On Mental Illness

Why Suicide Isn't Selfish

A couple weeks ago, I started crying to Alex at the kitchen counter…

I felt the monkey of depression on my back. “I think it’s coming,” I wept to Alex, as he stood by the stove. “What do I do?” In the five years since I’d experienced postpartum depression — with Toby and then worse with Anton — I’d felt like regular myself again, but now and again, I’d feel a glimpse of it.

Recently, after Anton got sick, and Toby got hurt, and everyday challenges continued, I began feeling down. But in a dark, flat way that gave me chills. I felt exhausted all day; I had a hard time making decisions; I felt boring around friends.

Thankfully the feelings passed after a week, but it was terrifying to see the shadow roll by.

When I read this week that Kate Spade died from suicide, my heart broke for her and her family. There are many misconceptions, and it feels more critical than ever to talk openly about mental health. Since suicide can seem especially hard to understand, I thought I’d share five smart points I’ve read (and I’d love to hear your thoughts):

1. Depression is a disease, not a personality trait.

“Even though science has proven it a million times over, our culture doesn’t yet fully recognize that MENTAL ILLNESS IS A BRAIN DISEASE, just like hepatitis is a liver disease. Depression (and bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and everything else) affects our brain — the organ we use to make decisions. If you’re suffering from suicidal depression, it doesn’t matter how beloved you are or how much you love your family or how much money you have, because your brain is telling you that despite all those things, suicide is your only option. (Or that you need to isolate yourself, sleep all day or other behavior that a healthy brain would recognize as bad decisions.) This is one reason mental illness is so deadly: the part of our body that’s affected is the same part that’s responsible for our behavior. It’s like if you broke your leg and then had to use that leg to walk to the hospital… Depression is an ILLNESS. It’s not weakness. It’s not your fault. And it’s impossible to think or reason your way out of it without help, due to the part of your body that’s ill.” — Emily McDowell

2. Depression isn’t just sadness.

“[Some] imply that they know what it is like to be depressed because they have gone through a divorce, lost a job, or broken up with someone. But these experiences carry with them feelings. Depression, instead, is flat, hollow and unendurable.” – Kay Redfield Jamison

“It is very hard to explain to people who have never known serious depression or anxiety the sheer continuous intensity of it. There is no off switch.” — Matt Haig

“It feels like I’m desperately homesick, but I’m home.” — Sarah Silverman

“Is there no way out of the mind?” — Sylvia Plath

3. People who die from suicide don’t want to die.

A person doesn’t try to end her life “because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.” – David Foster Wallace

4. There’s nothing selfish about suicide.

Some people say that “it’s selfish to leave children, spouses and other family members behind… What they don’t know is that those very loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases. But the soul-crushing depression that envelops them leaves them feeling like there is no alternative. Like the only way to get out is to opt out. And that is a devastating thought to endure.” — Katie Hurley.

“It doesn’t feel like you’re abandoning [your loved ones]; it feels like you’re freeing them from the burden that is you and your illness. You feel like you are doing the world a service by leaving it.” — Jen Simon

5. People don’t “commit” suicide, they die from suicide.

“This is a much less judgmental, more straightforward way to talk about someone who dies from mental illness. They are not ‘a suicide’ any more than someone who dies from cancer is ‘a cancer.'” — Kelly Williams Brown.

Sending so much love to anyone who needs it today. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Things can and will get better. I encourage you to reach out for help. xoxo

If you’re suffering, please call 800-273-8255, and someone will be glad to talk to you. Or text TALK to 741-741, if you prefer texting.

P.S. Wholeness vs. happiness, and a runner’s thoughts on depression.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow.)

  1. M says...

    I love you blog, and find it so informative and helpful in so many areas of daily life, so naturally I had to look up if you had written anything in the past about caregivers/children of parents/loved ones with sever mental illnesses. it is difficult to find relatable articles about how others have experienced living with and continuously caring for loved once struggling with such devastating realities. I would have loved to read the comments from your wonderful community, on how they have survived, but also, how they manage to bring joy to the lives of their relatives affected by the illness. Thank you for this warm, funny and clever community :).

  2. Beth says...

    Thank you

  3. Aggelos says...

    Thank you Joanna

  4. Jean Wagner says...

    I am writing because I am a survivor of suicide loss. I submitted a comment yesterday, but have thought about this some more and wanted to submit a revised version of my comments. The first time I read an article about suicide not being selfish was on the day that my brother, Ben, died by suicide. On the morning of February 24, 2016, he sent an email to me, in addition to his wife, our parents, and other siblings. In that email was a link to a blog post entitled “Suicide isn’t Selfish”. Immediately after receiving the email, Ben’s wife tried to call him and rushed home. But it was too late. He was already dead. He had read that article and sent it to us to explain his actions. He felt it justified his suicide and made it okay because, after all, it wasn’t selfish. He was terribly depressed and feeling hopeless. And that article helped to assuage the only thing that might have stopped him from killing himself – his concern about hurting the people he loved. Seeing that the post had relieved Ben’s conscience about leaving behind a widow and two fatherless children, we were appalled that anyone would publish such an article. What were they thinking? How could they not have known that some desperate, depressed person would read it and then feel justified in choosing to kill himself. Now that I have read several more articles that discuss this topic, such as yours, I can understand that the writers of such articles feel it is offensive that people would consider their loved ones who die by suicide, or attempt a suicide, to be selfish. But does a need to protect someone from being labeled as selfish justify publishing a statement that could potentially rationalize someone’s desire to end their life by suicide? If someone is hurt or angry about being called selfish, at least they are alive. If someone is considering suicide and feels validated by the rationale that suicide is not selfish, they may then feel a sense of empowerment to act on their desire to die. I would rather that my loved one have to confront the perception that some people think suicide is selfish than for him to use the “not selfish” philosophy as rationale for taking his life. I encourage you to reassess the impact that publishing such a philosophy could have on someone, and remove it from your post before another life is lost.

