What We’re Getting Wrong About Suicide

4 Apr

As the world still works to make sense of last week’s horrific Germanwings tragedy, reports are continuing to surface about co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s mental state. Prosecutors claim Lubitz may have been suffering from a mental health disorder, and now new information alleges that he also displayed suicidal tendencies in the past.

It’s human nature to rationalize tragedies and other traumas that we can’t fully comprehend, but let us be here to offer one gentle reminder as we continue the discussion: Suicidal is not synonymous with homicidal.

It’s a huge mistake to solely place blame on “suicidal tendencies” during horrendous events like the Germanwings crash, because it conflates suicide with the intention to hurt other people. This perpetuates the stigma of mental illness — and where there’s stigma, there’s apprehension when it comes to getting proper help.

We may never know what was going on inside the mind of one individual, but we can’t assign that behavior to an entire community of people who already feel “exiled” or “different” from the rest of society. We have a real opportunity to be a more compassionate culture on the other side of reporting on this tragedy — we just need to be armed with the facts. Below are a few things to keep in mind when discussing mental health and suicide.

MYTH: Suicide is uncommon.

False. It was actually the second-leading cause of death worldwide among 15 to 29-year-olds in 2012 — and it’s incredibly preventable. Approximately 90 percent of people who die by suicide also have a very treatable mental illness, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Usually there are warning signs, and it’s important to encourage others to seek help if you believe they may be in trouble. “It requires a little reflection and thought to be supportive,” Gregory Dalack, M.D., chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, previously told HuffPost Healthy Living. “Family members, friends and significant others have an opportunity to help in a way that’s not judgmental — even if it’s just helping them get to appointments, take medications or stick to a daily routine.”

FACT: You probably know someone who has had an experience with mental illness.

Mental health problems aren’t some vague concept that don’t affect your immediate social circle. Chances are you know someone who has experiences a mental illness. Approximately one in four U.S. adults in a given year suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem.

MYTH: People with mental illness are “crazy.”

No, no and no again. Mental illness does not equate to insanity. Just like you wouldn’t place blame on someone for having a physical illness, the same courtesy should be extended to someone suffering from mental illness. “It’s not their choice, just like it’s not your choice to get the flu,” Dalack said. “You didn’t ask for it, and you’re not going to snap out of it. If we don’t think of depression in the same way, then you increase the likelihood that someone is going to victimize themselves.”

FACT: You can recover from suicidal thoughts.

One point of contention with the reports on Lubitz’s past “suicidal tendencies” is the underlying implication that once you’re suicidal, you’re always suicidal. This is simply not true. Many people have gone on to live fulfilling, professional and healthy lives with mental illness. Take author S.L. Young, for example, who explained his progression with depression by writing a letter to himself after he moved on from his own suicidal thoughts:

You need to understand that if you choose to save your life tomorrow, your decision will not only impact you. Your choice will also positively affect many others who will benefit from your work over the next year and beyond.

MYTH: People who suffer from mental health issues don’t care about other people.

By making a public assumption about one person based on a potential mental illness, we’re inadvertently assigning a stigma to all sufferers of a similar illness. As health columnist Dan Diamond argues in a recent Forbes op-ed, depression doesn’t cause such chilling acts. “Ask one of the 10 million-plus Americans who are seriously depressed at any given time,” he wrote. “The bravest among them will admit: Depression is devastating. It makes you self-loathing, and lays you low. But it doesn’t make you a murderer.”


If you — or someone you know — need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.