In June 2018 two celebrities committed suicide in the same week. First, I was shocked and sad and to learn that Kate Spade, fashion designer and business woman, had taken her life. A few days later, chef and host of the show “parts unknown” Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. Both celebrities inspired others through their vocations and seemed to live enviable lives. However, as a result of their suicides, we learned that they both had struggled with depression for years.
When a celebrity, or someone in our own lives, commits suicide, we struggle to understand their decision. Some people, who may not understand mental illness or who have been personally affected by a suicide, think that suicide is a selfish act: Surely, the person must not be thinking of how others will suffer as a consequence of their choice. Surely, they must realize that their problems are temporary and that if they only seek help, things will get better.
That is likely true, to some extent.
However, when someone is deeply depressed for long periods of time, their focus turns more inward. This doesn’t mean that people choose to focus only on themselves. It means that they are not confident that they have purpose or meaning, that they are worthy of being loved and supported by others, and that they deserve the support of others or even the help of professionals. Thus, by the time they contemplate suicide, they believe there is no other choice. They believe that others cannot help them because they are incapable of being helped.
To better understand the mind of someone contemplating suicide, let’s explore the word “self.” When I Google the word, hundreds of terms appear, including self-love, self-compassion, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-worth, self-sufficiency, self-reliance. Our culture is obsessed with the concept of self. The word perpetuates a sense of autonomy, confidence, greatness, or the lack of these qualities and the importance of acquiring them. Thousands of media articles discuss how important it is to be ourselves, love ourselves, be kind to ourselves, forgive ourselves. The self-help section of bookstores is full of information telling us that we can become great and that we don’t need anyone else. We can become whatever we want, do it ourselves, and have it all without relying on others.
Now, imagine a depressed person who has tried to believe these things. They have tried to believe they can do it themselves, and they have failed. They are not self-sufficient. They do not love themselves. They do not have self-compassion. Their definition of “self” has only negative implications.
The irony is that we can’t do it ourselves. Despite the cheerleading self-help books and articles, neuroscience supports that our brains are wired to be relational. We need others, and it’s OK to ask for help. It’s also acceptable to allow ourselves to be helped because it doesn’t mean that we are a failure. It doesn’t mean that we cannot achieve success, or become self-sufficient, or that we lack identity. Receiving support and help from others, even professional help, builds resilience. The best thing that we can do for those struggling with chronic depression is to take them outside of their selves. To help them understand that they don’t have to suffer in isolation.
In closing, let’s help those at risk for suicide understand that they don’t have to figure it all out to feel better. Let’s help them develop a healthy sense of self that allows them to include others. They can experience relief from symptoms, bounce back from struggles, and experience love and support.