On Suicide (and shootings)

By | March 15, 2019

I was already in a grim frame of mind this evening when I heard about the shootings in Christchurch. I’m not ready to talk about them, but I wanted to write about the other thing.

Someone I know committed suicide just recently. I didn’t know them particularly well, but they are the third person in my extended network to have died in that way over the last year or so.

It’s easy to think that suicide is a voluntary action in which a person in full control of themselves decides, after careful consideration, that they no longer want to live and then acts on this. I imagine there are circumstances where that is the case, but in most cases a person who dies this way does so because they are subject to some kind of psychological injury. It might be the result of ongoing depression, of a chemical imbalance, of unspoken trauma that they were unable to address, or even a sense of existential ennui. I’m not expert enough to diagnose or really discuss in any detail the causes and mechanisms that lead people to this, so I won’t go there.

Instead, I had two reactions I wanted to share.

First, when one hears of someone who has died this way, it seems easy to assume that they were weak in some way. That it couldn’t happen to you. That they were in some way morally culpable for their end. I may be more flawed than you in that I notice an impulse to think this way when I hear news of this sort. It is wrong to think that way and I feel shame to know how easy it is for me to take that perspective.

I spend a lot of effort trying to observe my thoughts and feelings very closely when I react to emotionally complex things like this, and seeing how easy it is for me to slide into a misguided and almost repugnant way of thinking is both illuminating and saddening. It helps me to know when to stop and review my responses and make sure my brain is taking me to places I consciously want to go. As a practice, I find it challenging but extremely helpful, particularly when it helps me notice something repugnant or wrong hiding beneath a plausible veneer. I’d like to encourage those reading this to try the same as they react to any of the emotionally complex things going on in the world today.

Second, I implore you all – educate yourself on suicidal behaviour. Understand its signs, the risk factors, and how to talk to someone who seems in trouble. In a depressing philosophical sense, we are alone in our own heads facing trials and fears that we can never clearly communicate to another, but in a practical way we’re part of a mesh of people who can support and love each other.

Please, if you have it in you, find a way to support the people around you. If you know someone who is facing trials, offer a hand. If you think others struggle to share their feelings, be vulnerable with them and maybe they’ll be able to talk. If nothing else, find a way to lighten the load of those you interact with.

As mentioned above, I’m not really ready to talk about my reaction to the shootings, but I’d be insane to think that it doesn’t inform some of the above. I wrote more than this, but it became unusefully self-centred, idealistic, and meandering. I’m going to let things settle and try and write more some time soon.

If you’re reading this, it should mean we’re friends. Thanks for being you, even if we disagree or have something else between us.