Inappropriate Responses or Attitudes Towards Suicide Victims
TLDR = A summary of sorts of what follows below:
It’s the oddest thing: people who write editorials about people who have suicidal thoughts or about people who died from suicide claim to find suicide sad or upsetting, and they claim to have compassion for those with suicidal ideation, but they go on in their articles to insult and demean those very same people by calling them selfish, cowards, or what have you.
When a famous person kills him or herself, it’s common for commentators to rush out of the wood work to shame, scold, or criticize the person and offer up all manner of horrid advice on how said suicide could’ve been averted.
Some conservative commentators have moronically claimed that culture has “romanticized” suicide, or made it appear sexy or glamorous, and these writers conclude that this supposed romanticization is one thing contributing to the increase in suicide rates.
For many years, I had clinical depression and anxiety, both generalized and social anxiety, with a panic attack here or there. I was diagnosed by psychiatrists when younger. I also had suicidal thoughts off and on, and sometimes still do.
Aspects of conservative Christianity, such gender complementarianism, worsened my mental health. My parents believed in complementarianism and would make me attend churches that also promoted it. When I finally rejected complementarianism, much of my mental health improved, though I’m still not completely out of the woods.
As someone who used to, and occasionally still, has suicidal ideation, I can tell you from first hand experience what works and what does not work when talking to someone who struggles with this, or when discussing the subject in general terms.
I can tell you how the rhetoric comes across to someone who actually deals with this.
To put it yet another way, since I’ve had recurring thoughts of suicide since my teen years, I think I’m in a pretty good place to criticize some of the responses I’ve seen in years past to the suicides of actor Robin Williams, chef Anthony Bourdain, and fashion designer Kate Spade. And many of the responses I’ve seen have been terrible.
I’ve not saved or bookmarked each and every repulsive editorial I’ve seen about this. In the last several years, whenever someone famous killed themselves, I would see, within hours or days, commentary by Christians and conservative writers about the matter.
Here is an example or two of the horrible ones.
A few years ago, actor Robin Williams killed himself. Conservative Christian Matt Walsh wrote this insidious piece of garbage, where he essentially shamed Robin Williams and showed he has no idea how to truly and effectively help someone who is suicidal:
Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice – by Matt Walsh – via “do not link it”
Here’s another, similar, tone deaf, insensitive editorial by a conservative, Bill McMorris, at the Federalist site:
Here’s a well-meaning, yet erroneous, essay about suicide on conservative site The Federalist by Caroline D’Agati:
Christian television host Pat Robertson weighed in:
Such articles – or television clips – were entirely tone deaf and aren’t going to be effective at helping or reaching those who have suicidal ideation.
The general response by such writers, especially secular conservatives and conservative Christians, is to criticize and shame the victim.
Upon skimming one of the rebuttals to Walsh, I found this:
The responses to Williams’  suicide cover all ends of the spectrum. The Academy of Motion Pictures tweeted a picture of the genie from Aladdin (voiced by Williams) with three simple words: “Genie, you’re free.” On the other side, Shepard Smith of Fox News referred to Williams as “such a coward.” Are we celebrating or chastising?
So, occasionally even secular sources – as is the case of Fox cable’s Smith mentioned above – also give inappropriate responses.
Many of these commentators assume that if only the victim had been a Christian in the first place, or had been a more pious, devoted Christian, that they would have had wonderful mental health, or found a reason to hold on and hang in there, rather than take their own lives.
I was a devout Christian for many years. Lately, I’m not sure where I stand religion-wise.
However, I can tell you during all my 35- plus years as a very devout Christian, who accepted Jesus as her Savior as a child, who went to church and read the Bible regularly and so on, that none of that faith or Christian spirituality eased my mental pain.
Believing in Jesus, having a relationship with Jesus, doing good deeds for other people, reading a Bible regularly, and praying to Jesus did not make the anxiety and depression go away, or even make any of that easier to tolerate, nor did it halt the occasional desire to make the psychological pain stop by taking an overdose, hanging myself, or what have you.
If you consider yourself a very firm believer in Jesus Christ, I implore you to really grasp and take to heart that belief in Jesus, having a relationship with Jesus, being a Christian, however you wish to phrase it, is not enough. It’s not enough to make pain go away.
It’s not enough to erase anxiety attacks, depression, bipolar disorder, and other struggles. It’s not enough for many people to add meaning to life, so much meaning and purpose it gives them a hope to hold on. For some it may, but not for all.
Suicidal ideation is not a spiritual issue. It cannot be cured or treated via spiritual methods.
Jesus is not a solution for mental health issues. Christianity is not the solution for mental health issues.
All of that is not to say that Christians cannot help in some ways. If you are a Christian, and you know of a friend who has suicidal thoughts, or who suffers from depression, there are ways you can offer practical support, such as, but not limited to, setting up psychologist or psychiatrist visits for the person, driving them to their appointment, offering to pick up their anti-depressants from the pharmacy if they’re too much in a funk to do so, and so on.
