Humanism and Suicidal Ideation: A Secular Struggle for Agency

Humanism and Suicidal Ideation: A Secular Struggle for Agency December 9, 2019

Let’s begin with a warning.

I strive always to remind readers when I am not an expert in a given topic, and for today’s essay it is critical that we’re clear on this accord. I have no degree in psychology or social-work; I am not a neuroscientist or medical practitioner.

I am simply a humanist who has lived with suicidal ideation since they were eight.

At eight, I used to etch the words “I want to die” in the earth at recess. I was in grade four that year. A bit young? Yes. I’d skipped grade one, and when taking math classes with the grade sixes during grades two and three, I was bullied at recess by those same students. When I stopped going, to try to avoid the problem, I was put in detention for disrespecting the teacher. Grade four–my first year in full-day gifted–I was bullied, too. I was bullied on the bus, by grade sevens and eights who’d sometimes steal my lunchbox and toss parts out the window while a bizarre bus driver cheered on their brutality; and I was bullied by fellow gifted kids, who didn’t take a shining to the half-pint with a mop of uncombed hair who aced all the maths homework.

One day, the cruelty of this last group culminated in a mean prank. The kids in my class knew I had a crush, and they staged a situation in which the target of my crush would take me aside and say… nice things about me. That he liked me because of [X] positive attributes. And I walked away from that unexpected encounter as if on a cloud, at which point the girls of the class clamoured about, asking me to tell them what had just happened. And I did, haltingly but happily. I told them all the nice things he’d said about me, but while I did I didn’t realize that the crowd had suddenly gotten a whole lot bigger–the boys in the class, my crush among them, having joined the circle around me.

That’s when this boy laughed in my face and told me how pathetic I was to have believed him; to have believed any of those nice things were true. And the rest of my class laughed and laughed, too. I broke out of that circle in tears. I tore off to get away from them. I ran straight for a very steep forest hillside at the edge of recess grounds.

One of those classmates, contrite to see the consequences of her actions, called out and stopped me. We sat together, and she told me she was sorry. Then, after that lunch hour, she told a teacher that I’d tried to commit suicide. And then the teacher informed the principal, and the school nurse.

I didn’t know about this chain of events until I got home, though, and found out that this claim had been passed on in a phone call.

My parents… did not take that incident well. But this essay isn’t about their reactions, or struggles. It’s about that confusing line in the sand: suicidal thoughts versus actions.

Because I hadn’t been trying to kill myself that day. What a baffling thing, to think that one could kill oneself by tumbling down even a steep wooded hillside!

But I had wanted to die.

And, oh, how desperately I have often wanted to in low points ever since.

The Secular Story for Suicidal Ideation

I’m sharing that story because we tend to pay more attention to parts of the media sphere that resonate with us, personally–so of course as I grew up routinely wanting to die, I was acutely aware of secular storytelling around suicidal ideation. And what that secular storytelling tended to do was treat with equivalent alarm the fact of suicidal ideation.

“Well, yeah!” one might reason: “Because it’s important to catch suicidal ideation before it advances into something more serious!”

That’s the “gateway” theory, at least. Alternately–

“Well, yeah!” one might argue: “Because too many people think it’s not serious at all, just a ploy for attention!”

That’s the “de-stigmatize mental health issues!” school of thought.

But in practice, at least throughout my childhood, the extreme weight placed on suicidal ideation counterintuitively made it more difficult to solicit help. I mean, okay, I’d had a rather extreme early run-in with the punitive side of seeking help for mental-health issues… but it was also widely understood in my peer groups from adolescence through to early university that if you said you were having suicidal thoughts you’d give the doctor no choice but to take extreme action. I’d even hear parents threaten their anguished, articulating kids with the punitive likes of–“Oh, so you don’t want to live? Okay, then I guess I have to take you to the hospital where they’ll keep you for three days…”

All of which creates, of course, an extreme dichotomy: we end up heightening the stakes of suicidal ideation (including in the minds of suffering individuals), so as to avoid the charge of trying to diminish the value of mental-health advocacy.

Is that approach to mental health… constructive? Does it help?

Stats for Suicide Ideation and Deaths

World Health Organization figures from a 21-country survey (which I’m distilling from a compilation of studies here) suggest that some 800,000 people die annually from suicide (around 12 in 100,000), the significant majority of them men. Meanwhile, the rate of suicide attempts is much higher, at around 30 attempts for each ended life (especially drawing from US-specific data). And ideation? About 2% of the surveyed population in any given 12-month period reported suicidal ideation… but in the US, that incidence rate shot up to 4%, with only 50% of those folks reporting any receipt of mental-health care.

