New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote an article about a lifelong friend who died by suicide. In describing his friend and his descent into a suicidal illness, Brooks sheds some needed light on how we still have a long way to go in our understanding of suicide. (New York Times, February 9, 2023)
His friend, Peter, seemed a most unlikely candidate to die by suicide. He had a wonderful marriage, two loving sons, a warm circle of friends, and a fulfilling career as a doctor within which he took a lot of satisfaction in helping others. He was also physically healthy, active and athletic. Yet, at point, he began sink into a crushing depression before which all the love in the world stood helpless. Eventually, he took his own life.
What Brooks highlights in documenting his friend’s journey should be required reading for everyone. What does he highlight?
First, that in most cases, suicide is an illness. People don’t choose to sink into this kind of depression any more than people choose to have cancer, diabetes, or a heart condition. They are hitwith an illness, and they cannot will themselves out of it any more than someone with a major physical illness can cure himself or herself through simple willpower and attitude. You don’t just will your way out of a suicidal depression. Moreover, suicidal depression is not something that any of us, as outsiders, really understand.
Second, the depression is horrible, the ultimate nightmare. Note how William Styron describes his own depression in his memoir, Darkness Visible, “I experienced a curious inner convulsion that I can only describe as despair beyond despair. It came out of the cold night; I did not think such anguish possible.” Then, the suffering is compounded by the fact that part of the anatomy of the disease (most times) is that the person undergoing it finds it impossible to articulate what the pain exactly consists of. Hence, they are alone inside it, unanimity-minus-one, and with that aloneness comes the overpowering feeling that one is doing a favor to family and friends by removing oneself through suicide.
Moreover, in the face of suicidal depression, medicine and psychiatry can be helpful but they are limited in effectively treating this kind of depression.
What should we do when we are dealing with someone who is undergoing this kind of paralyzing depression? In trying to answer that, it can be helpful to start with the via negativa – what shouldn’t we do?
Brooks shares some of his sincere, but ultimately misguided, efforts to reach his friend. For example, he reminded Peter of all the wonderful blessings he enjoyed and how blessed his life was. Later he realized that “this might make sufferers feel even worse about themselves for not being able to enjoy all the things that are palpably enjoyable.” As well, we should not ask the person if he is thinking of hurting himself. The person is already hurting so badly that everything inside of him wants only to stop the pain, and suicide is perceived as the only means of doing that.
What should we do? Brooks is clear: “The experts say if you know someone who is depressed, it’s OK to ask explicitly about suicide. The experts emphasize that you’re not going to be putting the thought into the person’s head. Very often, it’s already on her or his mind. And if it is, the person should be getting professional help.” Experts also agree that we should take the risk and ask the person openly if he or she is thinking of suicide. If the person isn’t thinking about suicide, he or she will forgive you for asking; but if he or she is thinking of suicide and you are too timid to ask, your timidity might stand in the way of saving that person’s life.
Brooks points out that despite all the work that has been done in medicine and psychology in recent years, suicide rates today are 30 percent higher than they were even twenty years ago and one in five American adults experiences mental illness.
My own life has been much affected by suicide, the suicide of relatives, friends, neighbors, colleagues, classmates, former students, and trusted mentors. In my experience, in every one of these deaths, the person who died was a good, honest, gentle, sensitive, and over-sensitive soul who, at a point in his or her life, was too bruised, too full of pain, and too overpowered by illness to continue to live. Each of these deaths also left behind a tragic sadness that was massively compounded by our lack of understanding of what really caused this person’s death.
In his assessment of his friend’s suicide, Brooks says that in the end “the beast was bigger than Pete; it was bigger than us.” It still is. Simply put, we are still a long way from understanding mental health and its fragility.