By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor
I have worked in suicide prevention and suicide grief support for a little more than a decade, and for the past year and a half (since the SPNAC blog was launched), I’ve scanned hundreds of articles on this tragic subject. In the course of my encounters with what is said and written in communities across the country and on the Internet, I have been subjected about a thousand times to the declaration “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” and I cannot hear it one more time without crying out: Please stop saying that!
I know that it must seem like a clever and even a helpful thing to say (or else why would people have kept saying it, right up to the point where it has become nothing less than a cliche but with the power, I’m afraid, of an axiom). The declaration seems clever, I suppose, because it has the pleasant sing-song rhythm of an advertising jingle, like “I am stuck on Band-Aid, ’cause a Band-Aid’s stuck on me.” And it seems helpful because, of course, it is true: Indeed, suicide is a permanent solution.
But here’s why I argue that we should stop saying it:
The statement violates the age-old principle that what we communicate ought to be designed specifically with a focus on the audience for whom the particular communication is intended. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” might strike someone who is not suicidal as a clever statement, and it might be a helpful thing to hear from the point of view of someone who already believes (or is likely to be convinced) that his or her problem is temporary. But the audience for this anti-suicide ditty is, of course, people who are suicidal.
As Edwin Shneidman points out in his Ten Commonalities of Suicide, “The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution.” So emphasizing to a suicidal person that suicide is a permananet solution is as likely to be unhelpful — or even harmful or dangerous — as it is to be helpful.
The problem a suicidal person is trying to solve, according to Shneidman, is how to escape from psychache, which Shneidman defines as “intolerable emotion, unbearable pain, unacceptable anguish … [that] cannot be abated by means that were previously successful” (emphasis added). In other words, from the point of view of someone who is earnestly considering killing himself or herself, the pain from which suicide would provide escape is not temporary.
Even though the perception that the pain is permanent is not accurate, the strategy of trying to convince a suicidal person that his or her pain is temporary is as likely to be counter-productive as it is to be productive.