Suicide

Is Suicide Really a Selfish Act?

Many people believe one of the most harmful myths about suicide.

Posted Mar 13, 2020

Samuel/Adobe Stock
Source: Samuel/Adobe Stock

When a person dies by suicide, they leave behind an enormous amount of pain for their loved ones. As a result, many people believe the deceased acted selfishly, without consideration for the effects on others. However, this belief is one of the most harmful myths about suicide.

Kristi Hugstad encountered this myth after she lost her husband Bill to suicide. “After Bill’s death, the most common thing people said to me was, ‘I can’t believe he did this to you,’” said Hugstad in our conversation on the Think Act Be podcast. “So it was all about Bill causing pain to the people who loved him.”

I’ve experienced some of that pain myself when people I’ve known have taken their own lives. I still wonder every day why a good friend of mine killed himself nearly three years ago. What led him to that point? What was he feeling in his final days and moments? What could I have done to help him? And while I never met my father’s father, his suicide eight years before I was born left a legacy of pain that I felt in our household when I was growing up.

But Hugstad is quick to note that suicide “is not a selfish act at all. Bill felt he was a burden to the people who loved him,” she said. “He felt we would be better off without him.” That sentiment—that “people would be better off without me”—is extremely common among those who consider and attempt suicide. I’ve heard it from many patients I’ve treated, including those who survived a suicide attempt.

I’ve also held that belief myself in my deepest spells of depression. When I felt that my moods and lack of engagement were a drain on my wife and young kids, I told myself they deserved better. It was a short trip from there to believing it made sense to end my life.

Thankfully, in those moments, I wasn’t entirely lost to depressive thinking; I still knew I would leave behind more pain than I could imagine if I took my own life. But while I knew I was thinking in the distorted way that’s common with depression, it also felt completely true.

Some who consider suicide don’t necessarily think it will improve others’ lives, but instead believe it will have minimal impact on them. When a person has so little regard for their own life, it’s hard for them to imagine that others care deeply about them. For example, they might believe that their spouse will quickly move on, and that their parents will experience it with detached resignation.

For Hugstad, her husband’s suicide was “actually the opposite of selfishness.” He hated himself so much that it was impossible for him to recognize that others still loved him. To the extent he thought his death would have an impact on others, he believed their lives would be improved.

Reasons for Suicide

So if selfishness doesn’t motivate suicide, what does? While there are many circumstances that can contribute—for example, grave financial difficulties, relationship problems, or profound loneliness—in the end, a few factors are especially powerful:  

  • Hopelessness: Research has shown that losing hope that things will ever improve greatly raises the risk of suicide. “Depression is a thief because it steals your hope that things in the future will be better,” said Hugstad. “When you’re in a depression, you actually feel that there is no way out and that you are powerless.” Those feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness can make suicide seem like the only option.
  • Overwhelming Mental and Emotional Pain: “It’s not that Bill wanted to die and hurt people,” said Hugstad. “It’s just that he was in so much emotional pain, and he wanted that pain to stop.” Apparently my grandfather had similar feelings, from the PTSD and deep depression he experienced following his traumatic combat experiences in the South Pacific. Like Bill, he’d had enough of the “slings and arrows” of life. “You just want out,” said Hugstad. “You want that torment to stop.”
  • Believing It’s Better for Everyone: As discussed above, a suicidal person can truly believe they would make the world a better place by removing themselves from it. In their minds, the utilitarian calculation seems simple: I’m a net negative to the world. Removing a negative yields a positive. But of course, this formula leaves out the well of pain they’ll leave for others.

How to Open a Conversation About Suicide

If you’re concerned about a loved one’s safety, it’s often not easy to bring up the topic of suicide. Hugstad offered these recommendations:

  1. Pick a good time. “Make sure you select a time when you have their undivided attention,” she said. For example, it’s not the best time when they’re working or are on their phone. Find the space and time you’ll need to have the conversation.
  2. Tell them your observations. Let them know what you’re seeing that’s causing you concern. For example, “I’ve noticed you’re spending a lot of time in your room and aren’t getting together with your friends anymore.” Keep it as matter-of-fact as possible, as you invite them to speak openly about how they’re doing.
  3. Avoid putting them on the defensive. Suicide isn’t easy for most people to talk about, and coming on too strong won’t help your loved one open up. For example, demanding that they tell you what’s going on could lead them to shut down. “Approach it with love and kindness,” said Hugstad. “Let them know your concern is coming from love.”

The full conversation with Kristi Hugstad is available here: How to Open the Conversation About Depression and Suicide.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For more information on preventing suicide, visit this webpage of the National Institute of Mental Health. To find professional help, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Beck, A. T., Brown, G., Berchick, R. J., Stewart, B. L., & Steer, R. A. (2006). Relationship between hopelessness and ultimate suicide: A replication with psychiatric outpatients. Focus, 147, 190-196.

Burón, P., Jimenez-Trevino, L., Saiz, P. A., García-Portilla, M. P., Corcoran, P., Carli, V., ... & Sarchiapone, M. (2016). Reasons for attempted suicide in Europe: Prevalence, associated factors, and risk of repetition. Archives of Suicide Research, 20, 45-58.