Common misconceptions and myths about suicide
Last week, we started the discourse with steps to prevent suicide – at individual levels, community/religious, as well as the media. Suicide is often as a result of unbearable emotional pain and anguish, coupled with loneliness and a lack of attachment to other human beings – even when they appear to go through the motions at work and at home. In reality, they are weighed down by negative thoughts about how worthless their life truly is, and how useless they were, and how their family and the world will be better off without them. This week, we discuss some myths about suicide.
Myth 1: Suicide and indeed, depression, is a problem for those who do not have faith in God. If they had strong faith, this would never happen to them.
Response: There are several problems with this myth. First, it places the burden of guilt on the individual for being depressed or suicidal. It also reinforces their feeling of not being worthy or useful. Second, it causes them to feel shame and embarrassment and would make them less likely to come forward to explain what they are going through; and to seek help. Third, if it is deemed to be a lack of spiritual strength and an attack from the devil, then the solution will be sought from spiritual places of worship, rather than from hospitals. Lastly, it is wrong because depression (and suicidal thoughts emanating therefrom in some instances) is a medical condition that can affect anyone including men of God/clergy. It is not a barometer for measuring the strength of anyone’s faith. It is very unhelpful to make people feel bad and further blame themselves for an illness they have no control over – thereby preventing them from seeking treatment and help. It should be noted however, that for some people, their faith in God and support from their religious community may be protective and help them pull from the brink. But it is not a one-size-fits-all and there will be genuinely religious and faithful persons who may still suffer from depression and suicidal ideas.
Myth 2: Only those who are mentally sick or stupid commit suicide.
Response: This is far from true. Indeed, the majority may have a pre-existing history of mental illness such as depression; but in several instances, it is an impulsive reaction to sudden psycho-social stressors such as public humiliation, financial loss, or relationship difficulties. Teenagers for example, may fail an examination and become so devastated that they become suicidal – and some may act on the impulse without further ado. In some cultures, it is also seen as a dignified way out of a shameful situation, and examples also abound even in our local culture. The legend of Sango, the Yoruba god of Thunder purportedly committed suicide. And in Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, Okonkwo eventually committed suicide after encountering failure on all sides. Thus, the concept is not altogether alien to our culture.
Myth 3: It is a very selfish act
Response: Indeed, the pattern of thinking errors which leads to suicide is such that the individual moves from thinking ‘I am simply not good enough’, to ‘my life has no meaning or focus’, to such intense emotional pain/loneliness and utter misery – that thoughts of ‘sleeping and never waking up again, so that the pain will just stop’ becomes an attractive option. But even more importantly, it is often accompanied by other thoughts such as ‘the world/my family/spouse/children/parents will be better off without me’; ‘they will be spared the shame of my continuously embarrassing them’ etc. Thus, it is not about selfishness but an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, despair, loss of control, inability to cope and thoughts that they are actually doing the world and their loved ones a favour.
Myth 4: Talking about suicide will give people ideas about it
Response: No, the facts show that talking openly about suicidal thoughts, allows people struggling with these types of thoughts to ventilate and share their pain, so they can alert their loved ones about how they are truly feeling and seek professional help/interventions. However, media (traditional and social media) reporting should be guided by responsible conduct. We should consider the feelings of the family, friends and colleagues of persons involved, when making public comments in such instances. Emphasis of discussions should be on prevention, early recognition and what we can all do to support each other.
Myth 5: People who are suicidal cannot be stopped.
Response: The vast majority of those with suicidal thoughts are simply in pain which they want to escape from. They do not truly want to die, but to escape from the pain. If identified, therapy can help to relieve the pain, eliminate the source of the pain, and thereby give such persons renewed cause for living.