Yet some Christian preachers, who I’ve seen on television, try to persuade the suicidal Christian by shaming them out of it, by telling them to realize if they kill themselves, it will send a “wrong” message to others, especially atheists, that ‘Christianity did not work for you, so I guess it won’t work for me, either.’
I was, and remain, appalled at Christians such as that preacher for using that tactic.
It’s wrong on so many levels, it’s difficult to know where to begin addressing it.
I’ve seen so many blog posts and news articles where Christian women say that when they told their pastor they were being abused by their husbands, that their pastors forbid them to divorce.
And the same rationale is used: protect the Gospel, protect the image of Christianity and the church, at the expense of the wounded.
The pastors told these women that if you return and stay with your abuser, he might “be saved,” and just think, if you divorce him or report him to police, they tell these abused women, this may persuade any of those police officers or judges you stand before to reject Christ.
I find it repugnant that regardless of the topic – domestic violence, child sex abuse cover-ups in churches, or in discussing suicide – that the average conservative Christian or evangelical is more concerned over the reputation of Jesus Christ, the Gospel, their particular church, or their pet doctrine, than they are in the health or well-being of people who are suffering.
That some Christians are more concerned that some atheist may view my suicide – should I take my own life – as another rationale to reject God and the Gospel than they are in showing me empathy over struggling with this is infuriating and insensitive. And it sure does not give me incentive to hold on.
To quote, on a related aspect, from another blog:
In a post titled What Would Jesus Say to Robin Williams, Jim Denison, a Southern Baptist preacher turned social commentator, took the opportunity to turn the suicide of Williams into a gospel message.
That’s the Evangelical MO. Death and funerals are never about the person who died, it’s all about putting in a word for Jesus.
F_ck the dead person, Jesus is all that matters.
Yes, that exactly. People do not matter. The pain and suffering people endure does not matter, not to evangelicals and other sorts of Christians who are more interested in acting as “Sales Person for the Gospel” or “Defense Attorney for Jesus” than in helping people who could use some help in the here and now.
Everything is about selling the Gospel with so many Christians.
However, the Gospel is not, not, not, not a cure-all for depression, suicide, sore throats, cavities in teeth, or broken arms or broken hearts.
Yet many Christians seem vested in advocating that Christianity is in fact all those things, perhaps because they believe that if their faith cannot fix all pains and disappointments in life, that it is bogus, or it is one aspect that can serve to disprove God’s existence.
I think many Christians use the Christian faith and the Bible in many ways that the Judeo-Christian God never intended.
I cannot wrap my mind around people – usually again, commentators, news casters, or Christians – who feel it’s acceptable to refer to a suicide victim in derogatory terms such as “selfish” or “coward.”
Here I am, someone who’s dealt with this (along with the depression and anxiety) for many years, seeing a total lack of empathy and compassion by these critics for someone (such as Bourdain, Williams, or Spade) who was in the same position I am still in. Only difference is, I’m still alive, kicking, and here to write a blog post to tell you all what ignorant and insensitive ass-waffles you are.
As for appeals to “think of how you’ll make your loved ones feel if you take your life” or “think of how your self inflicted death will impact the Gospel for any of your un-saved friends,” they do not work.
When someone is so low, hurting so badly, the pain is so damn immense, these other considerations do not factor in.
When I’m feeling so bad I want to die, my goal is to make the pain stop. I do not care if my death gives my family a case of the sads or makes atheists think negative things about Christianity.
Don’t put the weight of maintaining a faux, happy exterior of the Christian faith for atheists on the shoulders of a suicidal person – as if they don’t already have enough on their plate to deal with.
I think (just a guess here) that how Christians treat wounded people (such as those dealing with suicidal impulses) makes far more of an impression on atheists than about anything else.
So, if you’re a Christian who wants to appear to be a good ambassador for Jesus (to impress atheists), try treating depressed and suicidal Christians with empathy, not shaming, theology lessons, or judgments.
And personally, in my own situation, the only person who I ever felt loved me, my mother, died years ago.
Given the way the rest of my family behave (they discourage the airing of dirty laundry or talking about feelings), and that they can be verbally abusive towards me, I have to take on faith that they must love me. I don’t know it’s a fact – it at times feels as though they cannot stand me.
With my mother, I knew it was a fact that she loved me, the way I know it’s a fact the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. I didn’t have to take it on faith with Mom.
With the rest of my family, I don’t know it.
I’m sure if I dropped dead next week, whether by suicide or heart attack or car accident, my sister – who has usually been hostile towards me – would probably cry at my funeral and miss me on some level, at least for a few days, but you wouldn’t know it from the way she treats me now.
