37 people with guns in the home commit suicide.
Myth #6: People Don’t Copycat--They’ll Kill Themselves Regardless of the Media
Fact: Copycatting is a real thing. Dozens of studies have shown that pervasive coverage or reporting specific details, both of which unfortunately occurred after Robin Williams’s 2014 death and occurred to an extent with last week's celebrity suicides, can pave the way for copycats. Knowing exactly how the hanging was set up, the dosage of medication used, or the brand of razor drops a ready-made plan in the lap of someone on the edge. Responsible journalists should tell the story without the explicit details.
However, speaking personally, I do think it’s important to report a death as a suicide—as opposed to concealing the cause—so clusters can be identified and stopped. For example, over a six-month period in 2009, four separate teenagers from a high school in my community killed themselves in the same way. If these deaths had been deemed accidental, it still would have been tragic, but a pattern wouldn’t have been identified--and the need for community education and prevention measures would have been missed.
Myth #7: Suicidal Thoughts are Rare
Fact: Not so. In my office this week, many people who have sat in the chair across from me have said, “I totally get it. I’ve been there.” And it’s not just folks in treatment who get it.
Suicidal thoughts run on a spectrum. Fleeting thoughts--“How nice would it be to end it all,” or “I wish I could just disappear and be gone forever"--are fairly common. A single thought popping into your head generally isn’t a cause for alarm. (See also: I’m Thinking Crazy Thoughts!) If it happens frequently, however--particularly if you’re struggling through a hard time--your brain may be asking you to seek some help.
Moving up the spectrum of concern, passive suicidal thoughts are wishes to die without a deliberate attempt. These include hoping to get hit by a bus, or thinking, “If I went to sleep and didn’t wake up, that would be OK.” One step higher are active suicidal thoughts, like thinking about jumping in front of a bus, or actively thinking about committing suicide. The last, most worrisome level includes making a specific plan, like when, where, and how to kill yourself.
If someone confesses suicidal thoughts to you, however, don’t try to evaluate where they fall on the spectrum: it’s wiser and safer to always take them seriously.
To wrap up, calls to crisis hotlines have surged since Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths. It demonstrates how many people are hurting, but also how many are feeling empowered, reaching out, and finding a listening ear.
And if you’re moved to help, consider volunteering or donating. You’ll find a link to mental health charities with the greatest impact in the show notes at quickanddirtytips.com/savvy-psychologist.
Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.
Dahlberg, L., Ikeda, R.M. & Kresnow, M. (2004). Guns in the home and risk of a violent death in the home: Findings from a national study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 160, 929-936.
Kellermann, A.L. & Reay, D.T. (1986). Protection or peril? An analysis of firearm-related deaths in the home. The New England Journal of Medicine, 314, 1557-60.
Pirkis, J., Spittal, M.J., Cox, G., Robinson, J., Cheung, Y.T.D. & Studdert, D. (2013). The effectiveness of structural interventions at suicide hotspots: a meta-analysis. International Journal of Epidemiology, 42, 541-8.
Seiden, R. H. (1978). Where Are They Now? A Follow-up Study of Suicide Attempters from the Golden Gate Bridge. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 8, 203–216.
Stack, S. (2002). Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide. Injury Prevention, 8 Suppl 4, IV30-2.