I’m still moved by Vice President Joe Biden’s speech from just before Memorial Day weekend, during which he shared with all of us just how close he had come to taking his own life.

In commentary a few days later, Washington Post opinion writer Michael Gerson praised Biden’s display of empathy, the ability to identify others’ emotions.

That same weekend, I read a piece about psychological autopsies, a process that seeks to explain what happened in the days before a person died by suicide. Psychological autopsy interviews are conducted with family members and friends of the person who has died in order to, as this piece said, “reconstruct the mental state” of the person who has died.

This paragraph caught my eye:

“The suicides of women were largely portrayed in medical terms, as being so weakened by negative experiences that they were unable to prevent a decline into mental illness. The suicides of men, on the other hand, were barely ever described in terms of mental disorder. Male suicide was typically described either as the end result of having ‘gone off the rails,’ a self-directed descent into antisocial behaviour, or as a ‘heroic’ action, demonstrating a final defiant act against an unjust world.”

And then I thought again of Joe Biden and the strength it took for him to disclose suicidal ideation publicly. I wondered if I’d feel differently if Joe were, well, to simplify things, Josephine. Would I have perceived this disclosure as an admission, and would I have seen it as a weakness rather than a strength?

Opinion writer Gerson chose to value a characteristic - empathy - not many men get credit for. Gerson viewed it as “a private and a public virtue, the trait of a friend and a leader.”

But, he also acknowledged that if used inappropriately, empathy can smack of “I feel your pain,” that terribly condescending frame that sometimes gets put around efforts to relate and connect.

In the same way that empathy can be seen on one side as a virtue and on the other as a liability, do we see suicide differently depending on which lens we use to view it? Is gender one of the filters that changes what we see?

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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