Suicide and Rationality

The ethics of death and dying are complex and emotional, but also incredibly important. For most young adults, questions about death are interesting mind games: puzzles that you can play with and then put away for a while. This is not the case for people (like me) who have been or are suicidal. I like to fancy myself a rational individual (or as rational as an individual can hope to be in any given circumstance), but common wisdom holds that suicidality, particularly suicidality if one has depression, is irrational.

I’m not going to say that I’m pro or anti suicide here. This isn’t the place for a discussion of the morality of suicide. But I do want to talk about what it means to be rational and whether or not someone with a mental illness can accurately evaluate their life in a rational way.

Statistically speaking, if someone attempts suicide and lives through it, they are likely to indicate that they’re glad they are still alive. Mental illness absolutely can amplify the hopelessness of a situation and make it appear that things will never improve. People with severe depression tend to underestimate their ability to feel happy and overestimate all the things that will make them unhappy. Most of us would define this as the essence of irrationality: you cannot accurately see your own circumstances and you cannot make educated guesses about the future because of a skewed view of the cost/benefit analysis of your life. Rationality is about seeing facts without being skewed by emotion, and mental illness tends to create an emotional lens through which all facts are viewed.

So at first glance, it appears that suicide while in the midst of a mental illness is wholly irrational: it’s seeing a skewed version of the world and then acting on it as if it were objective. But I wouldn’t be writing this if it were so simple and clear cut. While it’s easy to simply see mental illness as a distortion of reality, what we often ignore is the intense pain and struggle that comes along with it, as well as the difficulty of recovering and the chronic nature of many mental illnesses. For someone who is in the midst of a mental illness, most decisions have to involve a consideration of the amount of mental pain or difficulty involved.

Especially for chronic conditions or personality disorders, this also means taking into account the fact that their mental health will likely be a struggle in the future. This is a very real and rational consideration: ignoring the impact of a chronic mental health condition when thinking about how to structure the future would be wholly irrational because it ignores a fact about reality and about an individual’s ability to cope.

To take this into the context of suicide, if an individual is struggling with a mental illness, it may be rational to look at the amount of pain that their illness causes in their life and decide that on balance, the good isn’t worth it. For some people whose conditions are temporary it’s probably a good idea to recognize the transience of the suicidal feelings, but as previously mentioned, chronic and personality disorders are likely to affect (and cause harm) throughout an individual’s entire life.

I see this as recognizing that you will most likely have a skewed vision of the world indefinitely and that the skewed vision of the world is painful. In that way it is recognizing the reality of your situation. Where this gets really complicated is in trying to figure out the likelihood of recovery. One of the trademarks of something like depression is the inability to imagine anything other than a life with depression. Trying to determine with any amount of rationality the likelihood that your mental illness will persist, the suckiness of your mental illness, and the amount of that suckiness that you can reasonably live through is a challenge for even the most rational individual.

Obviously suicide is highly contextual and the rationality or irrationality of the act is dependent on the individual and the life they’re living. But it does not seem out of line to me to imagine someone with serious mental illness deciding in a completely rational way that their mental illness has made their life more painful than it’s worth. Having a mental illness does not necessarily imply that your decisions are irrational.

All of that being said, I don’t believe that rational or irrational is an appropriate criterion for whether something is a moral and good decision so please no one go off and hurt yourself on the basis of this post.

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