Columnist takes a stand on suicide, and gets it all wrong

It was an awful tragedy in Dallas this week when Patti Stevens, 54, took her own life, two weeks after a mentally ill former Texas A&M football player hacked her husband to death with a machete while he was out for an early-morning jog.

She left a note behind with biographical information for a Dallas Morning News reporter, to whom she had talked for a story just a week ago.

“Dave was the love of my life and I’m lost without him,” she said in the interview. “People need to know that this was a wonderful person going out and doing what he loved to do.”

Sharon Grigsby, a Dallas Morning News columnist and deputy editorial page editor, didn’t know the couple, who had no children, for the record.

But she’s angry enough by Patti’s suicide that she turned in a horrific piece of work that was published this afternoon, shaming Stevens for taking her own life.

“Healthy grieving is the kind of hard work that our society wants to turn tail and run from,” she writes. “In its worst manifestations, suicide seems preferable. Especially to younger Americans, who need role models doing the hard, responsible thing.”

In a giant step backward for public discussions of mental health, she took a stand for shame.

So many responses other than suicide would be more viable: Like getting help, especially if you have been suffering already from depressive-like symptoms. Like honoring a loved one’s memory by working with and being in fellowship with others who have lost loved ones.

At the end of the day, suicide is a self-centered gesture.

It’s a lot to ask of a widow in the immediate aftermath of the murder of a husband. And the “just ask for help” as a simple answer is little more than a simple answer. Lots of people who take their own lives sought help but help didn’t work. That often only makes the underlying sense of failure all the more unbearable.

It’s hard to see how shaming bolsters the willingness of someone to discuss their thoughts of suicide.

A personal reason why I’m willing to step out and label suicide as incomprehensibly selfish: Because I’ve watched people trudge that harder road. I can’t help thinking about all the brave men and women I’ve known who have somehow, someway moved forward out of their own unspeakable tragedy and loss.

Those people were the role models I held tightly when the unspeakable happened in my own life not so long ago. If you have considered suicide, you know what I’m talking about. If you are considering it right now, hold on to the people with real solutions. Their stories aren’t so cinematic or frothy as curling up on the garage floor to die — but they are so much more courageous and constructive.

Those people are the living proof that suicide is not the answer.

The response to the column took Grigsby up on her assertion.

Said one commenter…

Three months ago I would have agreed with you but once you’ve lost someone close to you in a senseless tragedy, suicide can seem like the only option to end the unfathomable sorrow and grief. “Suicide is not the answer”, sounds good all packaged up into a nice little slogan box that prints perfectly on a bumper sticker or t-shirt, but the reasons for suicide run deep and simply telling someone to get help just doesn’t do the trick. We all know it’s one thing to put a yellow ribbon sticker on your vehicle that shows your support for troops and quite another to actually send your loved one off to war. Maybe we should stop with the trite slogans and look for more effective ways to help those who are hurting beyond words. We can start by not condemning this poor woman, who, conveniently enough for you, is not here to defend her actions.

“If your point was to encourage others to get help (rather than kill themselves), you failed,” writes another. “The tone of your article is harsh and condemning – there is nothing uplifting, positive or encouraging about it. If what you truly want is to encourage those who are heavy-burdened, I encourage you to delete this article and try again.”

“If it prevents one suicide, it’s worth it,” says another.

But more than preventing a suicide, another opinion notes, it helps a stigma to persist that keeps the issue to whispers.

Now that isn’t to say you should not try to intervene or help a person with suicidal thoughts or tendencies, that’s perfectly fine! As long as when doing so you don’t try to guilt the person out of doing so or shaming them for even thinking of doing that to ‘all the people that love and care about them’. Try to understand what they are going through, understand that people have different brain chemistry and respond to events/ life in different ways, understand that what you think is a life worth living/endless opportunities might not seem that way to another – everything is subjective. Be compassionate and try to understand rather than judgmental and ignorant.

The reaction to the column has been nearly unanimous in its condemnation of its author, a clear indication that in matters of mental illness and mental health, maybe we actually are making progress.

Related: I lost any sense of journalistic detachment when Patti Stevens mentioned me in her suicide note (Dallas Morning News)