Suffice it to say, then, there is a significant need to talk about and de-stigmatize mental-health issues. Clearly, too many people are suffering without appropriate recourse–and since around 30% of suicidal ideators attempt suicide, there’s also good reason to see suicidal ideation as a potential risk factor for more extreme destructive behaviours.

The question is, though, whether treating suicidal ideation as pretty much a one-way ticket to actuation is an appropriate way to confront the severity of this mental-health concern.

And again–I’m not a medical expert. But I do want to share what personal experience has suggested might be another, less escalating approach to this serious mental state. I’m going to call it a “humanistic” approach to suicidal ideation, but I don’t want you thinking I’m just throwing that word around until it becomes functionally meaningless.

Rather, humanism is a human-centric existential outlook that prioritizes empathy and empirical data, and what I’d like to propose is entirely in line with that latter component: the idea that a pragmatic look even at something superficially scary, like intrusive thoughts of self-harm and suicide, is far superior to an approach based on panic.

(Or, you know, an approach based on either religious or secular shaming of people for being suicidal at all. Whether it’s “How selfish you are to want to end your life!” or “How dare you try to play God with your own life!”, those are awful, anti-humanist approaches to mental health, and they’re really not worth belabouring here.)

So, let’s be good humanists about this, shall we? Let’s say you’re having suicidal thoughts. Sure, hopefully you have the phone numbers and related contact information for professional supports in your community… but what else can you do, immediately, to take away the weight and power of suicidal ideation?

A More Humanistic Approach to Suicidal Ideation

Here’s the pitch, my lovelies:

When someone starts thinking about wanting to die, our culture tends to leap on the whole “dying” part.

But what if we paid attention to the part of suicidal ideation that’s struggling for agency instead? What if we saw those intrusive thoughts about ending our lives as our brains intelligently groping about in times of great sadness or stress for something it could do to change its circumstances?

Because that’s at the core of it all, isn’t it?

Whether we’ve been bullied mercilessly, or find ourselves facing an impossible debt scenario, or have just lost a loved one… all of those circumstances may feel entirely outside our control, but our desire for control hasn’t gone away. Quite the contrary!

Rather, the cry of “I just want to die,” or the mental image we play out over and over of our deaths, is at its heart an affirmation of how strong our individual will continues to be. It is, in an odd sort of way, almost comforting to remember that we at least retain one possible act of full human agency even in our bleakest hours.

And so rather than immediately panicking at one’s own suicidal ideation, or at the suicidal ideation of anyone you might know, what if we instead chose to focus on the incredible strength that the brain is manifesting? It’s a born problem-solver, after all–and now it’s trying valiantly to solve an extremely difficult and emotional quandary.

What it needs, of course, is more options, more variables, more reframing (the likes of which, as I mentioned in my last essay, CBT can help with immensely for those who have the patience for such homework)… but while we’re waiting on those other options to emerge, is it necessary to treat the brain itself as anything less than an incredible and persevering organism, for having started this troubleshooting process at all?

Agency: The Core of Human Dignity

Relentless suicidal ideation is painful. Even infrequent suicidal ideation can alarm us and feel like a betrayal of all the parts of ourselves and our lives we enjoy.

But all suicidal ideation needs to be is the first possible solution thrown out by a biological construct–by a central nervous system, that is, relentlessly making split-second suggestions about how to react to its immediate environment. And why is this system throwing out those extremes? Because it wants agency–it needs agency–and for the moment, at least, this is the only way it can think to reclaim its human dignity.

So–

Maybe I should just leap off a bridge, your brain might suggest while you feel tired and hopeless at the end of the day.

And yes, that can be upsetting to hear–but it’s entirely possible that we might go further, as mental-health advocates for ourselves and our communities, if we stopped regarding such ideation as an automatic guarantee of either future suicidal attempts or actuation.

What if we saw it, instead, as the brain’s opening bid for how best to increase our sense of agency?

What if we pressed on in that negotiation process?

What other, far better solutions might our brilliant-even-when-overacting biological systems come up with next?

I’m thankful to all of you who have made the powerful choice to stick around and find out–and all of you, furthermore, who might have to make that choice again, and again, and again. The world is better for your participation in our collective struggles.


