Stigmas in Suicide Terminology

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This article may contain trigger warnings: suicide is going to be discussed-mostly the terminology behind it though. Still, better safe than sorry.

I was having a discussion with a professor a while ago and it came up that I wrote for The Mighty. She asked what it was that I wrote about and without hesitation I said “Suicide”. It wasn’t until much later that I reflected on the conversation and realized that perhaps it seemed like I was sending a message that I didn’t mean to be sending.

I think that depression has a really bizarre way of making you rehash your interactions. My fears were that I was going to have to deal with a well-meaning email asking if I was mentally in a bad place, or worse-a phone call from the counselors on campus asking me to come in at my earliest convenience. I have the fear that if enough people find out I have a mental illness that it will come back to bite me in the ass and prevent me from living my life. Which is ridiculous for exactly two reasons.

  1. A LOT of people know that about me-because I don’t view it as something I need to keep quiet about. I’m going to talk about it because I’m not ashamed of who I am.
  2. Not a damn thing is going to prevent me from living the life I want to lead. And that’s a promise to both ya’ll and myself. If I want it, I will achieve it. The end.

So I made a “cover-my-butt” email and sent it to her. Which was probably the lamest thing I could have done. But it ended up working out in my favor because I got to talk about something that I feel strongly about-stigmas surrounding suicide survivors.

I have issue with the terminology used to talk about suicide. Not because I believe that we shouldn’t talk about it (because we should) but because of the words we use that imply things we don’t mean. Ultimately, it comes down to two questions.

  1. What is it that clearly communicates suicide (or living after) without bringing with it the negative connotations?
  2. What do we call people who live after, instead of dying?

So I was thinking about it, about all that I knew and had at my disposal and about what to use instead. Here are some phrases and my thoughts. (If there’s a *, it’s because I’m going to discuss that phrase later on.)

Commit Suicide: This harkens back to when suicide was a crime-and attemptees* who lived were tried as criminals. (From Google (and Wikipedia): “Before the Suicide Act 1961, it was a crime to commit suicide, and anyone who attempted and failed could be prosecuted and imprisoned, while the families of those who succeeded could also potentially be prosecuted. In part, that criminalization reflected religious and moral objections to suicide as self-murder.”) This implies that people who die on their own terms* are criminals, and those with suicidal ideation are nothing more than premeditating murderers. That’s not right.

Successful Suicide: I have problems with this phrase because “success” will always carry the connotation of (From Google: “accomplishing an aim or purpose”) and it seems like when people use that phrase, they wanted the person to die. I can’t get behind that.

Unsuccessful Suicide: This is the bigger problem I have with “successful suicide”. If an attempt is made and the person lives, under “successful suicide”, that person would be labeled “unsuccessful”. The problem I have with that is that a person who attempted suicide and lived would have reached a point in their lives where they felt there were no other options and the first thing they will hear is “You couldn’t even kill yourself.” You are telling someone who probably felt like they failed at life in every possible way that they also failed at death? That’s a TERRIBLE idea.

Died from Depression: I brought this one up as an alternative, but the truth of the matter is this one is very conditional. I was reading just recently about a police officer who chose his death because he’d become corrupt and didn’t want to go to jail. In this case, it wasn’t depression, and therefore it isn’t applicable to use this phrase. However, in a case like say, Robin Williams (may his soul rest), “died from depression” is completely applicable.

Died From a Complication of Depression: Like the point above, this is conditional. I framed this one by saying the following: If someone had cancer and the coroner put on the cause of death “pulmonary embolism”, we wouldn’t say “They died of a pulmonary embolism.” We’d say “They died of cancer.” The embolism was a complication caused by cancer. The problem with “Complication of Depression”? It takes a while to explain and is extremely conditional.

Selfish Suicide (also: Coward’s Death): I take offense to this one-and many others do as well. If there comes a time when suicide is being seriously contemplated because of depression, it is the furthest thing from selfish. The person will usually feel that taking themselves out of the lives of their loved ones will make those loved ones’ lives less painful, less complicated. Or perhaps it’s a matter of not wanting to continue hurting (either physically or mentally, or maybe both). Neither of those things are selfish or cowardly (and in fact the Google definition of Brave is: “ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage”). (A case could be made for incidents like the cop story I mentioned, but that’s a different post for a different day.)

