I was having dinner with my friend the other night when she casually mentioned a childhood friend of hers had recently committed suicide. Knowing from experience that showering a traumatized friend with sympathy is not necessarily helpful, I asked her to tell me more about the situation.
"I just talked to her two weeks ago," my friend said. "And she seemed so happy that I never would have suspected anything to be wrong. Plus it was all the more confusing because it happened in the middle of Suicide Prevention Week."
Granted, there is no typical case of suicide — some could be provoked by excessive bullying; others could result from years-long battles with mental illness and still others may seem unexpected. But one thing most suicides have in common is the subsequent guilt felt by those in the victims’ surrounding circles — those who failed to prevent it.
No matter how tightly time attempts to wrap the bandages, there will never be a day in these people's lives during which they aren't plagued with thoughts of what they should have said, could have done or have known before it was too late.
My friend and I discussed how the problem with emphasizing suicide prevention is how it plants the seed of blame into people's minds which, in the aftermath of a loved one's passing, sprout into inescapable guilt. My friend is one of the lucky ones who was able to openly discuss this fallacy, but I don't doubt that others who are trying to make sense of their losses are far more reluctant to accept it.
Suicide itself is not a cause of death. It is only a means of dying. The factors which contribute to suicide — in particular, mental health issues — are not just overwhelming circumstances, but often diagnosable diseases.
Some mental health conditions can be cured with adequate treatment and routine checkups, whereas others are silent killers, which sneak up from behind before anyone can even process what's going on.
But, no matter what form a disease takes, illness-induced death is neither the fault of the victim nor of the people who are supposed to support the ailing. If a disease saturates a person so densely that death seems inevitable, then the only force to blame is the disease itself.
It is essential to break down and pull apart the topic of suicide, especially in a university setting which is prone to harvesting a high-pressure academic environment with cut-throat, competitive standards. Though efforts to decrease suicide rates are well-intentioned, it seems like nobody really stops to talk about the nature of suicide from outside of its oversimplified vacuum.
All too frequently, I come across vignettes which romanticize suicide, as if every person falling off the cliff of depression will undoubtedly be saved by someone floating open-armed in the waters beneath the precipice. But, more often than not, these floating angels are stationed miles above the ground and can only see this person from a bird's eye view, which blinds them to how close their friends are to the edge. Angels can’t always be quick enough to dart down in time to catch the suffering.
It might be helpful to remind your friends that you love them and will always be there to listen to them. It might save a life if you answer a sobbing phone call from a relative at three in the morning. But also, it might not.
Whether you’d maxed out your efforts to try and help someone or had been oblivious from the start, it’s never your fault. As a floating angel, it is only required of you to be present, not to work miracles.
Vega’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.