After my mom died when I was in my late 30s, I tried turning to Christian friends and family members to get through the grief: none of them were there for me. They did not want to be.
In the end, they acted as though my grief was a burden or inconvenience to them. They all acted as though it was something I should handle on my own and not bother them with.
So what makes the Pat Robertsons, Matt Walshes, and others, think if I get into a depressive funk and start thinking about suicide that I have anyone I can turn to?
If my family and Christian acquaintances were no good at helping me during a time of grief, why do some think that they’d be any better or more willing to help me if I’m thinking of deliberately taking the big dirt nap?
Additionally, during the years my clinical depression was at its worst, Christians were not a comfort to me then, either, but came at me with victim blaming or unhelpful bromides.
Even much of the Christian literature I read to seek relief or to learn how to cure the depression and anxiety, (whether printed, or later, online), was victim-blaming or too simplistic.
I was told in person by Christians, or in Christian blogs, forums, and books, that I was in sin for having depression and anxiety, I must not have been truly saved to start with, or, if I was, I must be holding unforgiveness in my heart, or I must be into some kind of sin – some kind of blame was always placed on me for something that was not my fault or even due to a spiritual problem.
I was told – by Christians – that if I wanted to escape depression or anxiety, I just needed to read the Bible more, trust in Jesus, attend church regularly, pick up a new hobby, think of others more than myself… I could go on and on with the list of “stuff to do” I was prescribed by Christians.
I tried it all, and none of it worked.
And when you are depressed (and bordering on suicide too), trying much of anything takes a lot of effort because you feel mentally and sometimes physically fatigued. Doing anything takes a lot of effort, anything so much as getting out of bed and brushing your teeth.
Here are a few portions from a page at the Federalist I linked to above, by Caroline D’Agati, and below each snippet I’ll offer my views:
I think it’s cruel to say suicide is selfish, but I also know this: I’m angry at Anthony [Bourdain] and Kate [Spade]. I’m angry for the sake of their children and their loved ones. But I’m also angry for myself. Like millions around the globe, these people brought joy into my life. I’ll always remember how, when I was unemployed, a friend gave me her Kate Spade bag and it lifted my spirits. I’ll remember that my first purchases for my new iPod in college were episodes of “No Reservations.”
…We loved these people because they helped us see something in the world that brightened the monotony or sadness of our lives.
D’Agati is making Bourdain’s and Spade’s pain and suicides all about her. How amazingly self-absorbed of her. That is almost as bad as Christians who use suicides to spring-board into appeals to the Gospel, to make someone’s pain and death all about Jesus.
D’Agati goes on to argue that the main thing that causes suicide is meaningless.
…As Kate, Anthony, Robin, and so many other entertainers show, even giving joy to others, in the end, is not enough. So in the end, why bother?
And, of course, D’Agiti does offer lip service to the concepts of seeing mental health professionals and taking medications and so on.
However, ultimately, she says the antidote to this is…
… to fix our eyes on another world. The writer C.S. Lewis famously said that, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” If we believe this life is all there is, the darkness will blind us to the majesty and beauty of life.
Suicide is the tragic, but reasonable response to being confronted by life’s reality with no salve of deeper meaning to bandage the wound. This is why a life without God, no matter how grand, will always leave our hearts unfulfilled.
So, belief in God, or existence of a God, or Christianity, is supposed to be a salve for suicidal ideation?
If Christianity could not help me with my depression and anxiety (and it did not), why do so many Christians think it will help with the desire to end one’s life?
Christianity has not been a help to me in dealing with depression, anxiety, or grief. I had to find other ways to cope and press on.
In the overall scheme of writings I’ve seen about suicide after a celebrity does him or herself in, there is a lot of insulting and blaming that goes on, or else, simplistic solutions, or an Emotional Health Gospel is given, such as ‘just believe in God and everything will be fine’ thoughts are tossed around.
How is it compassionate to say that thus and such a person who killed himself is a coward, weakling, failure, or is selfish?
How is it compassionate to insult someone who was hurting so badly that he or she took his or her own life? How ethical or fair is it to insult the dead – those who killed themselves obviously can’t hop back online to send you a tweet or e-mail to tell you to stuff it.
Here I am, having dealt with suicidal ideation for eons now, seeing people who went through with theirs – such as Robin Williams and Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain – now being insulted in the press:
There are people referring to these suicide victims as being “cowardly” or “selfish” or accusing them of “taking the easy way out,” or as basically implying they were deserving of their fate supposedly because they were likely “not saved,” or didn’t believe in God, or didn’t have enough faith.
If you’re not showing compassion for the already-dead – who died from suicide – this causes me to think you have no compassion for me now, while I’m still alive and dealing with this crap.
One of the main differences between myself and Williams, Spade, and Bourdain is, simply, that they went through with it and are dead now, while I did not, and, hence, I’m still alive. But I could be another Williams, Spade, or Bourdain.
