For one thing, suicide is
It’s the result of severe depression, often of a long-lasting nature
that drains the individual of all hope for survival. “Selfish” is defined as “concerned excessively
or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own
advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.”
To say that taking one’s own life is selfish
is to suggest that the individual gets some personal satisfaction out of the
act. This is absurd. There is, indeed, a focus on the inner self
and the desperation that lies within.
Where does that desperation come from?
It arises from a deep emotional pain that cannot be escaped. Getting “help” seems useless. There is, it seems, nowhere to turn. All options are off the table. Far from being selfish, the person who is
suicidal often sees themselves as a burden
on others that can only be relieved by exiting their lives.
Is it angry? Again, let’s look
at a definition. Simply put, anger
described as “a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism toward
others.” This is to suggest
self destructive behavior of suicide is somehow based on a perceived wrong
committed by others. The fallacy
is borne out by suicide notes that desperately express not anger, but remorse
at the very act of being alive. “I
take this pain any longer.” “Life
longer worth living.” “I’m
so sorry to
Next is the description of
suicide as a “cowardly” act. A coward is “a
person who lacks the courage
to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things.” In the case of first responders, particularly
police officers, the act is the result of having undergone far too many dangerous and unpleasant things. Posttraumatic stress and depression go hand
in hand and are the precipitating factors in too many police suicides.
It’s not a lack of courage at all—it’s having
had too much.
Finally, there’s the
simplistic description of suicide as “a permanent
solution to a temporary problem.” This
is, perhaps, the worst of all, attributed to Phil Donahue on a television talk
show years ago. The saying set suicide
prevention back a generation. It
suggests that the decision was somehow a logical one, a choice of “solutions”
made on a weighing of the evidence and conceived of after logical—albeit
erroneous—thought. Quite the
suicide is a purely emotional decision based on the overwhelming pain being
experienced by the victim. It knows
“solution”—it knows only escape.
“Pain” has already
been mentioned a couple of times. What kind of pain is
it? How deep does it go? How desperate is it, really? One can easily compare it to standing in a
window high on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. The alternatives facing the individual are
simple—burning a terrible death in the rapidly approaching flames and smoke or,
to avoid that kind of pain, closing one’s eyes and taking a leap out into the
air and seeking a sudden but less painful death. Either way, there seems no alternative—the
desperation is overwhelming and the need to avoid pain is incontrovertible.
To the suicidal individual,
there is simply no alternative to
death. Rationale has nothing to do with
it. This is why, when confronted
suicidal individual, it’s vital to avoid simplistic labels.
The one thing that is hard for the suicidal
person to understand is that there really is refuge from the
pain. To communicate this, however, calls for compassion, empathy,
and an effort to assure the person that they are not alone. This is
best accomplished by showing the person you understand the dynamics of
depression and suicide and that you do realize suicide seems, for the moment,
to be the “only way” to escape the pain of what is troubling them. Above
all, let the person talk. Do not label or judge the person.
Don’t be afraid to use
words like, “caring,” “loving” and “accepting.”
The right words are important, and allow them to show in your
voice. It is imperative that the person understand that, regardless
of what has brought them to this stage, they can survive it and be cared for in
a compassionate way by others who have “been there” and/or who dedicate their
lives to helping others. As one psychologist put it, “There is no such thing as
no hope.” Let the suicidal person know that there is not only hope,
but that their life is important to you. Avoid saying
things like, “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your
family” or, worse, “Look on the bright side.”
These steps are important. It is
entirely possible—perhaps inevitable in police work—that you will encounter an
individual on the brink of suicide. It
may well be a fellow police officer, gun in hand. You can be instrumental in
their survival by laying the path to proper care, attention and healing.
The place to begin is by avoiding useless
labels like the above and working toward a positive solution.
You may well be the difference between life
And if you’re one of those
in danger of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention
O’Hara is the founder and a
board member of the Badge of Life
organization. Andy has co-authored one book and has written numerous articles
for publication. He is an advanced peer support officer, working with
individuals to find appropriate help and ways to deal with law enforcement
issues. Andy is a 24-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, was
suicidal and retired with PTSD.