Is suicide a selfish act?

Taking your own life is an act of desperation, but it isn’t self-centered. Understanding that is one of the keys to being helpful.

Shaun Ellis
27 August 2019, 9.56pm
Pixabay/Truthseeker08. Pixabay licence.

Three years ago, I came perilously close to taking my own life.

It’s hard to explain the pain and mental anguish I was experiencing, but let’s just say I was in an extremely dark place. I didn’t fully understand why I was feeling this way, which made it all so much harder. Even though I’d been seeing a counsellor for some time, asking for help wasn’t an option - I was far too ashamed and didn’t feel deserving of it.

I felt like I’d become a burden to everyone important in my life, and genuinely believed that killing myself was the only option. So I began putting plans in place for after I’d gone. I wrote personal letters to each of my loved ones, cleared my debts and left enough in the bank to pay for my funeral. I even put a list together of telephone numbers my family would need to contact after my death.

Shortly afterwards I took myself to the spot where I intended to do the deed, a nearby quarry with a big enough drop. I wasn’t sure if today would be the day or if it was just to be a practice run (as ridiculous as that must sound). My memory is still a bit hazy, but I do recall that it was a cloudy but fine day. I can’t remember much of the walk up, but I found myself standing on the edge. I closed my eyes and thought about how easy it would be. One step forward and my problems would be over; the pain would finally stop.

I’d just about convinced myself when a strange sensation came over me. I was suddenly greeted by a warm breeze against my forehead. It felt good and strangely comforting. I opened my eyes to see the sun breaking through the clouds and lighting up the whole valley beneath. I broke down, overwhelmed with emotion. Today wasn’t to be the day after all.

Later I confided in my counsellor, and she made me get the extra help I needed. I was still adamant I was going to end my life and put it down to cowardice that I hadn’t done it already, but she helped me to see that not taking my life was actually the bravest thing I’ve ever done.

I know I’m not alone. One in four adults in the UK will have a mental health illness at some stage of their lives. Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people aged 20-34, and many of them won’t have tried to get any medical support. Often their families are left shocked and bewildered by the event, saying that they ‘didn’t see it coming.’

It fills me with sadness when I think of all those people trapped in their heads, having to deal with unimaginable mental anguish, and eventually losing their battle; feeling alone in every sense of the word, right up until the end.

Mental health topics are on television every day, be it in expert phone-ins or actors portraying depression on dramas. People are being made aware of all the helpful organisations that exist and are encouraged to seek help from their GP’s for the first port of call, so why do most people, even in their darkest moments, still refuse to get help?

Most people I’ve spoken to think that suicide is a selfish act, but that’s a huge misconception. Suicide is an act of sheer desperation by someone who is experiencing unimaginable amounts of inward torment; someone who has lost all sense of hope and feels that they have no other option.

In my case, I was convinced that my family and friends would be better off without me. I’d become a burden to them and to society. People’s lives would be so much easier without me dragging them down.

I knew that there would be sadness right after my death, but that didn’t compare to the sadness and disruption I was going to cause by staying alive. I didn’t see myself ever recovering, you see. I was only going to get worse and cause further distress to my family.

I guessed that my closest friends would try to take on some of the responsibility and I hated the idea of them feeling in any way to blame. That’s why I wrote my letters to each one of them, in a vain attempt to explain my actions and try to reassure them that they had been amazing friends, explaining that this was my decision alone and nothing they could have said or done would have changed the outcome. I couldn’t possibly predict their emotions but I’d much rather they felt anger towards me as opposed to guilt. These letters were extremely difficult to write. Would a selfish person have gone to all this trouble?

My next big concern was financial. I didn’t want to leave my family with any debts. In an ideal world I would have sold my house and paid off the excess mortgage. Previously it had tenants living in it, but at this stage the house was vacant and had been up for sale for some time. Unfortunately, I’d had no luck, the economic climate being in a poor state. However, after doing extensive research I realised that the debt of the house would die with me and my mother would not be accountable for any of it. That came as a huge relief.

I made sure I had enough money in the bank to pay for the funeral and put all my account details in a file in a drawer along with any other important information my family might need like my birth certificate, national insurance number, and mortgage details. I was trying my best to cover all the angles and make the process as simple as possible for them. Does this sound like the actions of a selfish man?

I didn’t intend to tell anyone about my plan to end my life, but as the pressure increased I desperately needed some kind of release. That’s when I chose to open up to my counsellor, but it wasn’t until a much later date when I was in a better headspace. Only then did I confide in my family and closest friends. They responded in a similar manner, in complete shock. They said things like “How could you have done that to us? How could you have possibly done that to your family?” I couldn’t blame them for asking these questions, and don’t get me wrong, they have been an amazing support to me ever since. But their initial reaction indicated that they also believed that suicide was a selfish act.

This has to change if we’re ever going to get to grips with this problem. It’s hardly surprising that people are so reluctant to talk about their mental health or admit to having suicidal thoughts. There are many organisations out there offering great support, but we can’t expect the alarming suicide statistics to go down unless people’s attitudes shift drastically.

In my opinion people need educating from a young age. Physical health is well covered at school so why not put as much emphasis on mental health? Everyone is likely to be affected by it at some stage of their lives, either themselves or someone they’re close to. So why not get them talking about the subject as early as possible? Mental illness is just as serious as the physical variety, but when did you last send a ‘Get well’ or ‘Thinking about you’ card to someone with a mental illness?

One final message: one of the main characteristics of having depression is constantly putting yourself down. I’m a great exponent of this. You can soon become fixated on the feeling that everyone else seems better than you. You think of yourself as totally useless with very little to offer. Your self-esteem is very low and suddenly even the simplest of tasks becomes a challenge as self-doubt starts to take over. That’s when other people can make a difference.

If you know or suspect a friend to be struggling with their mental health, you need to remind them how special they are, that they’re equally as significant as anyone else and have a great deal to offer. They need to know that they have a purpose in your life, and that they are not a burden. Try to create a safe environment and encourage them to open up, and reassure them that they can talk to you about anything. If this still proves too difficult, try to gently direct them to their doctor.

In reality everybody has things they excel at, as well as things that they’re not so good at. If you’re taken out of your comfort zone anyone can look foolish. As Einstein once said, “Everybody’s an expert, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life thinking it’s stupid.”

I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone who’s not good at something. It’s just easy to forget that when you’re battling with your own mental health. If you are struggling to come to terms with things, I can only say from experience that talking to someone will help. For me I felt like a huge weight had been lifted and I was pleasantly surprised at just how many people could relate to what I was going through. I no longer feel alone.

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