A few weeks ago, I was passing through the hallway in my residence hall when I overheard someone speaking to one of their friends. They were exiting another room just as I was entering mine, so it was pure chance of timing that their comment reached my ears. The comment, which I will not quote here because it is too grotesque and rather unnecessary to repeat, stated intention to commit suicide and was followed by rounds of laughter.
Since that night, I have paid very close attention to the jokes I hear that reference suicide or self-harm and have been sadly surprised to witness the high rates at which these jokes are made. It is clear that these issues are not funny. Why is it then that people continue to make light of them?
I struggle with depression and anxiety and have confronted suicidal thoughts in the past. On the night that I mentioned above, I was going through a particularly difficult period in my battle with mental health. That comment and the laughter that surrounded it, only expanded the whirlwind of thoughts that were already circling inside my head. Thankfully, I have a wonderful support system of family, friends and therapists who help me keep my thoughts in check. But I can’t help wondering about the possible effects that comment could have unleashed on someone who is battling their issues alone.
Another reason these jokes are so harmful is our constant assumption that they are merely jokes. Because of the discomfort around mental health issues, it is easy to dismiss these comments rather than confront them. If we choose to confront them, we have to talk about feelings, words, life and death and that’s sometimes too much for people to navigate in conversation. Death is intimidating and scary, so we ignore it and hope they are joking. But we should consider instead that their joke could be a shout into the void; their way of asking for help. What kind of friends are we if we refuse to listen and respond?
As a person who struggles with mental health, who is close to other people with mental health issues and who is majoring in social work and psychology, I’ve had a lot of education and discussion about mental illness. I’m not mad at the people who have made jokes about suicide and self-harm. Talking about mental health evokes great discomfort for those who have never confronted it. Many people do not realize the power that their words have or understand the realities of mental illness. However, this does not excuse their language. Jokes like these feed into the stereotype that people who struggle with mental illness are weak, damaged or abnormal. In reality, most of us are just like you, living our lives and blending into the crowd. We may even be stronger because of the mental battles we have faced and overcome.
According to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Each year 44,193 people die by suicide in the U.S. which averages out to about 121 suicides per day. These statistics are estimated to be higher because the stigma around suicide leads to under-reporting.
You didn’t laugh while reading the previous para – graph. So, don’t laugh when your friends state desire or intention to kill or hurt themselves. Suicide and self-harm aren’t funny. Pay attention to how you speak about them, and speak up when you hear others treat them as humorous. Words matter.