    • Abby says...

      Jean, I am so sorry about the loss of your brother, Ben. Sending you a big hug from Boston. xo

  5. David Perrett says...

    Great article. My best fried died last year. This article resonates so well with me. There is still a massive stigma with mental health & suicide . Its getting better but its still not where it should be.

  6. Lisa Danielle says...

    This article feels like I wrote it myself. I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at age 14.I’m still battling today at age 36.In this time I have raised a daughter. I have had too many hospital stays to count where I receive electroconvulsive treatment and many other so called life saving therapies. All in a bid to be their and watch her grow. From the young age of 4 she he’s been regularly separated from me up to 3 months at a time while I remain in a hospital more than an 1 hour away from her Even though I’m alive it comes at such a price. My daughter has to live with fear,anxiety and the unknown everyday. The trauma of living like this is soul destroying. Many
    people don’t see the pain my daughter and I go through each day .I have fought so long and hard only to still be deprived of the life that my daughter and i both deserve .I have miraculously survived a suicide attempt even though my family were called to my bedside to say their final goodbyes. While they were grateful and astounded I survived they also understood. Whether I live or die my illness is causing intense pain to myself and those i love. There is always more to ones life story than the pages you can see.

  7. Kandy says...

    Thank you.

  8. Tanya PRALL says...

    That was the most understandable way I’ve ever read about mental illness, thank you!

  9. Eva Maria says...

    Thank you very much, Joanna, that you talk openly about your depression and anxiety. It is your authenticity that makes your blog unique and I keep reading it for years.

    I myself struggle from severe anxiety and depression since my first daughter was born in 2010. It was like hell on earth. I was lying in bed in a fetal curl, because I was just feeling pure anxiety and pressure.

    It has become better, but life will never be as it was before and sometimes I feel it coming back and I get really scared that the vicious circle of pressure and anxiety starts again.

    Lately I have had a strong feeling of emptiness, isolation and senselessness of life. It makes me want to cry the whole day.
    I have two daughters aged 7 and 2 and I get a really bad conscience when I feel this way when we are together. I feel like a bad mother and I am scared that they become mentally ill because I am not happy and cheerful enough. This breaks my heart.

    I feel less alone with my feelings when I read the comments of this post.
    So thank you very much for talking openly about mental illness on your blog.

  10. Ali says...

    My uncle lost his life to suicide this morning. A thought crossed my mind as I was tossing and turning in bed tonight, and lead me to this post.
    What a comforting, honest, and loving space you have created. We all need each other. ♥️

    • SEVDI says...

      Ali, so sorry about your and your family’s loss. Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), it might help to think that his pain is no more and that this was his only goal. It’s normal for anyone who loved him to feel angry or even betrayed, but in the end it was all about his pain. I hope you start to heal soon. I am sending you a hug lasting as long as you need.

  11. Belatedly, I’m so glad you posted this. I did some work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and learned so much I hadn’t known I didn’t know. Namely honoring the individual by using appropriate terminology of: died by suicide; lost his/her life to suicide – not committed. Thanks for posting this.

  12. Susana says...

    Hi Joanna. If I had any doubts on why I love your blog, which I don’t, reading this post would definitly clear my mind…thank God there are sensible, intelligent people out there, who don’t see depression as a character weakness or someone who doesn’t have nothing else to worry about…life is definitly not just black and white…thank you so much and wishing you all the courage to fight moments of black hole.

  13. Sophia says...

    Hello, I just read the arricel and it resonates with me. currently I try for a baby with my partner and for this reason I stoped to take anti depressants, which I took for nearly 10 years. This got me thinking about what it means to become a parent with psychological problems or illnes. There seams to be far more material about post partum depression , but much less about this topic in the media. The topic of taking or not taking medication is pretty controversial ( there are not enough long term studies on the effect of taking antidepressants during pregnancy on the one hand on the other hand the effects of a mother which is not at her best is also not to underestimate . ) I concidered both options and went with a mix of information and gut feeling. This desicion means that next to the general fears of what it means to become a parent, I’m also worried ,to say the least , how it is going to be without the help of medication and what it means for becoming a parent. That said, I work really hard on myself to become the person I want my child to have as a mom :) . I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one with this thoughts, and it Might be an idea to feature ? (Ps: this is ofcourse something which concerns dads too ( minus the crazy raging hormones) :) )

  14. I can’t thank you enough for this article. I cried throughout it. Thank you for being a voice for so many wonderful causes.