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  • Feminotti

    I loved your article here M. L. Clark. I’m thinking I shouldn’t admit I laughed out loud at this one part but I did, and not because you said the wrong thing but because what you so said was so right and so funny. The part where you said, “…rather than immediately panicking at one’s own suicidal ideation, or the SI of anyone you might know…”, yep, there is tons of panic, bus loads, truck loads, and train loads of it, all headed for the depot of counterproductivity. I’ve worked in mental health for 7 years as an RN and would like to personally confirm what you suspect or know, we never address agency. We rarely even address the issues that got people who said they wanted to die scooped out of their life and brought to us either. Some people do need a safe environment and some do get help, but mostly, we’re all, “here, take this pill” and never tell anyone the response rate is poor or even about most the side/adverse effects. When the pill doesn’t work because the issues are unresolved, a greater sense of failure sets in. Some seek more meds, others learn to avoid the mental health system, somehow most manage to survive and hold themselves together without “help”. I could go on forever but I’ll spare you.

    Speaking of stigmatizing SI and getting help, one of the super disgusting things that has been going on since Trump got elected is, more so anyway, and bigger, when people call him out publicly, he likes to discredit them by calling them unstable and mentally ill. Why think over a question or an issue or accept any responsibility for yourself or your behaviors when you can just write the whole thing off? Well, because it’s a bad idea to further stigmatize mental illness or problems in a world where such are drowning in the cruelty and freak out zone of stigma as it is.

    Great article. Great ideas. Thank you.

  • abb3w

    In this sense, the “agency” seems not so much merely the capacity to make choices, but more for making choices that lead to outcomes that differ.

    This might be broadened by helping people habitually recognize the range of choices available extends beyond their usual scope of consideration (instead of leaping off a bridge, you might instead go see what it is a bridge to), and in turn how to explore within that extended range for still-practical choices that might yield outcomes considered of more benefit.

    Nohow, such open-scope view of the world is difficult to habituate, and depression may make whatever amount of such habit more difficult to exercise.

  • “Nohow, such open-scope view of the world is difficult to habituate, and depression may make whatever amount of such habit more difficult to exercise.”

    Agreed–but that’s the point. It’s harder to habituate people to a broader range of options when we live in a context that treats suicidal ideation as a dire event imposed upon a helpless sufferer. Change the background noise, ease the anxiety and despair that compounds within a person when they recognize the symptom for what it is, and in so doing give them the breathing room and greater cultural supports needed to reframe this symptom as that “opening bid” I mentioned above. Depression doesn’t happen in a vacuum–and neither does our species’ increasing depression crisis on whole.

    Thanks for commenting and chewing over some aspects here!

  • Thanks for your laughter, Feminotti! I too love a good, sordid chuckle when circumstances allow. And yes, having gone through out-patient, day-hospital, and peer-led recovery programmes, I completely resonate with what you’re saying here about medication often compounding feelings of helplessness and failure. I witnessed that especially among the lower-educated patients, absent direct advocates when dealing with medical professionals. It’s a vicious circle, and if I didn’t cynically understand the capitalist “why” of it all, I’d be agog at how much we’re all complicit in giving people with mental health struggles to believe that mental health disorders are happening “to” them, as opposed to a part of the way that their own bodies are valiantly and coherently trying to process and cope with a range of biochemical and experiential stimuli.

    Suffice it to say, thanks so very much for posting and sharing your experience here, especially with regard to how that stigmatization of mental health is playing out in plain view at the “highest” levels of political society right now. What a heartbreaking thing, no? To know full well how many extraordinary things our species is capable of achieving… and then to have to witness this culture’s proud backslide into ignorance and tribalist pride instead.

    Thanks, too, for all your work as an RN in mental health. I sorely hope you have the support network and means necessary to care for yourself amid all the vital work you’re doing for others. Your wellness matters deeply, as do you.

  • Major Major

    Good article, ML. I too have dealt with 69bullying when I was in school, particularly in the midgrades. I wasn’t gifted like you, but I was smart, and a member of the Latinx community. I would get pushed around, have my homework stolen, and generally ostracized. I also came from a troubled household. My sister was the one who attempted 69suicide, multiple times. She had to be committed multiple times. There were times when I considered going through with it, but mainly I tended to go along the lines of running away. I thought if I could run away from my situation, I could figure something out. There wasn’t really anyone in particular I would go to, but just to get away from where I was.

