Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states
People have a natural tendency to empathize with those who are in the midst of painful depression. They have the same tendency to empathize with, and feel sorrow for, those who attempt or commit suicide because of the terrible suffering that caused them to commit such a tragic act. However, with full respect and feelings for those who are deeply depressed and who entertain thoughts of suicide, we need to look at some features that may make me appear to the reader as somewhat callous to their plight.
Most of us can agree with the fact that depression and suicide have to do with the individual feeling empty, hopeless and deeply despairing. Most of us subscribe to the well known theory that depression is anger turned inward, against the self, and that suicide is an attack on or murder of the self.
Where many readers may have great difficulty is in understanding that, in some cases, the act of suicide is an expression of rage directed toward others. It seems difficult to accept the notion that a suicidal person is doing anything but suffering. Yes, they are suffering. However, there are times when the suffering can be used as a weapon to punish others. I have been struck by the anger expressed by some of my readers who have sent comments asserting the hopelessness of their lives and their right to take their own lives. These comments can be found by doing a search, here at Mental Help Net, on the topic of “suicide.” You will find both my articles and the comments to which I am referring.
This in no way the entire story of suicide or what motivates people to take their own lives. We know that depression is often the result of feeling both hopeless and helpless. The depressed person feels like a victim. Therefore, they have a strong sense that they cannot influence the flow of their lives. There is no worse feeling than helplessness, which is why it results in depression and, sometimes, suicide. But, how is this possible? How can a person who feels helpless summon the energy to commit suicide? After all, doesn’t it follow logic to say that if someone feels that helpless and incompetent, they couldn’t attempt suicide? The answer to this question is yes. Yet, it is not so simple or easy.
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For those who accept the premise, as I do, that people face an existential crisis, then the reasons why some people wish to die becomes more clear. An existential crisis has to do with the fact that we are all going to die one day. Often, this leads to the negative thought that life has no meaning because it ends in death and, therefore, what’s the point of living? For someone who is truly depressed, the logical answer to this question is that life has no point. An end result of this thinking is something like, “Well, if life has no meaning because I’m going to die someday, why not take command of my own fate and end it now, rather than sitting around, waiting for the inevitable?”
If you detect a note of defiance in the above example, you are correct. Death is a frightening reality that terrifies most of us. As Ernest Becker wrote in his book, “The Denial Of Death,” we live our lives as though death can never touch us. When we hear of someone’s death or lose a loved one, there is an automatic response we have, “That can’t happen to me.” As Becker and others point out, we need that denial in order to function in our daily lives.
Defiance comes into play when the depressed, suicidal person insists that he is not afraid and will gladly commit suicide. This is yet one more example of taking fate into your own hands. “Not only am I not afraid of death, but I can choose the time and means of my own demise. See, I’m not scared at all!”
It is difficult to respond to someone who is thinking this way. The determination of some of these sad individuals is so strong that reasoning with them falls on deaf ears. In this terrible state of despair, what escapes them is that it is the time in between our birth and ultimate death that counts the most. During that time we can influence other people to their benefit. All of us need one another even when the suicidal individual is convinced that no one needs them. Society needs each one of us and there are many things each of us can do to help others. It is in helping that the true value of our lives is given expression.
For those who are religious, the meaning of life is found in the Bible. There is great comfort to be gained from religious faith. Despite the fact that there are those who reject faith, it is nevertheless valuable to those who are religious and that should not be discounted or taken away from them.
There are healthier ways to express anger at loved ones than to commit suicide. By the way, during my years working at psychiatric out patient clinics and hospitals, I became aware of patients who took their own lives in ways that exposed their children and families to this trauma. This is where psychotherapy and medication come into play. Depression and suicide are nothing to be trifled with. If a loved one expresses suicidal ideas, they should be referred to the local hospital emergency room in order to prevent a tragedy, especially if they have become lethargic and different from their usual selves.
The bitter irony of this whole thing is that it is true that we will all die one day. The real challenge is learning how to live. This is what takes courage.
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