Ultimate Act of Self-Care: First, let’s break this down. Ultimate (From Google: being or happening at the end of a process; final). Self-Care (From Google and Wikipedia: In health care, self-care is any necessary human regulatory function which is under individual control, deliberate and self-initiated.) Now, if you adhere to this very textbook-esque definition, I don’t have a problem with it. The only thing is, not everyone adheres to the same textbook if you catch my drift. “Ultimate” can be seen as synonymous to “highest” or “best”. “Self-Care” has been construed to mean anything from eating well and exercising to splurging on unnecessary items from the store or eating whole pies by yourself. It is this connotation that would imply selfish behavior. However, if we take this to mean “Last deliberate, self-initiated act of addressing an unmet need” then yes, this is good.

Die on their own terms: This is one of the ones I’ve been leaning on. I see it as factual, kind and flexible. The problem with it? It seems to get a lot of “Huh?” faces when I say it-to which I have to reply with the stoic “Suicide”-which defeats the purpose a little. Now, not only does this phrase fall on the ears a little gentler than suicide, it has the open endedness that accounts for mental health, “the police story”, physical disability choices and more without carrying any specific connotation or implication. And should someone live? Then this phrase starts to fall apart a little.

Suicide attempt: (From Google: make an effort to achieve or complete). I know this is really what’s been used in the past, but just as with “success” this seems a little insensitive. Now, I don’t know if there’s anything better for this act. My problem with it comes from the fact that if you attempt something you’ll either “fail” or “succeed” and we’ve already gone over that issue.

Planned/Spontaneous Suicide: These are relatively new introductions to the vocab choices.The only issue I have with these goes back to the “committed” issue. Planned sounds a lot like “premeditated” and that is definitely a word association with crime. The problem I have with spontaneous is that for the person, it’s almost never spontaneous. The thoughts are there-whether the “spectators” see it or not. Spontaneous just sounds like a cop-out for people who weren’t paying attention to the signs, or who weren’t around.

Suicide fatality/Non-fatal suicide: I tried this set, and with mixed success. I think it works better than “Successful/Unsuccessful” but it’s so mechanical. This is what I expect medical professionals, counselors and other “professionals” to use. Having been in the medical field for a short time, I understand that this phrasing would come in handy for clear and precise communication-which is why I was using it. But it seems disconnected, cold and jargon-y.

Attemptee: The person who lives is often faced with more issues than they had pre-incident. And I mean that in the kindest way possible. With that in mind, as I discussed above, I’m not sure “attempt” is the right verb choice. Depression can warp the meaning of words quicker than anything else, so for the sake of the person, perhaps this isn’t something to use.

Victim: This goes back to “crime” ideology. And for that reason I can’t get behind it.

Survivor: This is the one I use for the simple fact that the definition means exactly what I want it to. (From Google: a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died). Other people may have died from the same method-and that person lived. It carries with it the same respect as it does with other things you survive: cancer, sexual assault, natural disasters, etc. And it denotes that the living is still in progress.

 

 

So, readers, what do you think? Anything I missed? Anything you agree or disagree with? What do you use to talk about suicide?

 

An Interesting Day

Today has been the epitome of interesting days. It’s Reading Day-which roughly translates into “Everyone stay home because there are no classes or exams today”. I made it to campus around 7 this morning, work started at 9 and I will be here for at least 2 more hours. Things to highlight today:

It was supposed to rain, my hair frizzed up enough, and then it got completely cleared. Hair still fluffy.

I’ve only seen two other undergrads on campus today. One of them was at 8AM, one of them at noon.

I got into a philosophical conversation about eating placenta. (And how you can eat it with rice and broccoli apparently.)

I got into a conversation about how not knowing who Prince or the Beatles are makes you uncultured.

I (and my coworker) thoroughly creeped out our boss by telling her fast food restroom horror stories (I worked at Subway, she worked at Chipotle and my husband worked at McDonalds).

I have thusly survived on one cup of coffee, two peanut butter sandwiches, a handful of walnuts and a handful of chocolate chips (and plenty of water).

I completely used up a whole highlighter in my job this morning, and half of another one.

