How to Improve Our Dialogue around Suicide
1. I was taught the correct grammatical syntax for suicide was to say “committed suicide”, while any other cause of death is explained differently. When someone passes away due to an illness, we say for example, “He died of cancer”. When someone passes away due to an untimely accident, we say for example, “She died in a car accident” or “she succumbed to her wounds and died”. But when someone chooses to end their life, we say he or she committed suicide, rather than died of suicide. A freakishly similar syntax to when we say someone committed a crime. The distinctions that we create subconsciously are what keep taboos alive, even if we come from a well-intentioned place. It also conveniently strips anyone else of any responsibility, because the onus of committing this act falls on one pair of shoulders alone. But the narrative around suicide is never limited to just that person. A suicide in our community is an urgent call for us to look at ourselves and reflect on our behavior, for institutions to reflect on the way they are run, for systems in place to question their role. To say someone committed suicide implies that they committed the crime, while the rest of us are innocent bystanders, rather than holding ourselves accountable.
2. The conversation around someone’s passing tends to be dark for obvious reasons, and so a person’s decision to choose their death uncovers feelings and thoughts far graver. This grave, eerie discomfort and fear and grief that sets in tends to uncover ugly sides of those of us on the other end. Perhaps its because suicide is still a taboo subject, that manipulates our conversations into gossip-y rhetoric. When we told our family back home that my brother took his own life because he was depressed, there were people who were not satisfied with such an anticlimactic ending. People who never cared before were now asking about his sexual orientation, if he had any vices, if he had gotten into any trouble. Not only is our rhetoric reduced to unsettling, boundary-less gossip, but we also like indulging in gore. We want to see their body after self-harm. We circulate those pictures as if we are completely desensitized to the truth they hold. We want to play coroner and inspect their body by zooming in to pictures that should have never made it to the public in the first place. We reduce a fully-realized, complex human being into a conversation piece and hide our maliciousness behind trivial excuses.
3. I am a big advocate of social activism, and I truly do believe that when used correctly, social media is a great platform to indulge in constructive and productive conversations. Having said that, the guise of social activism does not excuse predatory behavior. The intensity of an online movement often blurs lines – just because your perspective falls on the progressive side of this dialogue does not validate crossing a line. People go to all kinds of lengths to prove themselves right – uncovering tabloids that support their hypotheses; tearing apart social media profiles of the person’s loved ones as they look for clues; commenting with utmost certainty about the person’s intimate relationships. This violation of privacy is disrespectful to the person’s memory, and to those that have been left behind. Instead of fixating all our attention on one person, we can mourn the loss, and then extend the narrative further and reflect even deeper. Our need to comment on their personal lives with utmost certainty make social media a highly uncomfortable space for the surviving loved ones. The parents. The siblings. The friends. The partners. All that shared an intimate relationship with him are now watching strangers claim authority over his narrative and distort him into whatever they please for their own agenda.
4. Mourning someone you lost to suicide is a lot like mourning with an addendum. There’s the extra caveat that this person chose to leave you. For the first few months, it is difficult to separate their life from the way they died. It is especially difficult for the loved ones, for those that spent the most time around this person. Therefore the responsibility falls on us as a community to be more mindful when we speak. It is important for us to create a distinction between the person’s life, and all the big and small moments that made it, and from the very last decision they took. Of course it isn’t as black and white as that. It is difficult to think back on moments from back when he was alive, and not look at it in light of their suffering. But the suffering is not what defined this person. Their mental illness is not what defined them. It is so easy for someone who chooses to die of suicide, to be reduced to a mere reference point. An asterisk next to their names forever. While it is important to reflect upon their lives and their actions, and more important to reflect on our own, it is also important to let that person stay a person. They should not be reduced to a statistic or a symbol. They should not be birthed into ten million different versions that people created online just to prove their point. They lived life as a complex, layered human being, and if we are to truly honor their memory, we must make an effort to protect that.
5. Like most progressive movements on social media, mental health advocacy also has a section of bandwagon supporters. Those who repost about being kind, and offer a listening ear, and preach about self-care and authenticity, but their reflections are slightly skin-deep for now. I respect bandwagon supporters of any movement, as it shows the willingness to learn and grow and be exposed to something, even if it is not something you have completely grasped as yet – but you have the willingness and curiosity to do so. For such supporters, I would also like to encourage them to extend this mental health dialogue to all their conversations and actions. To practice what you preach as honestly as possible. It is important to advocate for kindness, but your advocacy falls flat if you are indulging in insensitive rhetoric elsewhere. It begins to pale when you succumb to insults every time someone questions your point of view. It loses meaning when someone else questioning your perspective makes you defensive and sends you into attack mode. In order for us to create the kind of safe and holding environment we envision, we have to practice our values constantly. Your support should not live and die with a trending conversation, and your actions and words must reflect whatever it is that you claim to stand behind.