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What people really mean when they say ‘suicide is selfish’

Grief and fear readily get transformed into anger when people are hurting

Man comforting his sad mourning friend

Suicide deaths create a vortex of strong, often contradictory emotions in many survivors.

AntonioGuillem/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Suicide is often described by first responders as “an act of selfishness.”

As a trusted doc, I’ve often found myself shoulder to shoulder with warfighters and first responders as they face extreme forms of mental warfare. Based on years of experience, it’s clear to me that suicide is not an act of selfishness.

Further, upon reflection, it’s clear to me that when people say, “suicide is selfish,” they mean one of three things.

1. I am hurting.

When someone dies by suicide, they leave a wake of devastation that can last a lifetime. Those who die by suicide are not always the ones we would have expected to die a death of despair.

Suicide deaths create a vortex of strong, often contradictory emotions in many survivors. Survivors of suicide loss may feel a mix of rage with no clear direction, and sometimes rage that is directed at the person who has taken their life. The sudden, obliterating grief that some survivors of loss feel can put them at risk themselves for suicide. Survivors of suicide commonly tell me that they feel abandoned or betrayed in the aftermath of a suicide. They often wonder what it means that a fellow first responder who entrusted their life to them while on the job did not tell them about the private despair that led to their sudden death.

Here’s an example I’ll never forget. I asked one of my patients what he would do if a brother in arms who died by suicide were to walk into the room. He said, “I would punch him in the face. And then I would give him a huge hug.”

This reaction of strong and contradictory emotions after a suicide is common. It is equally common for many warriors and first responders to convert all strong emotions into anger. Grief and fear readily get transformed into anger when people are hurting. So, when people say, “suicide is selfish,” this may be their way of saying, “I am hurting and I have no other way to tell you how much pain I’m in.”

2. I am scared.

Not only does suicide leave a wake of emotional devastation, it can also create fear among survivors.

There is a concept I’ve developed called the “sniper effect” where survivors often feel that they lose brothers and sisters in arms to an unknown, unseen enemy. The reason that I developed a tactical analysis for suicide prevention is to bring insights that can help first responders and their leaders understand how suicidal thoughts emerge and develop over time. Without this understanding, they are left in a state of helplessness and fear. They may wonder,

“Who is next?”

“Can suicide really be prevented?”

“What does it mean for me that someone that strong died by their own hand?”

“Could I catch the same self-destructive thoughts and urges?”

So when people say “suicide is selfish,” this may be their way of saying, “I am afraid, and I have no other way to tell you how much fear I’m feeling.”

3. I do not understand.

In my most recent Police1 article, “5 Common Myths about Suicide,” I talked about how suicidal thoughts are actually quite common for many first responders. In two separate studies, 37% of first responders have suicidal thoughts about 10 times as often as civilians. In the article, I reflect on why this makes logical sense, and point out that for many first responders, it’s not a question of whether they will have destructive thoughts, but when these thoughts might emerge.

However, for someone who has not yet been visited by these kinds of dark thoughts, there can be a tendency to judge what they don’t understand. The suicidal mind state is one of altered consciousness. It is not rational. It is characterized by distorted thinking, in the same way that someone who is anorexic thinks that they’re fat when they’re dangerously underfed. Suicidal urges are often paired with a similar level of distorted thinking.

When someone is at the end of a tunnel of despair, the voices of their loved ones are quiet little whispers while the voice of despair is often screaming at them.

Understanding the suicidal mind state brings clarity to the fact that suicide is not an act of selfishness. Suicide is about disconnection, despair and distorted thinking. It is the final culmination of a perfect storm, the product of a distorted perception that death by suicide is somehow a gift to their loved ones. This is the fundamental lie that drives suicidal behavior in most of the first responders I’ve supported.

First responders are wired to be protectors and defenders. That is their true nature. The last thing a first responder would want to do is to put their brothers and sisters at greater risk for suicide. The last thing they would want to do is to cause the kind of devastation and emotional pain that follows a completed suicide. The last thing they would want to do is create feelings of hopelessness and fear in their brothers and sisters.

The fact that suicide does these things nonetheless has nothing to do with the individual’s intention.

It is time for us to go well beyond awareness that suicide happens. It is time for us to start getting a grip on how suicidal thoughts emerge and progress over time. It is time for first responders – and those who support them - to develop a tactical understanding that can help them get traction in preventing suicide.

Please reach out to me directly at if you want your organization to gain this tactical understanding for how to address suicide risk in your teams.

Shauna ‘Doc’ Springer is a licensed psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts on psychological trauma, military transition, suicide prevention, and close relationships. As Chief Psychologist for Stella, she is responsible for developing Stella’s trauma-informed approach across its international network of more than 40 clinics. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has described her latest book, “RELENTLESS COURAGE: Winning the Battle Against Frontline Trauma,” as “one of the most important books of our time.”