What You’re Really Saying When You Say that Suicide is “Selfish”

I’m still thinking about the Chet Hanks suicide thing from last week and the various responses to it that I saw online. Specifically, I cited two comments that referred to suicide as “selfish.”

“Selfish” has to be one of the most common adjectives people think of when thinking about suicide. Those of us who are involved in mental health advocacy could probably rant at you for hours about how this word perpetuates the stigma that mental illness and suicide carry in our society, how useless and counterproductive it is to accuse a suicidal person of being “selfish,” and so on. In fact, if you get nothing else out of this post, I hope you reconsider using that word to describe suicide if you’ve done so before.

But I can understand where this sentiment comes from. While everyone loses loved ones at some point in their lives, relatively few people experience suicidality first-hand. For this reason, people understand the latter situation much less than the former. Faced with the thought that someone you love might kill themselves and put you through all the resulting grief just because of some inner turmoil that you can’t see or understand, it makes sense that you might feel that suicide is selfish.

At the same time, though, conceptualizing suicide as a “selfish act” sends the message that people somehow “owe it” to their loved ones to stay alive despite immense emotional pain. When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.

I don’t mean to discount the grief that people feel when someone they love commits suicide–that’s real, valid, and deserves attention. And, obviously, I believe that people should not commit suicide. But I believe that because I also believe that people can recover from the pain that’s causing them to consider suicide, not because they owe it to others to live.

What all of this comes down to is that most people do not (and perhaps cannot) understand what actually goes through a suicidal person’s mind. Maybe they assume that suicidal people are just sad the way all of us sometimes get sad, except maybe a bit more so. (I honestly don’t know how mentally healthy people think about suicide because I haven’t been one for a while.) It would indeed be rather selfish to put your friends and family through so much pain just because you felt sad one day.

But that’s not how suicide works.

The way I see it, the tragedy of suicide is not (or is not only) the fact that an individual’s suicide also hurts others. Rather, it’s that the individual could have found a way to heal, be happy, and live out the rest of his or her life. Calling suicide a “selfish” thing to do erases that latter tragedy and implies that our primary purpose in life is not to create a meaningful and worthwhile life for ourselves, but to keep our friends and family happy at all costs.

Our first priority should be to convince those who want to take their own lives that those lives are intrinsically valuable and should be preserved for their own sake. Only when they’ve accepted that premise can they even begin to think clearly about their obligations and interactions with other people.

Telling a suicidal person that suicide is “selfish” only reinforces the guilt they already feel. People should choose to live because their lives feel worth living to them, not out of a sense of obligation towards others.

Note: Since this is quite a sensitive topic both for me and probably for many readers, please try to be especially careful with your comments. I reserve the right to delete any comments that I feel may trigger people, even if they’re completely on-topic.

31 thoughts on “What You’re Really Saying When You Say that Suicide is “Selfish”

  1. It is indeed totally absurd and paradoxical to call suicide selfish.
    Thinking of suicide could help us realize that we are in the end totally free and totally alone. Maybe that is the purpose of those thoughts? To liberate us from trying to be what others want us to be? To realize that we can be selfish as much as we want, that we even have the right to die, and that therefore we have the right to live exactly as we want?

  2. “most people do not (and perhaps cannot) understand what actually goes through a suicidal person’s mind”
    Can we just repeat it ad nauseum until everyone gets it?

  3. “When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.”

    Yep. That. Exaclty.

  4. To me, it is not the word selfish that is troubling (and I once had to be hospitalized for severe depression). The real problem is that a lot of people do not think one step further: “I wonder how much pain it would take ME (healthy person) to act in such a selfish way”.

  5. This is so timely for me, thank you! I work at a high school and we were talking about this exact topic on Wednesday. I was trying to convey to my students this exact sentiment and not doing very well. So, thank you!

  6. I think your take on it is interesting, and sensitively written.

    My brother tried to kill himself a few years ago, and it tore everyone in our community apart–not just friends, family, and neighbors. While he was in the hospital, people we’d never met and still don’t know would come by and offer food or comfort, often shedding tears as they walked up. That showed me that there’s a link we have with each other just from being human; I really can’t imagine that anybody could be correct in thinking that “nobody would miss [them].” I think suicidal people simply are unable, for the moment, to accurately judge that question.

    When I went through a period of suicidal thinking last year (not my first,) it was actually thoughts of the above, and the intangible web of people of which I’m a part, that stopped me from jumping off that bridge. I really did think it would be a selfish act, and I didn’t want the last thing I did on this earth to be to give a painful tug to that web, hurting all those other people again so shortly after my brother had.

    But I think your way of thinking about it might be healthier, and will give it some thought. Thanks for writing this, and I hope it helps other people who are in the depths or have been there.

