Fighting Stigmas, Enforcing Changes, Passing Classes

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Talking about Suicide

“Why didn’t you say something?” This seems to be a common sentiment about suicide and suicidal ideation. If only the person had said something earlier about who they were feeling, everything would be alright. Alas, it’s not that easy. In fact, it’s very likely that the person did try to say something. But when it comes to suicide, those who are suicidal and those who are not speak completely different languages.

Let’s start with a brief biology lesson. The urge to live is the number 1 most important biological drive in humans. It is hardwired. Therefore, everything we do, say, think, it all revolves around survival. So when someone no longer wishes to follow this critical biological urge human beings are simply not equipped to deal with this.

First, linguistically talking about suicide is harder than it seems. All languages were developed as a form of communication. Communication goes to teamwork which was developed by our ancestors as a way to survive. So our languages are not designed to deal with suicide.

Sure, we have some words that we invented some words we can use to talk about. But these are very clunky and full of stigma and hurtful connotations. For instance, “suicidal ideation” is very clinical and “killing myself” is very harsh. The words necessary to convey the absolute despair a person must feel to turn to suicide do not exist. Moreover, suicide is the only hope in that situation. How can we possibly have an honest discussion about ending our lives if one’s only hope is equated to murder?

Not only do we, as humans, not have the words to talk about suicide, we cannot physically hear it. Understanding language is actually very complex. But, in layman’s terms, the brain has a large collection of words. It picks the one that most closely matches the sounds it hears and the context in which is hears it. This is why sometimes you mishear a word. Your brain couldn’t match the sounds exactly, so rather than sounding garbled, you hear a different word instead. Your brain picks words based on all sorts of criteria including your location, previous words in the conversation, and your knowledge of the speaker.

Now, again, the brain is hardwired for survival. So when listening to conversation it is much less likely, in general, to hear things about suicide. It substitutes other words instead. Words that seem to make more sense.

That’s just physically hearing, now let’s examine interpretation. One’s interpretation of a sentence or conversation is very subjective. The phrase “I made her duck” can refer to several different things. (1) “I made her duck her head” (2) “I made waterfowl for her” or (3) “I made the waterfowl that belonged to her.” How you interpret this sentence is based on your personal life experience. When it comes to suicide, there are two entirely different world views in a conversation. One, the person who is suicidal, is so shifted and different from the other, the “normal” person, that it is it unrecognizable to them. If you have never seriously considered suicide, take a moment now to try to imagine the entire basis of your life, living, being reversed. Living is a bad thing, undesirable. It’s difficult. So when a person who is suicidal says something it is likely to be misunderstood and twisted to fit the other person’s world view.

To summarize, when it comes to talking about suicide the suicidal person must first use a language that was never meant to talk about suicide. Then, they have to get past the other person’s physical barriers to hearing those words. Finally, they have to overcome completely opposite world views and find a way to be understood. Without even worrying about the emotional ramifications of talking about suicide, we’ve established that suicide is one of the most difficult topics physically possible to discuss. As a society we cannot hope to lower suicide rates until we find a way to overcome this essential barrier.  So, “Why didn’t you say something?” “I tried.”