(Note: I don't doubt that some people would tell someone of their plans to commit suicide because they are ambivalent about it or want that person to talk them out of it. It is the assumption that everyone who tells someone about their plans to commit suicide is ambivalent that I take issue with. I also don't doubt that there are people who talk about their desire to commit suicide who do so in a manipulative way to get attention, but I take issue with assumption that everyone who talks about their desire to commit suicide is doing so in a manipulative way.)
Obviously it is going to be easier to commit suicide if you don't tell anyone because you won't run the risk of being locked-up. I'm guessing that fact is the primary basis for this misconception. But what about other situations? If I want to rob a bank, this logic says that if I really intend to rob that bank, I won't tell anyone because that might compromise my ability to actually rob that bank. I've never heard anyone question the potential robber's intent to rob a bank on the basis that he told someone about it in advance. We explain this by saying that the potential robber was stupid or that he misjudged his confidant or something else. Why does this "if you tell someone about your plan than you must not really mean it" logic apply to suicide but nothing else?
So why might someone who is genuinely suicidal, someone who genuinely believes that suicide is there best option and has no ambivalence about going through with it, tell someone else about this even though that might prevent them from committing suicide?
- They might want to soften the blow to their loved ones. Even though the suicidal person knows that they will cause their loved one's grief, they might try to mitigate that by warning them, explaining the deep extent of their suffering, or telling them that it isn't their fault.
- Many people, generally, alleviate stress by talking about things. If the suicide is not immediate, the suicidal person may talk about his plan in order to alleviate stress between then and the time of their planned suicide.
- The suicidal person may confide in someone about their plans, someone who they think will be understanding and sympathetic to his situation, yet who will not try to get him hospitalized. The suicidal person may be wrong about their chosen confidant.
- I'm sure there are as many different reason for this as there are people who have done it.
I have also frequently heard people who tell someone else about their intent to commit suicide said to be "playing a game." The first time I heard this I was already in the hospital and I was brusquely told, "this is not a place for playing games." I was very confused. I understood that "playing a game" meant being manipulative by doing things like saying I am suicidal just to get sympathy or attention. But I wasn't playing that game; I was genuinely seriously considering the merits of suicide. (Additionally, if you are going to lock up everyone who says they are suicidal while assuming that anyone who says they are suicidal is "playing a game," how can you say the hospital is not a place for playing games? The hospital is the place for playing games because you have just rounded up all of the game players.) The idea that all patients who say they are suicidal do so in order to manipulate people is just plain mean.
Even if a suicidal person is telling someone else about it because they are ambivalent about suicide, what is wrong with that? Isn't that precisely the best thing for them to be doing, if you believe all suicides should be prevented? How is it manipulative to say, "I'm considering suicide because my life is super awful for reasons for x, y, and z. Right now, that is looking like my best option for relieving my suffering, but if there were a way to relieve my suffering without dying, if there were a way to enjoy life again, I would consider it"? Most people who are actively considering suicide are not able to express their desire for help in such a level-headed way, but that doesn't mean that they are manipulative when they express their desire for help in a mixed-up desperate way. I think that mixed-up, desperate people often get interpreted as being manipulative because they are changing their minds so much that, even though they are being sincere, they seem duplicitous because most of the time when people contradict themselves like this, they are lying. (Reading my old journals from when I was depressed is embarrassing because I changed my mind so many times and thought I found the secrets to the universe so many times. There are a lot of things I did during that time that were extremely ill-advised and may have come off as rude or contradictory or grossly inappropriate, but I did all of those things completely sincerely. This was a product of adolescence, but also a product of being out of my mind desperate for an end to my depression and anxiety.)
I can understand that it might be very frustrating to work with people who are constantly contradicting themselves and changing their minds. I can understand that it might be hard to distinguish who is doing this sincerely and who is doing this because they cannot keep their lies straight. I can understand the temptation to paint them with a broad brush as all being manipulative liars because they are all equally frustrating. I can understand the difficulty of distinguishing these two groups from each other and the high stakes for mixing up the two groups. I cannot understand the refusal to acknowledge, or the simple lack of acknowledgment, that some of these people are being genuine, not manipulative, but are having such a hard time within themselves that they contradict themselves and change their minds incessantly. I cannot understand not trying to distinguish those who are sincere from those who are manipulative and instead treating them all equally brusquely as people who are manipulative.
This post is partially a response to a comment on Bruce's post "Christianity and Mental Illness Part Three".