Suicide As A Selfish Act?

I won’t rehash the facts of my awful summer of 2005. My brothers dragging me kicking and screaming to a psychiatric facility. You can read about it here. I will instead focus on my state of mind at that time. I remember. I  ordered my psychiatric records from that visit. They were not pretty to read, but it was cathartic.

From memory and the records, one thing is clear. I had no concept of “selfish”. I felt I was doing my family a favor in being rid of me. It was to be my final act of love.  No one sitting in that small room as I cried, yelled and vented my hopeless and pain told me I was being selfish. They simply listened.

There is no way to know for sure, but looking back and knowing what I was feeling(and not feeling), I believe that if a family member or friend would have called me and told me I was being “selfish” in my thought process, that I should consider the people I was leaving behind, my probably response would have been one of anger not, acknowledgement. Something like:

“F#ck off. I know exactly what I am doing and my family consideration is primary.

 There probably would have been no further opportunity for intervention.

I would have seen it as an attempt to shame me and an “I will show you” mindset could have very well resulted in the worst possible result before anyone could get to me.

Of course, this is all speculation and what happened was the best possible result. Friends and family did not mind their own business. They did not try to shame me. They listened. Trained professionals did their job. I am alive.

I do understand that when some label suicide as “selfish”, it is in reality, a self-defense mechanism to cope with an unfathomable act. Even when it’s people we don’t know, we need a way to relieve the pain we feel for the survivors.

It is normal to look back and wonder what opportunities there were to intervene and what signs were missed. This can naturally trigger intense guilt. We have to find an outlet for that guilt. We can no longer talk to the person who took his/her life so we label the act as “selfish”.

To get a clinical perspective, I reached out to someone who deals with suicidal ideation on a regular basis. Dr. Kelly Jameson Ph.D. Here is what she has to say:

The recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bordain have again sparked great debate about the field of mental health. As a therapist in private practice in Dallas, Texas and let me begin by stating that I do not suffer from depression, nor have I ever had thoughts of suicide. This is important to note because as a mental health professional, I need to constantly remind myself of this fact when working with someone who is suffering from depression. Why? Because their experience of depression is so profound that despite my extensive training, I don’t have a clue about what this truly feels like. Sure, we all have our lows, but even my worst day is miles away from an average day of a person with severe depression.

 I specialize in teens, and to say that I’m desensitized to talk of suicidal ideation is an understatement. This isn’t to say I’m callous or cold, but to work in mental health means to be well-versed in suicidal ideation, as well as thoughts, planning and active suicidality. When a teen or adult is bold and brave enough to share they are passively or actively suicidal my mind immediately begins the task of organizing, filtering and categorizing the way they are narrating their suicidality. What are the next steps to ensure their safety?

Here are a some of my most vivid memories of the way some patients have described their depression and suicidal thinking. 

“My depression rolls in like waves, not unlike the ocean tide. When I was younger, I would try to fight it or ignore, but now I honor it. I let it roll through me and I respect it. I do that by practicing my best self-care and wait for the wave to pass. Sometimes it a few days, or a week, but I’m old enough now to know that it will pass.” 

“It feels like a large, massive brick wall literally pushing up against my brain, I can almost see it if I close my eyes. It’s heavy and strong and dark. When I take my medicine, I can feel it working against the brick wall. It’s like a battle going on inside of me and I’m just the arena in which it takes place.” 

“My depression feels like an electricity within me. Like I could plug myself into an outlet and explode. It’s like I’m not even human, but a series of circuits that are over-wired and about to blow.” 

Depression is unique, like a fingerprint or snowflake. I’ve learned to abandon the usual intake questions about depressive symptoms and just ask really open questions about their relationship with their depression, and it always provides powerful insight about where they are with their disorder. Yes, depression has classic symptomology but the emotional response to the disorder is quite varied, which is why many caring individuals miss it. Many look for the “usual” characteristics and if someone’s relationship to this depression doesn’t fit the box, it is assumed to be something else, like ADHD or anxiety.

 So, is suicide a selfish act? I used to think so. It’s true, many years ago I, too, used to think suicide was a selfish act, especially if children were involved…then I entered the mental health field. Boy was I wrong. Really wrong. Now, as I sit with patients who are passively or actively suicidal, I can tell you many of them see it not as a selfish act, but as a selfless act, a way to unburden their loved ones. Some adult men have referenced it as a way to finically save their family, others as a way to end chronic pain, and many, many teens (countless at this point) verbalize it as a way to relieve their parents of the shame and embarrassment they believe they have brought upon their families by their mistakes, bad decisions, or inability to achieve success in academics or sports.  

Depression is a hope stealer. It is the belief that the way you are feeling now will never change and there is no point in trying. It is the ultimate con artist, a traveling salesman that persuades you to think that dying will liberate your loved ones and free you of all pain. For those who are in the depths of depression, the traveling salesman is selling a product they think they need, like a late-night infomercial that convinces you (if you sit there long enough and watch) that this hair serum WILL regrow your hair! To say that suicide is a selfish act is not only unfair, but idiotic. Your brain chemicals are ridiculously powerful, and unless you’ve experienced these complete emotional drains yourself, my best advice to you is this: hush. You. Don’t. Know. Even as a mental health professional, I do not make quick “You should just do this” statements to patients with depression. It’s so strong of a disorder it requires a delicate handling of treatment. That might seem backwards but the risks are so high, it requires a great and thoughtful level of care which takes time, a long time. Much more time than to haughtily declare suicide as a selfish act.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  800-273-8255

Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. Brian is the author of the Amazon best-selling book, The Addicted Lawyer: Tales Of The Bar, Booze, Blow & Redemption (affiliate link). A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at