So, when you pundits out there insult the deceased for having off’ed themselves, you are insulting me – or anyone else who contemplated suicide – as well.
You’re sure not making me feel valued or loved or giving me a reason to hold on… all you’re doing is conveying that should I hang myself two weeks from now, you will just say nasty things about me after I’m dead too, and assume I didn’t know God or never believed in Jesus.
by Pauline Campos
After celebrity chef and bestselling author Anthony Bourdain died of suicide, his friend [and movie actor] Val Kilmer took to social media to express his opinion on the matter.
In a lengthy Facebook post, Kilmer called Bourdain’s actions “selfish.”
Further elaborating, he wrote, “A spiritual guide once told me suicide is the most selfish act a human can execute and I was confused but she explained there’s just no mental place further away from humanity and purpose than the hypnotized numbness that creates the false picture of despair, that forces the victim, unaware, to believe, life’s legacy is over.”
Kilmer is wrong — suicide is not selfish. I know because I once tried to take my own life.
In saying that suicide is selfish, the assumption is that the suicidal went through with their plans thinking logically, fully aware of how greatly their loss was going to affect those they left behind.
… That’s not how severe depression works. Bourdain did not choose to ignore his doctors’ advice any more than he acted selfishly in his final moments of his life.
I know this because I live with severe depression. I also am a survivor of my own attempt.
I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to make the pain stop. I wanted to take a nice long nap that would magically fix everything while I slept. I rationalized my plan by comparing it to going to sleep for a long time.
….After suffering with chronic depression my entire life, I honestly thought I couldn’t fight anymore.
I thought that no matter what I did, no matter how many times I pulled myself back up from the deepest pits of the mental hell that depression is, no matter how many times I acted out in the hopes that someone, anyone, would sit me down and ask what was really going on without judgment, the depression would always, eventually, return.
Everybody says to reach out, so I did, and was told my continued presence on this earth proved me an attention-seeking liar.
How Not to Respond to a Suicide by Mary Pezzulo
by Mary Pezzulo
“If Anthony Bourdain had been a religious man, would he have killed himself? Probably not, ” alleges Donohue [of the Catholic League], on the same day Boudrain’s body was found dead in a hotel room in France. The man’s body is not yet cold. His many fans are reeling in shock.
Everyone including Donald Trump of all people is expressing grief and sorrow, relating stories about how Bourdain’s life touched theirs, and Donohue begins his remarks by chiding a dead man. Donohue is less tactful than Trump.
Donohue mocks Bourdain’s atheism, then goes on to explain that suicide rates have risen in recent years and decry the CDC for not measuring how religion affects suicide rates yet. He goes on to plug his book, The Catholic Advantage: How Health, Happiness, and Heaven Await the Faithful…
… Being a Christian is not a ticket to good health. Christians suffer like everybody else.
…Sure, miracles can happen through prayer. I have witnessed such things. But barring that, Christians and believers of other types don’t have it easier than atheists or anyone else. Because mental health problems are not spiritual. They’re not sins. …
…The question is, how can the insights provided by our beautiful faith lead us to comfort others in a tragedy?
For more reading, other sites:
1. Don’t say: “Suicide is selfish.”
“Please do not tell someone who is suicidal they are selfish. It’s probably the worst feeling in the world when you are accused of being selfish.” — Mackenzie W.
“I hate when someone tells me I was selfish because I attempted suicide. When we reach that point, we aren’t being selfish — we feel hopeless, we are tired of the pain, we feel worthless [and] we just want it to stop. These feelings can’t be ‘shaken off’ or gotten over as I have been told to do… It isn’t something that just ‘passes.’” — Melissa B.
“Don’t you know I would be devastated if you killed yourself? How could you think of hurting me like that?”
Your loved one already feels awful. Heaping guilt on top of that is not going to help them feel soothed, understood, or welcome to tell you more.
“Suicide is selfish.”
This inspires more guilt. Two points are important here. One, many people who seriously consider suicide actually think they are burdening their family by staying alive. So, in their distressed, perhaps even mentally ill state of mind, they would be helping their loved ones by freeing them of this burden. Two, isn’t it a natural response to excruciating pain to think of escaping the torment? (I write more about this in my post, “Is It Selfish to Die in a Tornado?”)
“Suicide is cowardly.”
This inspires shame. It also does not really make sense. Most people fear death. While I hesitate to call suicide brave or courageous, overcoming the fear of death does not strike me as cowardly, either.
“Other people have problems worse than you and they don’t want to die.”
True, and your loved one may well have already considered this with shame. People who want to die often compare themselves to others and come up wanting. They may even feel defective or broken. Comparing them to others who cope better, or who simply are lucky enough to never have suicidal thoughts, may only worsen their self-condemnation.
U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-TALK (8255)
This post has been edited to fix typing mistkes