    • “simply are unable” should be “sometimes are simply unable”, or else my post contradicts itself. 😦

    • Thank you for commenting and sharing all of that. I’m glad both you and your brother are still here. 🙂

      The thought of my family is what once stopped me, too. I don’t think that’s unusual. But I started trying to think about it this way to help cope with the guilt that I still feel over having even had the thought. I think that the spectrum of selfishness vs. selflessness and the spectrum of wanting to die vs. wanting to live are two entirely different spectra, if you know what I mean. It’s impossible to conflate one with the other, as in selfishness = wanting to die and selflessness = wanting to live. The thinking of a suicidal person can’t be reduced to those terms, I believe.

      Thank you for reading.

  7. I’ve always been a proponent of suicide as a method of last resort. If I knew I wouldn’t have access to enough food for an indefinite amount of time, I would probably kill myself rather than endure starvation. If I went deaf, unless I was confident science could restore my hearing in a timely manner, I would kill myself. If I had severe chronic pain, I would probably kill myself. Et cetera.

    But the problem is that people oftentimes kill themselves when their suffering is in fact transitory and treatable. Depression is, except in severe cases, treatable, and thus should not be grounds for suicide.

    • What you’re saying is very true logically, but the problem is that for people with mental illnesses, it doesn’t make sense to say that depression “should not” be grounds for suicide. Of course it shouldn’t be. But to them it doesn’t FEEL like their suffering is either transitory or treatable. Much of the time, they feel certain that it will last forever. What’s important is to get them out of that state rather than claiming that they “should not” be considering suicide.

    • If you went deaf, you would go through a (possibly difficult) period of adjustment, and then your happiness would return to previous levels. You’re losing sensory ability, not enduring great pain. It’s not what typically drives one to suicide. (Also, there may be deaf people reading these posts, and not appreciate their deafness being compared with suicidality).

  8. Been there, almost done that, and I can honestly say that the “selfish” argument irritates me not only because of all the points already presented, but because I had thought it through several times and yet it held almost no weight in my decisions.

    What went through my head then? I had very little hope regarding my future, many times I downright feared it. The thought of having to live that way for perhaps 70+ years more (yeah I crashed into depression pretty much straight out of adolescence) was horrifying. I was luckily in therapy and on medication I thus had small glimmers of hope of my life maybepossiblyperhaps getting better. But if all else failed, I could just… leave. That’s what suicide was for me then – a perfectly valid option. Everyday enough for me to consider the technicalities of it. And having one more option – even if it was the final, irreversible one – gave me strenght.

    I knew I would be missed, but I wasn’t very close to a whole lot of people then, and the possibility of upsetting distant relatives wasn’t on high priority in my reasons not to. I knew that people would grieve, and that they would also keep on living themselves. I was actually more afraid of hurting the feelings of my PETS. They would have no concept of depression and suicide. They would not understand why their owner suddenly disappeared and never came back. So yeah, maybe that’s my introvercy speaking, but the feelings of my cats mattered more in my choice to keep living.

    I’m much healthier nowadays, but still not very good at tolerating suffering. I’m a visual artist, and if I, for example, lost my sight with no hope of it getting repaired, I’m sure suicide would become a valid option once again. It has completely lost its taboo status to me.

    • Thank you for sharing. I think it’s important to consider the fact that some people really don’t have close friends or family, and I can only imagine the harm it would do to tell such people that they’re “selfish” if they want to kill themselves–thus reminding them that they may not have anyone who will miss them.

      That’s why I think it’s especially important to give those who are considering suicide INTERNAL reasons not to do it, rather than external ones like “people will miss you.”

  9. I think people have the right to do what they will, except when they have deliberately brought children into this world when there is such a thing as birth control. Then it’s selfish to kill yourself. In all other cases (including accidental procreation), no. Sometimes life is unbearable. It just is. I’ve been there and have isolated precisely so few would miss me, so I would have the freedom to go or stay. The only thing that’s kept me alive some days is “wait 24 hours”.

    • There are many philosophers who would agree with you on that, such as Pliny and Schopenhauer. The psychiatrist Thomas Szasz would as well.

      I would, however, argue with your supposition that birth control is freely available to everyone who may need it, but that’s a separate issue.

      • Yes. Which is why the caveat of accidental procreation is so important. If anyone is forced to have children when they don’t want them, it isn’t their choice and they cannot be held responsible for any consequences.

  10. Pingback: [storytime] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It’s Like To Consider Suicide | Brute Reason

  11. Years ago, when my son was a toddler, (he’s 30 now) I was suicidal. Traumatic circumstances drove me to attempt suicide, and I believed with everything in me that I was doing what was “best” for everyone around me, especially my son. Looking back, I can see that my mind was a mess due to the trauma I had just been through, but when you’re living such circumstances that you’re overwhelmed by life beyond what you, as an individual can bare, rational thinking is gone.
    It is because I’ve “been there” that I understand people who are suicidal, and I know that you cannot try to approach them through rational communication. Each person is unique, as is every situation. I pray this article get’s a lot of attention. People need to realize what they’re dealing with when suicide is the only option a person sees. A wrong approach can push them over the edge.