I found out that I may have a research project open to me in the fall.

One of my bosses has been playing Prince for the past hour or so and I know all the songs.

I started out this morning listening to my Spanish Pandora station-where only the commercials were in Spanish (and I thusly complained).

I printed out too many labels this morning so I have been wearing TWO labels which say “Independent Study Grad Student”. I am neither a grad student, nor am I in independent study-I am in fact paid to work as an undergrad. 

Honestly, I live for days like this. Seriously, this has been the weirdest day I have had in such a long time that it’s about to become my absolute favorite day ever. I don’t even know how to make it any better, but it’s gonna be hard to top it.

Why the Kesha Ruling Matters

This week has been one hellacious week, as far as my reaction to court cases and life in general. You could say my faith in humanity wavered for a moment in time. But I write to you today from the perspective from someone who found the passion to pull herself from the depths of a hell-like depression into a full blown fighter. I have always been a fighter and now I’ve found my purpose.

Pocahontus Compass

I can no longer sit idly by and let our society, which I have endeavored to learn about and discover seek to oppress me by legislation which forces me to conceal that which is most basic to my existence: my biological sex.

I was born a female, and that is what I will stay, as feels right for me. But for whatever reason, that has been enough to condemn me. Michelle, are you talking about yourself personally or as a generality? Well, reader, I have to say both. And I can think of no more a potent case than the one recently involving Kesha. Kesha is a pop singer signed to the Sony label. She is known for song like “Tik-Tok” and “Crazy Kids”. And earlier this past week, a judge (more specifically Justice Shirley Kornreich of the Manhattan-New York Supreme Court) ruled that Kesha would continue to be legally obligated to fulfill her contract with the man whom Kesha has accused of sexually assaulting and raping her.

Michelle, you don’t even KNOW Kesha, nor anyone even remotely close to that case. How could it POSSIBLY affect you? Well, reader, pull up a chair and let me tell you a story.

—-Before I begin, I actually started this post 4 days ago, and had to stop because it emotionally drained me to the point of insanity. I would now like to finish what I started.

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If the law says that a woman must stand by her accused rapist (or alleged assaulter, or abuser) for the sake of upholding a piece of paper, on which words are printed and names were signed, you are doing two things. First, you are saying that a contract is more important than a woman’s safety. Second, you are saying that women are not to be respected or believed if they come forward with accusations of assault, abuse or rape. You are saying that a women is expected to be grateful for the opportunities she has and that any reason she may have to want to remove herself from that opportunity is not good enough, and that maybe she shouldn’t have brought it on herself.

I was in class yesterday, and as I usually get there a couple minutes early, I found myself in a super emotional conversation about this very topic. I promise I didn’t start it, but I can proudly say I did pitch in. But because it pertains, I will record the pertinent parts.

Person A: My theater class was talking about the Steubenville rape today and Kesha got brought up. There are 4 women including myself in that class and I’ve never been so emotional in a class before.

Person B: What happened?

Person A: The men in the class all grouped up to say that Kesha should have had the wherewithal to know that she was being given date rape drugs instead of sleeping pills and that she deserved to face the consequences. Then one of the 4 women took their side and said that Kesha getting raped was like a person standing in front of a mass shooter and asking to be shot.

Now, I’m gonna stop my relay of the conversation there, because Person A and the rest of the class were getting into the problems of rape culture (some of which I will bring up in a moment) and because I made my point. Person A was physically shaking, and by the end of the conversation, more than just them was of that same response.

So when I say “rape culture” what is it that I mean? According to the Women Against Violence Against Women, here’s the backstory:

“Rape culture is a term that was coined by feminists in the United States in the 1970’s. It was designed to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence.”

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Uh-oh! Did I just say feminists? YES I DID. And the Google definition of feminism is:

Feminism: noun: the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

Feminists are simply people who think that all people should be equal, and have equal rights. That’s it. Not men-hating crazy people. Just equality. It says nothing about what job is “appropriate” or what fashion a person wears or beliefs or anything. Just equality. Seriously. SO MANY people use it the wrong way and have no idea what it is. Educate yourselves!

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Anyway, back to my point.

