It’s been brought to my attention that today is also World Suicide Prevention Day. I happen to be in a high-risk group and have had my own brushes with suicide. Researchers have estimated that between 20 and 60 percent of individuals living with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once in their life. I’ve also heard statistics saying that the death rate from suicide is approximately twenty times higher for those who have bipolar disorder compared to the general population.
Those numbers sound pretty grim, and I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that I’ve had the experiences I have. Oddly enough, when I hear figures like these, I find them somewhat comforting. It’s very sad that so many have lost their lives to such a terrible disease, but it reinforces that it is, in fact, a disease. I can’t generalize and everybody’s story is different, but I believe that at least some people who come close enough to the brink of suicide no longer feel they’re in control or that they are making an active choice. They are very sick and their sense of reality is often skewed. I suppose I am mostly speaking of suicide within the context of mental illness in a broad sense here. My experience was like that.
In at least some circles, there is a greater understanding today that suicide may not necessarily have been a choice. Suicide may not have been selfish. Suicide may not have been a cry for attention or help. It’s more and more common to hear people say someone “died by suicide”—as they would say if you had died of an insidious disease rather than a shameful, stigmatized “act.” Instead of saying someone who died by suicide was weak or selfish, you are more likely these days to hear someone who died by suicide fought a long, hard battle with depression, and they ultimately lost. That takes some grit, after all.
What is the ultimate goal of de-stigmatizing suicide, becoming more accepting of it, classifying it more as a disease? I think the main hope is that when communities talk about suicide more openly without fear or shame, it will make it easier for those who have suicidal thoughts to express them and thereby facilitate early intervention and thus prevention. That is a lofty goal and somewhat idealistic. I tend to be a little more cynical and I think some of the causes of suicide are factors difficult if not impossible to change–financial status, mental illness and the ability to get treatment for it, and social support networks, being among them. Still, even my cynical heart melts a little when people frame suicide as a symptom of a disease. It doesn’t absolve me of the hurt I have inflicted or all of the blame I feel. However, it is healing because in a way, I can realize that I was sick in the same way others with my illness, statistically proven, get sick. And that makes me feel less alone, and a little more willing to forgive myself.