Suicide Leaves Behind Nothing, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 6 2015 @ 4:00pm

A reader merges the Leelah Alcorn thread with another popular one:

You’re no doubt unsurprised that I disagree with your reader who characterized Leelah’s suicide as “the worst and most selfish way to get satisfaction.” I can imagine far worse and more selfish ways of receiving satisfaction over grievances. In fact, I don’t have to imagine them, because we’ve seen them at Sandy Hook and earlier this month in Arlington, Texas, when Veronica Dunnachie killed her estranged husband and his daughter. Leelah didn’t shoot up her church or kill her parents – two choices that would have been far worse and more selfish than stepping in front of a truck.

I’m doing more than just objecting to the hyperbole. This loops us back to your “Suicide Leaves Nothing Behind” thread. People who have calmly, rationally decided that death is their best option should have better, more dignified, less violent options. They shouldn’t be forced to put loved ones at legal risk or involve anonymous third parties like that truck driver.

And, yes, it should include counseling, and in the case of minors, consent from either parents or a judge. But if at the end of the counseling the person is still resolved to die, they should have a painless dignified option of doing so on their own timetable. Martin Manley should have a more dignified exit available to him than a bullet to the head in a parking lot, and teens like Leelah should have a place to go to get the support she needs to make a better choice that won’t start by calling her decision to die awful and selfish.

An expert weighs in:

As a psychotherapist, I’d like to push back a bit on the notion expressed by some readers that Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, or that suicide in general, is selfish.

Or that it’s in any way an extension of the “typical” “selfish” behavior of teenagers. I think selfishness is not a helpful adjective to use in this conversation. Suicide is the last, most desperate act of person who is suffering beyond what most of us can imagine. Suicide is no more selfish than having major depression or a terminal illness plus chronic pain is selfish.

And it is developmentally normal for teens and young adults to be somewhat more self-focused than middle-aged or older adults. There is nothing useful to be gained by labeling teens as selfish with the moral sanctimony that conveys.

My reading of the data is that suicide is less common among adolescents than older age groups, which would suggest that it’s misguided to associate the normal increased self-focus of teens with the act of suicide, speaking at the level of trends. At the level of the individual, increased sensitivity to self-image in a teen may be one additional risk factor for those who are already struggling with depression and lack of social support. But the idea that teen behavior is “selfish” and teen suicide an example of this “selfishness” is a terrible and inaccurate notion to perpetuate.

Suicide represents a systemic failure, not an individual failure. It often reveals a lack of adequate family and social support of the individual who is suffering, and often also a lack of access to adequate healthcare and counseling. Suicide is a collective failure that manifests in an individual’s actions. Which isn’t to say that individuals have no responsibility to get help; we all have choices. Of course some of us have more choices than others because of economic of social privilege.

Talk of suicide always makes me think of both David Foster Wallace and a close friend of mine, also a writer, who committed suicide around the same time. Both of these individuals were well into adulthood when they killed themselves and had struggled with depression for many years. They pursued multiple, invasive, and costly treatments, were hospitalized, did talk therapy, and as far as I can tell worked hard to love and be loved in their daily lives. They were people with significant economic resources to avail themselves of all these treatments and with substantial social supports. And yet, after many years of steady, hard work to recover from their depressions, they both took their lives.

If DFW and my friend had been diabetes patients, we would say they did all the right things to safeguard their health, and the illness still took them. If they had been cancer patients, we would have praised them for fighting courageously against their disease before succumbing to it. We would never think to call them selfish. It continues to astonish me how much stigma we still tolerate being assigned to serious and devastating mental health issues.