Suicide as a result of depression is a topic I have subtly written more about in the past. This time I specifically want to cover the question whether the act of committing suicide can be deemed good or bad. Have people a right to commit suicide, and how far may relatives go to prevent one from committing suicide? Lately I have been discussing the morality of suicide with a few different people which yielded an interesting viewpoint I want to write some more about.
I have grown up in a family where things could either be good, or things could be bad. Since then I figured out things are not black, nor white, but the whole world consists of many shades of gray. Usually there is no good or bad, but an "it depends", based on the circumstance. Of course there are a few moral values everyone tends to agree upon such as "thou shall not kill", but alongside those strong moral values is an ever bigger gray area where it is impossible to determine whether something is good or bad.
Suicide has become my go-to topic to explain absolute minded people why there are many shades of gray. In part as I have gained insight into the underlying mechanisms which cause someone to commit suicide, as well because it's a topic about which many people think in an absolutist way; "do not commit suicide" and therefore "suicide is bad". This is also the point of view historically fostered by christianity, which may be one reason why that point of view continues to be so incredibly persistent.
Traditional views on suicide
There are some common arguments against suicide:
- It's against scripture; "thou shall not kill" also applies to oneself. Besides that, suicide has been regarded as one of the deadly sins which will land you in hell.
- "But we will miss you when you're gone"
Continuing further in this post I will try to paint an image with which I will erase the legitimacy of both statements at once. But first I'll cover a bit of the background of depression, and suicide alike.
The common conception however is that suicide is bad. In a recent discussion it dawned upon me that it is unreasonable to label suicide as either good or bad. It's simply the wrong terminology. It's easier to discuss whether suicide is justified or not, whether its a solution or whether there are better ways and so on. Doing so will automatically result in a discussion with a lot more nuance than possibly when just talking about 'good' or 'bad'.
A depression is not something you'll dive into head first. Contrary, it's something which creeps up slowly but surely, and unless acknowledged, it's there to stay.
A quick survey such as the (PHQ-9 (Personal Health Questionnaire, 9 questions)) may help to quickly give an indication of the severity of a depression.
At first sight the specific reasons for depression seem to differ from person to person. From my experience however it seems as if a common denominator can be found in dysfunctional family dynamics. Whether it is about neglect, abuse or other forms of physical or mental harm. Most of the people with depression I have met and spoke with seem to have experienced some kind of harm which started to influence their day to day lives. As Alice Miller put it; “People are free from depression when their feeling of self worth is derived from the truth of their own feelings, and not on the possession of certain qualities”. The truthfulness of ones feelings is one of the first things to be questioned when in harms way. It's only a natural self preservation mechanism.
When unacknowledged and not properly dealt with a depression will only grow stronger. Getting out of a depression is not a choice between staying in a depression or getting better, but between breaking or dying. When one is incapable of intervening themselves in their depression the only natural endpoint is death.
Freedom in death?
A few days ago I found this question on Reddit; "Why do we try to stop people who want to end their lives?". I took some time to type out an comment elaborating my point of view without diving into the morality of suicide itself. I will repeat the key takeaways here;
Personally I regard the aim to stop a relative from committing suicide selfish. It's not about the person willing to commit suicide, but about the feeling of said relative as captured in their words; "I do not want you to die". You'd hurt their feelings by committing suicide. Ironically it is this selfish behaviour which may as well be the root cause that there is someone fostering the wish to die.
Freedom in life?
Imagine you're living a life in which you are not allowed to express yourself, you're being emotionally neglected while at the same time people around you impose certain expectations upon you. You're not free to be, let alone be yourself. You're not living your own life, but rather the lives of the people around you.
The situation sketched above can be considered a generic source of depression which may vary in amount and intensity. The result is just the same; freedom in life is only an illusion.
Lack of sovereignty
I think it is fair to say that if there is no freedom in life, there will be no freedom in death. On the other hand I believe that if there is freedom to live, one does not need to worry about freedom of death because the whole issue of depression would be averted.
However, because there is no freedom in living your own life, it's not their own life one is getting rid of when committing suicide, but rather the lives of people around them. In this light "but we will miss you" is one of the most egocentric things one can say. It's not the one committing suicide they'll miss, but part of themselves which is being killed off by the one committing suicide.
The saddest part is that they do not even know who really exists beneath the depression and facade required by them. They aren't really interested in it anyway, as long as they have something of themselves in the person battling depression they can admire. It's one of the nasty implications of a form of systematic narcissism found in many dysfunctional families.
Who's to blame then?
Even though someone commits the act of suicide on themselves, I don't think this act can attributed to themselves. Before someone seriously considers suicide they have been through such an incredible amount of mental torture that it would be fair to conclude they cannot be held accountable to their own actions. Suicide is an act of final desperation. It's the bottom. Once you're there there's not even the tiniest bit of hope left.
Contrary I think that relatives are more to blame for a suicide than the person who committed. After all, if they wouldn't have driven someone into desperation they might as well still be alive. This is probably an unpopular opinion to many, because still the person who committed suicide is the one who decided upon committing suicide. This is a totally unreasonable point of view, if only when accounting for the power imbalance between the single person getting miserably depressed versus a system of people fuelling this depression.
On a positive note
In order to end this post on a somewhat positive note I want to give some practical advice on how to deal with suicidal people;
- Don't make it about you
- Don't really try to explicitly talk them out of committing suicide
- Just talk about their life
- Don't be afraid to ask questions
- Try to genuinely listen to these people
If you're taking some time to sit down with these people and just talk about life you might uncover a tragic and untold story. Feel free to ask directed questions about their life and you may start to understand where their wish to die came from. You might even be the first one ever to genuinely show interest in their lives...