shame and suicide

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the recent loss of loved television presenter Greg Boyed has raised again the topic of depression and suicide.  Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud” has high suicide rates, particularly for teens aged 15-19, where it is the highest.  Too many of us have loved ones that have brought this issue directly into our lives.  It is an urgent topic and healthy and honest thinking is therefore urgently needed.

I don’t think there is one single emotion or social dynamic at work behind suicide.  A unifying theme however, is quite simply the feeling – which can swell up fiercely and quickly – of wanting to be free of whatever toxic cocktail of pain one is facing.  I want to focus here on one type of pain, the pain of shame.

Many who take their own lives will have been overcome by shame.  Whether the shame is connected to past or recent behaviour or a sense of not measuring up personally to a perceived standard of personal worth, the sad reality is that too many people respond to shame by isolating and withdrawing from others.  Tragically, suicidal feelings themselves may be accompanied by shame, thus making it even harder to seek help and community.

I’ve been thinking about shame recently.  In summary, I think it is often treated simplistically.  Shame = bad.  I get the logic behind this.  But could it be that shame (and pain in general) is simply an unavoidable part of navigating life?  I’d even go so far as to say that there are times where we want people to feel shame for what they have done.  Just as healthy guilt (as opposed to unhealthy guilt) helps us recognize in our minds that we need to take responsibility for our actions, so also helpful shame (as opposed to harmful shame) happens when we not only think about the wrong we’ve done, but actually feel remorseful about it.  Healthy guilt plus empathy equals helpful shame.

What on earth does this have to do with suicide?  Well, I guess I’m wondering if one way to reduce unhelpful shame related to suicide and depression is to recognize and appreciate the role that shame can have as a normal, everyday and even healthy emotion.  This, I think, is what is intended by the slogan “It’s OK to not be OK.”  If there is no such thing as being “not OK”, if everything and everyone is expected to be in a constant state of “everything is awesome” then there is no more shame-inducing thing than the everyday reality of not feeling OK.

If we can reclaim that it is OK to feel shame, then maybe a few more people will feel less ashamed of their shame, their guilt, their suicidal feelings, and will maybe, just maybe, take steps toward, rather than away from, the help, support, and community that we all need.