  12. I’m glad I found this blog because I was outraged when I heard my aunt, a social worker tell me that suicidal people are selfish. What exactly is selfish about it? If you are harming yourself and yourself only, how is that selfish? Truly their pain is so overwhelming they feel it’s the only way out. Everyday I try to cope with the fact that I confided in my sister that I was feeling suicidal and she literally hung up on me saying “I can’t deal with this” and I haven’t spoken to her in over a year. My family actually defends her behavior. It is honestly been Jesus and Celexa that has gotten me through those tough times.

    • Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. Definitely sounds like a difficult experience. It’s especially disheartening that your aunt is a social worker and still told you that. I’m theoretically starting a social work program this fall; hopefully they would teach us about suicide and how not to respond when someone confesses that they’re feeling suicidal.

  13. There is also another reason suicide is not selfish; The suicidal person may be attempting suicide because they think they are a burden to their family, and they would be much happier without them. Now, have you ever thought of that?

  14. I do think that suicide is a selfish act. While I wouldn’t tell a suicidal person this (because you’re right, it’s not appropriate and focuses on entirely the wrong issue which could just worsen their condition), my personal feelings on the matter don’t change.

    “When you say that suicide is “selfish,” you’re implying–even if you don’t mean to–that the individual’s pain, as well as their potential to improve, isn’t what matters. What matters is how they’ll make the people around them feel.” I will own that. Unless it is physical pain, I don’t think the individual’s pain is what matters. I don’t mean to belittle their pain, I just don’t agree with leaving other people out of the equation. If you don’t think about anyone except for yourself, then it is a selfish act.

    Of course, I don’t think most people who are in that state are only thinking of themselves. If you think that eliminating yourself will make the lives of everyone around you better, then you’re simply being unrealistic.

    That is my opinion on it. I don’t want to come off as cold or unfeeling on the topic. When I say the act is selfish, that isn’t the same saying that they don’t deserve help or that they’re bad people. I have a brother who once attempted suicide via a drug overdosage. He lived, and was fine after a short hospitalization. When I didn’t know how he was going to turn out, I wasn’t thinking of my own sadness, I was thinking about his. I didn’t understand what he could have been thinking that made him do it. I didn’t chastise him for “putting me through grief”, since that would have been selfish on my side. I did know, however, that if he had thought it out or talked it out with us (which he did, after the fact), then he would have realized that if he killed himself, the only person who would have felt better would just be him.

    This stems from my own feelings and why I swore to never kill myself, no matter what. I’m not trying to say that people have an obligation to only please the people around them, just that the other people matter. As long as there is even one person on the planet that would be sad if I left, I couldn’t do it. Even if they were gone, I have to respect their memory and work through it.

    Again, I mean no hostility by calling the act selfish, and I’m careful to call the act selfish, not the person. It isn’t a subject that should ever reasonably be brought up, especially when talking to or about someone who is seriously considering suicide (or attempted it recently).

  15. Having treated suicidal patients over the years as a psychologist, I have been educated by patients as to the extreme “self-absorption” that is characteristic of severe depression and suicidality. It is not an uncaring about others, it is akin to being in a deep hole within one’s self, where access to concerns about others is not available. The concept of selfishness suggests that at all times the individual does not care about others. The concept of self-absorption rather, suggests the individual is so deeply withdrawn that they are out of touch with their connection to others, and not “selfish,” in the sense of implying that they are placing their personal interests above others. Others largely do not exist for the seriously suicidal individual when they are in these deep place within their depression.

    I agree with the comments above that an individual does not owe it to others, but simply needs to learn, and more importantly experience, that such feelings can be transitory, not permanent. Thanks for the serious and respectful discussion on an important topic and an important distinction.

  16. Depression is not a natural state of the mind where you can just easily overcome it and be happy. It is a sickness and a mental condition…In some way, this article is true. When you call someone selfish, aren’t you thinking only of your own feelings and not the feelings of the suicidal victim? I guess It goes both way. Killing yourself may end your pain, but sparks other’s pain.

    When my friend committed suicide years back, The first thing that strike my mind is not that he is selfish; but rather I was wondering in my mind, “Why did you give up when none of us have given up on you? Did I fail you as your friend? What I have done for you, was it not enough? Should I have done more? Did I fail you when you needed me the most? Was I nothing to you?”, and to think that, these are the questions I will have to shoulder for the rest of my life without an answer. I guess…it is rather selfish but it’s still not something I will say to him/her up front.

  17. After reading your article, I suddenly realised how narcissistic people can be: when people say “if you commit suicide, you are selfish”, they are actually saying that “the pain to ME (from losing you) is more important than the pain YOU feel”.

    Thank you for exposing this flaw, and I hope that more people (both those contemplating suicide, and those trying to dissuade the former from suicide) will be persuaded that life’s are precious and worth saving for their own sake.

  18. People think that being suicidal is selfish but da fact is people who think like that is more selfish because they have no idea what the person is going through and they just care about how they would feel if the suicidal person left this world n leave the burden to others. That really makes suicidal person feel more guilty.

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