Because suicide can be a triggering topic, I’d like to take the opportunity to add a warning to my introduction. Please be advised that this article will discuss suicide and the views for and against suicide being a selfish act, even though I personally don’t believe suicide to be a selfish act. The reason I’m writing this article is because a client of mine lost someone to suicide, and one of the things they’re struggling with is how people refer to it as a selfish act. Thus, I wanted to explore this idea and hopefully create a safe space to discuss this with my readers.
What Is A Selfish Act
Ok, so I figured I’d start this discussion by first defining what a selfish act is, which in itself might be problematic for such a topic. But here I go anyway. Merriam-Webster defines being selfish as being excessively or exclusively concerned with oneself, with a selfish act being someone who seeks an advantage or pleasure without regard for others.
I can certainly see how a basic definition of ‘selfish’ could lead people to see suicide as a selfish act. But when you expand on it, what advantage or pleasure would someone get from ending the suffering they feel they can’t escape from by any other means?
Reasons Why People View Suicide As A Selfish Act
There are a few reasons why some people view suicide as a selfish act, though this perspective often lacks nuance and can be harmful. Nevertheless, people do still hold this view and the following are some of the explanations as to why people do.
There is a tendency for people to focus on how suicide impacts others. As such, some people see suicide as a selfish act of abandonment of their loved ones. Furthermore, because of the differences between cultures, such as Western culture emphasising individualism, self-determination, and personal responsibility, suicide may be seen as a choice that prioritizes one’s own suffering over the potential impact on others to cultures that don’t share the same values.
Religious or moral beliefs
As someone who was raised in the Christian faith, although very much an atheist today, I know how religious beliefs can cause some people to have a harsh view of suicide. In Christianity, it’s considered the ultimate sin. Thus, there will be people who believe suicide violates moral or religious principles about preserving life (Stack and Kposowa, 2011), seeing suicide as an unjustifiable and unforgivable act. My mum is one of those people.
Many think suicidal individuals are acting impulsively without thinking it through.
They may view it as a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Thus, people might assume that individuals who die by suicide could have sought help or found other solutions.
Some subscribe to the belief that willpower should be enough to overcome suicidal thoughts.
They believe suicide reflects weakness or deficient coping skills.
Social norms and stigma
Many societies stigmatize mental health issues and suicide, leading to a lack of understanding and empathy. People may view suicide as selfish because they don’t comprehend the intense emotional pain that often drives individuals to consider it.
Loved ones who remain after a suicide often experience profound grief and guilt. Some may label suicide as a selfish act as a way to cope with their own feelings of loss and helplessness.
Reasons Why Suicide Isn’t A Selfish Act
It is important to remember that suicide is not a selfish act. It is a complex issue with many contributing factors. If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help.
To highlight the scope of the problem, there were nearly twice as many suicides (45,979) in the US as there were murders (24,576; National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.). And this is the US, where there seems to be a mass shooting every other week. And of those suicides, Arsenault-Lapierre, Kim, and Turecki (2004) claim that 90% are related to mental disorders
The view that it is a “permanent solution to a temporary problem” only offers a skin-deep take on a much more complex issue. For many suicidal people, they have chronic issues and mental health conditions that persist (Arsenault-Lapierre, Kim, and Turecki, 2004), from which they feel they may never get better. That’s not to say suicide is thus the logical answer in such situations, because it’s not, but people aren’t logical. This is why therapy exists to help people avoid feeling like this or to help bring them back from feeling like this.
For me, my suicidal thoughts started before I was eight, resulted in my first suicide attempt at eight, and has been with me ever since. But, the worst of it is behind me, with my desire to action my suicidal thoughts on a regular basis ending when I was about 22. So for me, it never felt like a temporary problem, it’s a problem that’s taken up a sizable amount of my life. And when I was 22, it had been more than half my life.
Although there is a belief that acts of suicide are impulsive, that’s not entirely true. According to Dombrovski et al. (2011), they state that although some suicide attempts can be impulsive, fatal suicides are often planned with a lot of forethought.
What some people fail to understand is that it’s not just about the people left behind when someone takes their life, but what it’s like for the person who decided to take such actions. Yes, it’s sad for the people who lose their loved ones in such a way, but it’s also extremely sad that these people felt this was their only option. Understanding how this came to be the situation they found themselves in is what we all need to better understand so we can help people avoid such desperate decisions.
Although some people think suicide is a selfish act because it leaves behind loved ones who have to live with the loss. It is important to remember that suicide is a complex issue with many contributing factors, including mental illness and trauma.
People who are suicidal are often in a great deal of pain and feel hopeless about their situation. They may not be able to see how their death would impact their loved ones in the short or long term because their pain and hopelessness are so all-consuming. It certainly never crossed my mind how it would affect others leading up to my attempts, during my attempts, or afterwards.