    69Suicide runs in my family, esp. my dad’s side.There are times which I struggle even now as a father when I should just jump in front of an oncoming train. I don’t really confide this in anyone, because of an incident I had in my 4th grade. I was having issues with my 4th grade teacher. I didn’t really like her, and there were some home issues, so I had to see the school psychologist. I wrote a letter to him expecting it to be private between me and him, but he had shared it with her and the principal. Needless to say, it helped erode my trust in adults. It didn’t help that we had moved in that school year, and there were less kids my age near where we lived. I learned to set up a barrier around myself, and didn’t allow myself to get close to anyone. I was polite, but I never got really deep with anyone. I still struggle with building friendships, and I don’t have many tbf. I haven’t kept in touch with really anyone really from my school days, even college. I haven’t really had a desire to go to reunions.

    I hope you are in a better space, and I hope we as humanists can figure out a way to deal with suicide ideation in a healthy way.

  • What you said about having neither home nor school as a safe place sounds a lot like the dual challenge that M.L.Clark faced & one that I read elsewhere is the threshold for pushing kids over the edge. Kids are pretty resilient & can handle hardship either at home or at school but they need at least 1 safe place so if neither of those fits the bill (and a 3rd option e.g. grandparents, neighbours, etc. doesn’t exist) then it’s simply too much for them. I think the issue is that the complete lack of a safe place forces their minds to normalize constant threat, which is an unbearable state for any extended period.

  • Positivist

    What if we saw [suicidal ideation], instead, as the brain’s opening bid for how best to increase our sense of agency?

    This is a brilliant reframing! It’s not so much that we want a way out, but that we feel powerless to act. Thank you for giving me something to contemplate deeply.

  • Positivist

    We rarely even address the issues that got people who said they wanted to die scooped out of their life and brought to us either.

    Can confirm (I am also in health profession). Suicidal ideation is treated primarily as an acute disorder. Instead, it should be treated like the chronic condition that it is, like diabetes!

  • Positivist

    Change the background noise, ease the anxiety and despair that compounds within a person when they recognize the symptom for what it is, and in so doing give them the breathing room and greater cultural supports needed to reframe this symptom as that “opening bid”

    This!

    I work in health care and I agree that we are 100% not set up to help people manage mental health crises. We are much better at managing heart attacks and broken bones.

  • “And yes, that can be upsetting to hear–but it’s entirely possible that we might go further, as mental-health advocates for ourselves and our communities, if we stopped regarding such ideation as an automatic guarantee of either future suicidal attempts or actuation.”

    It’s not “an automatic guarantee.” It is a correlate.

    There are some rare situations in which suicide is a rational choice.

  • Hi Major Major. Thanks so much for sharing. It’s been a long week of personally guided therapy and its aftermath, so I’ve been remiss in responding to comments sooner, but it was deeply fortifying to hear of someone else’s experiences with similar. When adults break a child’s trust, they set up a frustrating series of longterm consequences. It sounds as if you found coping mechanisms to handle your pain–but like most coping mechanisms, their purpose is to help one survive… not necessarily to thrive. And just surviving can be a grindingly lonely affair.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, though: I think this all makes your child very lucky to have you as a dad. All the experience you bring to the table, in childhood exclusion, isolation, and broken promises, will hopefully help to break the cycle going forward.

    As for yourself, I hope you’ve found some circles of people you can trust, however small those circles might be, and I hope that you continue to seek out healing of your own, in whatever way time and resources allow. Childhood adversity has lifelong medical consequences, so there’s nothing frivolous about trying to push outside comfortable (survival) routines created by traumas outside our control.

    Warmest wishes to you and yours.

  • Major Major

    I’ve reconciled with my family, but I still curate what I tell people close to me. My wife is really the only one in my life that knows of my deconversion from christianity. I had a plan to tell people close to me systematically of my deconversion, but I think I’ve just kind of decided to let it come out organically. I do get some support through the various blogs here on Patheos.

    I think the biggest challenge for my wife and I is how we raise our children. She is certainly more conservative than I am, but I think the most important thing I want to teach our children is to think for themselves, and come to their own conclusions. My personal nightmare is for our children to grow up to become extremists of some flavor.

  • J Quasar D

    There’s a difference between feeling mortified and feeling suicidal, even the root of both is death. Thanks for bringing it out.