Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Suicide Narratives That Fail To Help

The tragic death of Robin Williams has caused quite a bit of conversation about depression and suicide. The topic is difficult enough to discuss all on its own, but in the midst of shock and grief over someone so loved as Robin Williams, the conversation becomes even more challenging – and even more salient.

There are social narratives of depression and suicide that inform, challenge or reinforce existing beliefs and ideas people have concerning these topics. Some of the narratives are accurate and useful while other narratives are riddled with flaws and are not the least bit constructive. Here are four narrative about depression and/or suicide that do not help.

The Freedom Narrative.  One of the suicide narratives that is difficult to handle is the freedom narrative. The Academy decided the go this route. We all love the genie metaphor and the iconic voice work Robin Williams did in Aladdin. The image below is awesome and memorable. The play on words is clever. However, the assumptions supporting the message are troubling.

The Freedom Narrative is meant to be generous and liberating, but what appears to be a message meant for the one who died is really an attempt for those of us remaining to be soothed – and in some way let off the hook for the tragedy. Of course is it not my fault Rabin Williams is dead, but at the same time I feel terrible about it and wish it did not happen. The Freedom Narrative is an attempt to gloss over the tragedy without responsibility.

But if the embedded selfishness in the Freedom Narrative of suicide were not enough of a problem, the message it gives to those who are on the brink is worse. People contemplating taking their own life are in such a dark and pained place that they are looking for a meaningful end to the pain and suffering. None of these people desires to take their own life, but when every other option appears to be a dead end, then taking the dead end option makes sense. The Freedom Narrative allows for the literal dead end option to appear far more reasonable than it is.

The Choice Narrative. Another suicide narrative that is seriously flawed in its failure of depth is the Choice Narrative. Matt Walsh has espoused this narrative and aggressively defended it on his blog. The Choice Narrative functions in many ways (ironically) as the opposite of the Freedom Narrative. The Choice Narrative assigns complete and total responsibility for the death of the individual on the individual and only the individual – without exception.

This is a flawed and risky blame-the-victim narrative that serves to absolve everyone from any responsibility, as though people just end their lives out of context. Only through the myopic lens of hyper-individualism does such a narrative begin to make any sense.

Walsh seems too understand that the effects of suicide are contextual in that people who knew and cared about the person who died are hurt, but fails completely too understand how context can contribute to the suicide itself.

He makes the same mistake many people do when trying to make sense of something so tragic – going to the single story. Suicide is NEVER a single story of a person who takes their own life. There is ALWAYS a complex interplays of biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors with each suicide. Suicide is not the problem in and of itself, it is the horrific symptom of a complex systemic function and dysfunction on all levels.

To say that it suicide “is a choice – end of discussion” fails to address the issue. It is a gloss over just as much as the Freedom narrative. The Choice Narrative:
  • Is not a thoughtful or accurate understanding of suicide
  • Leaves people unnecessarily absolved or hurting even more
  • Does not prevent future suicides
  • Hurts others in its self-righteous disposition
  • Fails completely to demonstrate empathy for the hurting people who live with the aftermath
  • Increases the risk of suicide because people on the verge are only discouraged by the necessary social distance that the embedded blame causes
The Spiritual Narrative. The Spiritual Narrative is probably the most disturbing to me since I am Christian who holds his faith as more important than anything. I should start by saying that this is not about theology, but about BAD THEOLOGY.

Spirituality, religion, and faith can serve as protective factors against depression and suicide, but there is no evidence that a deep faith, regardless of the religion or spiritual bent, is an impenetrable psychological dome of mental health perfection. People of faith fight depression. In fact, Jeremiah the Old Testament prophet would most likely have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Did God judge him for having no faith? Nope. Did God just heal Jeremiah’s depression because he was a believer? Nope. He did find Jeremiah a good follower just as he was. Depression did not disqualify him from service. In fact, there were times when it drove him toward a deep and meaningful outpouring of pain that people can identify with.

Another sliver of the Spiritual Narrative is that suicide is a one way ticket to Hell. This perspective is completely unsupportable and is rooted in a theology that is void of the grace and generosity of the God of the Bible and the Jesus found in the new testament. No, of course God does not desire suicide, but what kind of God sends someone to Hell forever just after that person has already been through Hell on Earth?
It is a contempt of scripture to use it for the blaming or damning of people who suffer from depression and end up taking their own life.

The Disease Narrative. This is one of the perspectives I hear from people in my field – mental health practitioners. I have a problem with the word disease in this context. The reason I have a problem with the word is that due to its connotation, it does a few unintended things that are not helpful at all.

For many people, the word “disease” is reserved for infections that are bacterial, viral, or fungal in nature or a process that is in their minds tangible, like heart disease. When the word “disease” is used to describe something that looks like a “behavior,” the word become unhelpful. For example, addiction as disease makes no sense because there is an observable behavior that appears to be synonymous with the diagnosis. Thus, when the word “disease” is used and there is not an infection or condition that can be identified AND there is an identifiable behavior that is present, the whole conversation about the problem gets dismissed and people get polarized talking about the definition of the problem, but not the problem.

For others the term disease is debilitating. If something is a disease it means that it is beyond their capacity to resolve it. For some people there is a debilitating permanence connected to the term and thus makes treatment seem like a meaningless waste of time and energy.

Finally, it seems like the term “disease” is used as push back against people who deny that there is a problem. It is as if the problem is elevated to the level of “disease",” then people will take you seriously. In my opinion, the disease language is more about being taken seriously in a world that objectifies, stigmatizes, and dismisses what it does not understand or would prefer not to deal with than it is about a meaningful and useful terminology. The Disease Narrative is playing defense in an offensive world.

Depression and suicide are not easy topics to discuss ever, but are even more difficult or more charged when we are still aching from a loss from suicide. My suggestion is to be generous and thoughtful when discussing these topics without giving in to simply dismissing it altogether. There are many narratives about depression and suicide and many of them do not help in conversations because they are infused with assumptions that are filled with blame, abdication, or dismissal. And yet, many of these narratives are so easy to latch on to because they are plenty, come from what seem to be trusted sources, or allow for simply closure and a moving on to the next topic.


Mary Kelleher said...

Chris, one day we will have to sit down and talk about the disease narrative, especially as it pertains to suicide. There is increasing research that's been coming out about genetic and molecular differences being found in cohorts that exhibit suicidal ideation that do not seem to appear in populations that do not report SI. Some of it is quite new, within the last few months.
Much love, Mary

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for a well-written answer to all the hateful and naive things I've read online!