Suicidal people often endure overwhelming emotional pain, despair, hopelessness, and a sense of isolation. Their decision is driven by a desperate desire to escape this suffering rather than a desire to harm others. A warning sign of this can often be substance dependency, as people try to escape from trauma and the thoughts that haunt them.
In my personal experience, so I don’t know if this is supported by research, suicide often has a component of not wanting to be a burden to others or society. Making it the very opposite of a selfish act. This is why helping people to realise they’re not a burden, especially when their mental health is poor, is important. Something I often have to help my clients see, that they’re not a burden or wasting my time as a therapist, as such beliefs are very ubiquitous.
It is common for people who are thinking about taking their life to truly believe their loved ones would be better off without them. From their distorted perspective, they are lessening the burden on others. The realisation alone, that they’re not a burden, can be very uplifting for people struggling with their mental health, and it makes it much easier for them to not only accept support but ask for support as well.
When you blame an act of suicide on a lack of willpower, you’re also suggesting that the person just wasn’t trying hard enough. It could also be argued that such views suggest that people who commit suicide because of a lack of willpower have flaws in their character. The belief that willpower is enough to overcome suicidal thoughts is extremely harmful. Willpower is a fickle beast at the best of times.
Image you feel like you’ve lost all hope and there’s no reason for you to remain alive, how likely do you think willpower will be enough to pull you through? Now imagine that you’re bombarded with suicidal thoughts day in and day out, and are struggling with poor mental health as well. Living with daily suicidal thoughts and still managing to keep going, that’s strength. But everyone has their limits. When it comes to torture, it’s not a matter of if someone will talk or give up, but when. And it’s not just suicide where this is harmful, it’s also harmful when it comes to people overcoming addiction and conditions like eating disorders.
Because of the persisting stigma around mental health and suicide, it can prevent some people from seeking help. Fear of being judged as weak or immoral can compound feelings of isolation, negatively affecting their mental health.
There is also an argument that suicidal people may feel a profound lack of control over their thoughts and emotions. Meaning they may perceive suicide as the only way to regain some semblance of control over their lives. Living with relentlessly negative intrusive thoughts and negative feelings can be exhausting. We can’t hide from our minds. This can often be an important factor when it comes to certain mental health conditions, such as conditions that cause psychosis.
It’s important to remember that in cases where poor mental health is involved, distorted thinking can be a factor. It’s common for thinking errors to develop which can compound poor mental health, and lead to distorted and clouded judgment.
In most cases, suicide is the tragic result of untreated suffering, irrational thinking, lack of resources, and feeling like a burden – not selfishness. Compassion, rather than judgment, is needed to prevent these deaths.
The perception that suicide is a selfish act is a complex and sensitive issue influenced by various societal, cultural, and psychological factors. Assumptions about selfishness and moral failings largely stem from misconceptions about the complex reasons behind suicide. A non-judgmental, compassionate view toward those struggling with suicidality is needed.
Because of this, it’s mainly down to a lack of awareness about mental health issues and the complexities of suicidal thoughts can contribute to this perception. One part we can do as a society is learn to see what suicide is for the person who’s feeling that way because it’ll help create more safe spaces for such people to reach out. Being told that what they can’t help thinking about and feel is them being selfish will stop people from looking for support.
It’s essential to recognise that these perceptions do not capture the full complexity of suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Mental health professionals and researchers emphasise the importance of empathy, compassion, and understanding when discussing suicide, as it is a deeply distressing and complex issue that often stems from overwhelming emotional pain and despair. Promoting mental health awareness, reducing stigma, and providing support to individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts are crucial steps in addressing this issue.
Remember, just because someone holds a review that suicide is a selfish act, likely comes from a lack of understanding of the complex nature of suicide. It runs counter to the overriding will to live that we all have, which makes it hard for people to grasp. It is important to approach discussions about suicide with empathy, compassion, and a non-judgmental attitude. So please, try to engage people with these views with empathy and kindness, rather than anger, should you feel you should engage them on this topic. Kindness is always the answer.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with suicide and your thoughts on whether it’s selfish or not in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Arsenault-Lapierre, G., Kim, C. & Turecki, G. (2004). Psychiatric diagnoses in 3275 suicides: a meta-analysis. BMC Psychiatry 4, 37. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-244X-4-37 and https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-4-37.
Dombrovski, A. Y., Szanto, K., Siegle, G. J., Wallace, M. L., Forman, S. D., Sahakian, B., Reynolds, C. F., 3rd, & Clark, L. (2011). Lethal forethought: delayed reward discounting differentiates high- and low-lethality suicide attempts in old age. Biological psychiatry, 70(2), 138–144. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.12.025 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3125431.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (n.d.). Suicide. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.
Stack, S., & Kposowa, A. J. (2011). Religion and suicide acceptability: A cross‐national analysis. Journal for the scientific study of religion, 50(2), 289-306. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21969937, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51691590_Religion_and_Suicide_Acceptability_A_Cross-National_Analysis, and https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01568.x.