If we as a society are telling one young woman that she cannot escape her alleged attacker, then we are telling ALL women that they are stuck in the cycles of inferiority because of the sex they were born as. We are saying that women do not have the right to feel safe, or to expect to be protected by the laws which seek to govern them. We are telling women that their voice is to be muted, so that no one is to ever pay attention to it because all women are doing is seeking attention without having anything worthwhile to say.

And yes, it IS possible for women to be awful people and just make stuff up for attention. But one bad person is NOT justification enough to punish all women and oppress their needs just as it is not justification enough to punish all of MANkind for the actions of Hitler or John Wilkes Booth.

I try to keep my blogs from being overrun by politics. My husband is the political one and in fact, I think he may eventually come around to the idea of going into politics as a career. I’ve always seen myself as the justice keeper type. But I want to also welcome discussion. I don’t want to exclude views just because they are not my own. I want to know why people think what they think.

This topic is so personal for me. Not because of who is involved, or what happened, but because I am a woman. My husband and I have decided that kids would be great-one day in the distant future. The thought of having a kid now TERRIFIES me. I’m not ready, I’m not financially stable enough, I still go to college and that’s reason enough for me.

Why am I bringing up kids in my blog about the Kesha case? Because I need you all to see the pressures on women. And part of being a woman is being pressured about your biological clock.

I had a professor who told me that my experiences were not correct because they seemed to him to be wrong. He had asked about the pressures of having children on married women. I offered my story because I thought it would help the class understand. Here’s the transcript.

Him: I don’t know. Do any of you married women feel that there is pressure on you to have children?

Me: I had people asking me if I was ready to have a kid five minutes after I got married. And some of the congratulatory Facebook posts also contained questions about it.

Him: I don’t think that happens.

Another woman came to my defense, saying that it does happen and that people also force their ideas of how many children you are supposed to have on you. But the point is, I was told that my experiences were invalid because he didn’t believe them. How am I supposed to combat that?

The CDC recently released a report about women drinking and pregnancy. If you took health class seriously, you know that alcohol and babies do not mix. It’s bad for the babies. But I personally think the CDC is taking it a little too far. Yes, I think that baby health should be at utmost priority. But I also think that if women who are of “sexually reproductive” age and not on birth control have to have their alcohol consumption monitored, then maybe so should men. After all, men are more likely to become alcoholics and if we’re really so concerned about baby health, then why would we want to be unconcerned about alcoholic dads?

The state of Ohio (in which I live) has recently passed a bill stating that abortions will not be funded unless it is necessary for health or in instances of reported rape or incest. Michelle, you just said you weren’t going to get political-what’s this? This is me showing you why Kesha matters.

So let me list this out for you.

ALL THE THINGS WRONG ABOUT THE KESHA RULING AND RAPE CULTURE IN AMERICAN SOCIETY

(The consequences spelled out for you by: a woman.)*

-Women are not to be believed in the event that they accuse someone of rape or assault because they are probably just seeking a better opportunity.

-Women are not to be believed about their experiences because they are probably lying.

-Women are not to consume alcohol because they are going to damage their unplanned children. (There is, to-date, no regulation on men though.)

-Women are not allowed to get an abortion (in several states now, not just my own) unless they have poor health, have been the victim of incest or have been the victim of a rape that they probably just want because they had the opportunity to have “consensual” sex and not worry about the consequences (and they probably lied about being raped anyway).

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And now, you maybe see why the Kesha case is so important. It isn’t about Dr. Luke, Kesha or even Sony. It isn’t about Hollywood’s biases, intolerance, injustice (well, it kinda is) or anything like that. It is about the implications of a ruling based on sexism and oppression in a land where being a woman is already treated like a bad thing. I’ll be graduating Spring 2017 with a degree in Anthropology and then in 2020 with a degree in law. And I’m aiming for the laws which limit women’s rights. That will be my legacy.

female-power-anyn-rand.jpg*This explanation does NOT reflect my personal beliefs. I believe that the scenario I have explained is how the facts are being interpreted. I believe that ALL accusations of rape and assault should be looked into with respect and integrity, and am looking into a career in rape prosecution. The explanation I give is NOT how I believe the world should work and is in fact, just the opposite of how I want society to  be.