Actually, We Can Understand

EmpathyMental health is getting more attention in the media lately, maybe in part because of the growing number of celebrities “speaking out” about their experiences. A lot of the more popular and mainstream-y sites like Buzz Feed, Huffington Post and similar do these “specials” – like, where they explicitly cordon off in their own little spot the articles on mental health, just like with “minority” voices and call them “features” but what they really are are the “optional” reading on the syllabus (which is where they keep all the female, black, Latina, Native, Asian, disabled, poor, gay, transgender voices) – and it all eventually comes down, in my perspective, to drug commercials. In other words, those are easy for me to write off.

What’s not as easy for me to just let slide is the way the mental-health community itself – as in, the sites and groups created specifically by and for people with lived experience – distorts the experience of living with mental health challenges. I’ve written a post about trigger warnings that The Mighty will be publishing soon (though the one thing I forgot to say in it is that, basically, a trigger warning is a request to be censored, but that will make more sense after you read the article). There’s another practice these communities engage in that I find not only unhelpful but invalidating and inaccurate. And I didn’t realize it until some recent conversations with a friend.

I don’t need to get into it much here, but the general context is that I’ve been fencing with despair lately and didn’t think I could manage much longer. Early into the first conversation with this friend, he said, “It totally makes sense why you wouldn’t want to live in a world you feel doesn’t want you.” I’ve never heard that before. I’ve never read that before. And I think we’re afraid to say it because we don’t at all want to seem like we’re encouraging people to kill themselves. But feeling understood in a world where I feel completely missed and invisible most of the time was actually exactly what I needed, not yet another recitation of how irrational and illogical my feelings are.

What I see a lot of in peer-support communities, articles attempting to help those coping with suicide loss, etc, is the constant refrain that “you will never understand why.” It’s like air. And it’s supposed to be comforting. While it can be true in certain instances that we can’t know the motivations behind a suicide and it’s hard to imagine such feelings and thoughts if you’ve not personally experienced them, claiming that we can’t ever know can be confusing. Both people I know who have died by suicide left behind notes detailing their reasons and explaining their feelings and states of mind. To claim that I “will never understand why” feels not only dismissive of the words they left behind but also of my ability to trust and understand these words as an accurate reflection of why my friends ended their lives. “You will never understand” can potentially be comforting, but it seems to me that it more often leaves the topic of suicide shrouded in mystery.

We are naturally afraid of what we do not know, but in the case of suicide, such mystery fuels not only stigma but the abdication of responsibility we have to one another as members of the human community. We’re not responsible for someone else’s actions but, if we want a world of peace and life, we are responsible to engage and stay present. This is hard. The downside of starting to pay attention is that you have to live with facts like this one: the number of suicides increases every year – a human being kills themselves every 13 minutes in this country. If there were a mysterious illness making the rounds that took that high a toll on human life, we would marshall resource upon resource to figure out its cause and attempt to develop a cure, not claim defeat and settle for “we’ll never know.” We cannot know in every instance why people end their own lives, but to claim we can’t ever know is unfair and irresponsible. It does seem to get us off the hook of listening, reaching out and continuing to try to understand those who know a despair that is wholly incompatible with human life. There are always reasons for that level of hopelessness, they are always logical (it’s a different approach to “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”) and you can always validate and find a way to empathize without aiding and abetting a suicide. In fact, not doing so runs that risk more.

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