This week, the country was rocked with news of the death of comedian and actor Robin Williams, who killed himself at the age of 63. His family reported that he had been suffering from depression for some time. Journalists, writers, and social media aficionados around the country wrote messages of hope, encouragement, and advice for those thinking of suicide. Around the Internet, the call was clear: “Don’t do it!”
Meanwhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the people who do the Oscars) released an image from Aladdin with the caption, “Genie, you’re free” to commemorate Williams’ death. Though the tweet was shared quite a bit Washington Post columnist Caitlin Dewey opined that there could be danger in romanticizing suicide, particularly in normalizing the act altogether. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said of the tweet: “Suicide should never be presented as an option.”
Maybe it should be presented as an option. Perhaps things would be better for those who commit suicide, their friends, and their families, if suicide was de-stigmatized altogether.
Consider the roughly analogous case of physician assisted suicide in the case of terminally ill patients. Though doctors are heavily divided on the question, the qualm is not about whether patients have the ethical responsibility to live as long as they can, but rather what the role of the physician as a healer.
But when one looks at the difference in opinions of physician assisted suicide and suicide in general, the picture becomes more clear. There is a much greater stigma against killing oneself than there is of taking your own life, with the help of a doctor, when you feel like your life is done.
This stigma creates a sharp difference between how the two cases are treated as well. When a terminally ill patient wants to discuss suicide (in one of the four states where it’s legal) the family and physicians are consulted. Perhaps the family objects, and says why. The doctor gives their opinion of the patient’s health and whether or not suicide is a viable option. Then, the decision is reached together, whether to do it or not.
When a person suffering from depression or mental disorder wishes to consider suicide, if they admit it to someone, they are treated as fundamentally irrational and incapable of making sound decisions. More often than not they are hospitalized, and everyone around this person suggests if not enforces everything from drugs to therapy to make sure that they stay alive—even if they are miserable.
Perhaps this is all out of genuine good will, but I can’t help but think that this immediate, rash reaction to those who wish to commit suicide is more an attempt by those who love them to keep them alive for their own selfish reasons rather than out of a desire to do what is best for that person.
In the wake of Williams’ death, there was a flood of expression about what it is like to live with depression. But it’s also not just depression that drives people to kill themselves. Other mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other personality disorders carry a great risk of death by suicide.
The more we learn about these mental states, the more we realize how completely debilitating, dehumanizing, and painful they can be—both for the sufferers and those around them. More often than not, there is no cure for them, only management—which works for some and not others.
Perhaps, like for sufferers of terminal illnesses, suicide should be considered a viable option for these people. As it stands now, those who wish to end their lives are met with so much fear, resentment, and panic that they essentially must face the decision alone, possibly frightened and confused. And perhaps more often than not, because of the lack of meaningful support, do not make the right decision for themselves.
If we can accept that suicide is an ethical possibility for people who are suffering psychologically with little to no chance of recovery, then those who are contemplating suicide can consider it openly with their families, their physicians, and their counselors, and come to the right decision. Such a method could also reduce the significant trauma on those left living. It makes sense, then, to my mind, to allow it to be a rational, viable option—while understanding that it may not always be the right one for that individual.
It should be noted that I neither condone or condemn suicide. I personally don’t think anyone has a moral obligation to stay alive, particularly for other people, but I realize that causing pain and harm to others by abruptly leaving your life may be something that most don’t want to do. I think the decision to live, or not, should be ultimately up to the person whose life it is and who they chose to share it with and that a stigma against the action keeps people from coming to that decision together.
If we reduce the stigma attached to the act and respect the autonomy of individuals to make decisions for themselves, then we have a chance to reduce a lot of the pain and suffering of families and friends when a loved one kills themselves—and the pain, suffering, and alienation someone who wants to commit suicide goes through. If they’re set on leaving the world, it seems that we should construct the world in such a way that their parting isn’t so harsh and brutal for them.