On Suicide & Our Ailing Minds

Dear quarter lives,

Do you know we are more likely to kill ourselves than anyone else is? Suicide kills almost one million people every year, more than twice as much as homicide*. Yet we spend more money and resources on protecting our homes with locks and security systems, our societies’ with policemen and women, but what do we do to protect ourselves from our own hands?

It is outrageous that despite all the social and technological progress we are witnessing in the world today, our humanity is still stuck in a place where suicide remains a taboo. We owe it to our communities to ask questions. We owe it to our youth to listen without judgement. We owe it to ourselves, because it could be us and if it is not us, it is a family member and if not a family member, then it is a friend and if it is not a friend, it’ll be a neighbour or colleague. We owe it to our mind to learn more about its ailments. There is no pain more dangerous than the one we cannot see. We cannot say it is this organ that is sick; it is that tissue that is dying. With emotional pain, you don’t know what exactly is dying but it certainly feels like you are. You feel the pain but cannot point at it. You know it is there but can’t show it to a doctor on an x-ray. You know you are broken but not the kind requiring surgery. You know you need help, but you don’t know how to ask for it, because you don’t know what to ask for. I believe though that we can learn how to see it, but only if we educate ourselves. It is our ignorance that prevents us from recognising when the mind falls sick.

And the only way we can tackle these ailments of the mind is together, as a society. We must find a way to cooperate. We must believe that it is a worthy enterprise to design support systems that can stop these invisible diseases from spreading. And to do that, we must believe in the value of every human life. Unfortunately, we live in a world where war remains legal and its media coverage a profitable enterprise. So it is expected that people don’t believe they are valuable because they observe it. Young people live in a constant fear of not being special enough in a time that is constantly hurrying them to achieve more so that they can become special enough. And if you don’t prove you are valuable, you risk being replaced by another. And it is precisely this realisation that we might actually be insignificant that wrecks havoc in our minds. If  I am insignificant and all roads lead to insignificance, then what’s the point in carrying on? And in this dangerous chain of thoughts, people forget they have focused on the destination instead of the journey itself. It is true we might be born insignificant and die insignificant but there is much that happens on the way that is significant. So as a society we must adjust our expectations of each other and what it means to be “significant”.

The problem they keep on saying is disconnection, isolation, and loneliness. The solution they postulate is supposedly simple — Connection. “People need to connect to each other more deeply”, they say. “They need friends.”, they add. “They should form bonds.”, they insist.  

But have you not thought that if the solution is so simple, why aren’t people doing it? What if this disconnection is a choice? Perhaps one might not choose consciously to be depressed, or anxious, or hopeless to the point of suicide. But perhaps we choose to do so unconsciously. If we are avoiding connection on an unconscious level, why are we doing so? What is it about connection that we unconsciously perceive as harmful? Why is it that the act of disconnection is unconsciously perceived as more advantageous than the act of connection? I think we are missing the point by focusing on telling people to connect more without understanding why they have abandoned it in the first place. Why is it safer to be disconnected than connected? What is so dangerous and harmful about connection? These are the questions we should be trying to answer if we are ever to tackle depression, anxiety and suicide head on. The problem is not technology, the problem is that we are afraid of true human connection. The problem is that it is easier and safer for us to hide behind our screens, tricking our systems into thinking they’re connecting. But our system is no fool. If anything, we are the fools. 

So why are we so afraid of connecting? Connection, like everything else in life, has its downside. When we form attachments to other people, there is a lot we risk. We risk our hearts being broken. We risk pain. The more real the bond, the more real the risk of pain is. We learn this from such as young age when acts of kindness were often perceived as acts of weakness. In school, the more fear a bully induced, the more power they had. And you didn’t even have to be a receiver of bullying to witness that “nice” humans are less powerful, less popular (which translated to a child means “less lovable”), and weak. So you grow up believing that humans are a possible source of pain. And in no time at all, this belief forms into a full blown fear. And the result: a whole generation of young people who fear fellow humans now on an unconscious level. We fear being made fun of, we fear being vulnerable as it is mistaken for weakness rather than its true strength. And so, it becomes that just existing around real people causes hardship. There is a real price to pay for connecting, and because we are a society that seeks comfort now in everything, there has become a more comfortable version to real people — virtual people. People prefer connecting online whether via games or social media. Even friends sometimes would rather confront each other online than face to face. I mean it’s easier so why not do it? People dump each other via text message all the time, why? Because it’s more comfortable; it’s easier. We live in a world now where there are comfortable options for everything that is uncomfortable, so any behavioral economist would tell you that it makes perfect sense that people are choosing to connect in the more comfortable virtual world. It is absolutely the rational choice to choose the less painful virtual bond. The opportunity cost of the comfortable choice is now much higher than it ever was before. Only a mad person would choose discomfort. Only a mad person would willingly choose to risk so much pain instead of the almost assured safety from pain of the ‘no real friends, only virtual friends‘ choice.

Only through understanding why people are so afraid of attachment and connection can we even begin to comprehend their ailing minds. Many young people today are making the conscious choice to stay single; some do it for their career, others just like it better that way. But regardless of the specific reason, it is fair to say that the comfortable preference now is to be alone, the logical choice is to avoid an experience of deep connection because it comes at a very high price. People are afraid to get hurt now. They think their hearts won’t survive it. It’s too painful compared to the alternative now. Comfort has become the villain; the cure has become the poison. Too much of anything, even of comfort, can kill us. So to tackle depression, anxiety and suicide, we must tackle our fear of discomfort. We must encourage people that it is in fact desirable to feel discomfort, that there is growth to be made in discomfort, that actual discomfort is not as bad as the fear of it. We should encourage children and adults that a regular practice of leaving their comfort zones is necessary if they are to keep their minds healthy, just as it is necessary to regularly exercise if they are to keep their bodies healthy. This is not an option anymore. If we want to live a long and healthy life, this is a necessary exercise for our psychological wellbeing and resilience. There is more than just a healthy body that is needed to stay alive, and this is no more evident than in those aged 15-29 years, where suicide is the second leading cause of death**. So the real choice now is: Leave your comfort zones regularly, or leave life early. I find it extremely sad that people have become more afraid of each other than of death. Doesn’t that make you sad? It makes my heart break when I realise just how much we have turned into monsters in each others’ eyes. And that is exactly why we need to be very conscious in our interactions with each other. Kindness and love are needed more than ever before. ‘Love thy neighbour’ used to be enough. Today, we must add: Love thy stranger. It’s no longer enough just for adults to be aware of the acts of kindness or unkindness they inflict upon other people, children should be too. Both children and adults should be aware of their responsibility and the impact they have on the wellbeing of their community. It is no longer adequate for the depressed person alone to be held responsible for their own mental state and to lift themselves out of it alone. We are all responsible for the mental health of our communities, and so it is only appropriate to act accordingly.  ‘Be kind’, ‘Love one another’, ‘Keep each other safe’ — these are the solutions. These are the acts that will dissolve our fear of connection. These are the acts that will help achieve mass connection. These are the acts that will save lives. You need not be a hero or a doctor to save a life, you need just to be kind. 


* Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2020) - "Suicide". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/suicide' [Online Resource]
** Silva, Lucía. (2019). Suicide among children and adolescents: a warning to accomplish a global imperative. Acta Paulista de Enfermagem32(3), III-IVI. Epub July 29, 2019.https://doi.org/10.1590/1982-0194201900033