13 Misconceptions about Suicide
People with substance use disorders are six times more likely than nonusers to commit suicide—and one in three suicides involve someone who was “high.” With or without addiction connections, the suicide issue has had considerable attention lately, thanks to the novel-turned-Netflix-series 13 Reasons Why. In 13 Reasons, a teenager commits suicide and takes posthumous revenge on those she blames for driving her to it, by leaving them a box of cassette tapes detailing her grievances.
Without taking sides in the controversy surrounding that film, I’ve borrowed its title number to explore 13 misconceptions about suicide.
Misconception #1: Those who threaten to commit suicide are low risks for actually doing it.
This idea is very dangerous, having led many people to brush off suicide threats that later became reality. Threatening to kill oneself actually indicates someone is in an extremely high-risk bracket.
Misconception #2: Most suicides are committed on pure impulse and can’t be seen coming.
Although too often recognized after the fact, behavior indicating plans to “stop living” precedes eight out of ten suicides. These indicators may include active threats, as noted above: or they may take more subtle forms such as updating wills or withdrawing from longtime activities. The reddest flag of all is an actual suicide attempt: never dismiss this as “just looking for attention.”
Misconception #3: A person who doesn’t seem depressed can’t be a suicide risk.
While over half of people who commit suicide do suffer from clinical depression, there are “high-functioning depressives” just as there are high-functioning alcoholics. Never ignore indications of suicidal thoughts just because someone doesn’t spend his or her days brooding behind closed doors.
Misconception #4: If a depressed person cheers up, the risk has passed.
Actually, apparent cheering up after a long black mood can be a sign of imminent danger. In a high percentage of suicide cases, it means someone has made up their mind to die and is feeling relieved that a hard decision is finally settled.
Misconception #5: A person who has everything to live for would never consider suicide.
What an outside observer sees as “everything to live for,” may feel from inside like the torture of impossible, never-ending pressure. In fact, the stress of keeping up appearances is a factor in many suicides.
Misconception #6: Some life circumstances make suicide inevitable.
When someone commits suicide after “hitting bottom,” many people shrug and say, “What could you expect?” without considering how many others have endured similar circumstances and survived. In any case, suicide—or evidence of suicide risk—should never be treated flippantly.
Misconception #7: People who commit suicide must be “crazy.”
There’s a grain of truth in this one: 90 percent of people who commit suicide have mental illness. However, few are “crazy” in the psychotic sense commonly associated with the word. As noted above, clinical depression is a much more likely factor.
Misconception #8: Suicide is an act of selfishness.
After a suicide, a common reaction among survivors is “How could he do this to us?” Some people do commit suicide to spite others. However, others genuinely believe they’ve become a “burden” and the best they can do for their loved ones is to remove that burden permanently.
Misconception #9: Most suicides happen during the winter holidays.
This is a very common belief, probably because many cases of depression intensify in winter—and depression is more noticeable by contrast during times of celebration. However, official data consistently indicate suicide rates are highest in spring.
Misconception #10: The majority of people who commit suicide come from minority backgrounds.
Although it seems logical that people from traditionally oppressed groups would be more susceptible, the highest percentages of suicide in the U.S. are among white people.
Misconception #11: Suicide runs in families.
Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Never base your assessment of anyone’s risk on what others in their family have or haven’t done.
Misconception #12: It’s dangerous to ask someone if they’re considering suicide.
It’s more dangerous not to. You won’t “give them ideas” they didn’t already have, and you may save their life by bringing the subject into the open.
Misconception #13: It doesn’t do any good to try to talk someone out of suicide.
This is only true if you take the unhelpful approach: nagging about all they have to live for, telling them not to be selfish. Much better: let them know you’re concerned, listen to them empathetically and assure them you’ll be there for them. If at all possible, convince them to call for professional help on the spot, and stay with them until that help arrives.
If you have any reason to suspect a friend is suicidal, don’t worry about feeling silly if nothing’s wrong. Consider how you’ll feel if the worst happens and you’re left knowing you might have acted.