Let’s start with a myth and a truth.
Myth: Rita bought me a pair of “Joker” pants (as in Batman). I think wearing them will make me funnier.
Truth: Wearing them makes me look funny, but they don’t actually make me funnier.
The word “myth” has two primary meanings.
A myth is a traditional or popular story or legend used to explain current cultural beliefs and practices. This definition emphasizes the positive guidance that myths sometimes provide. For example, the Greek myth of Narcissus warns that excessive preoccupation with one’s own beauty can become dangerous. Whether or not someone named Narcissus ever existed is irrelevant; the story tells us that too much self-love can lead to our own downfall.
The word myth is also used to describe an unfounded idea, or false notion. Typically, the false notion gets spread around and, over time, becomes a generally accepted, but inaccurate, popular belief. One contemporary example is the statement, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” In fact, lightning can and does strike the same place twice (or more). During an electrical storm, standing on a spot where lightning has already struck, isn’t a good safety strategy. . . and wearing “Joker” pants won’t necessarily make you funnier.
The statement “We only use 10% of our brains” is another common myth. Although it’s likely that most of us can and should more fully engage our brains, scientific researchers (along with the Mythbusters television show) have shown that much more than 10% of our brains are active most of the time—and probably even when we’re sleeping.
False myths stick around for much longer than they should, sometimes they stick around despite truckloads of contradictory evidence. As humans, we like easy explanations, especially if we find them personally meaningful or affirming. Never mind if they’re accurate or true.
Not long ago I was discussing sex education with a group of teenagers. Several of them reported—with great confidence—that if a woman is on top during intercourse she can’t get pregnant.
“How might that work?” I asked.
“Gravity,” the leader explained. The rest of group nodded in agreement. “Sperm can’t swim uphill.”
Immediately, I tried to dispute their gravitational theory of birth control. To me, their belief in a birth control myth would likely lead to unhappy outcomes. But the teenagers held their ground.
Historically, myths were passed from individuals to groups and other individuals via word of mouth. Later, print media was used to more efficiently communicate ideas, both factual and mythical. Today we have the internet and instant mythical messaging.
Unfortunately, some myths are used for political or financial gain. Other myths, like the gravitational theory of birth control, lead to unplanned and adverse outcomes. Today, primarily through the internet, people are pummeled with information, misinformation, and outright lies. Despite amazing scientific, psychological, and technical progress, sorting fact from fiction remains an enormous challenge.
Suicide myths weren’t and aren’t designed to intentionally mislead; mostly (although there are some exceptions) they’re not about pushing a political agenda or selling specific products. Instead, suicide myths are the product of dedicated, well-intended people whose passion for suicide prevention sometimes outpaces their knowledge of suicide-related facts.
In some cases, people believe so hard in certain suicide myths that they cling to and defend their myths, even when the myths have become dysfunctional and even in the face of substantial contrary logical and empirical evidence. Thinking back to the teenagers and their gravitational theory of birth control, I recall their response to my scientific rebuttal. One of them said, “Well. Maybe so, but that’s what I heard, and it still makes sense to me. Even if sperm can swim uphill, gravity must make it harder to get a woman pregnant if she’s on top.”
When suicide (or birth control) myths take on a life of their own despite contradictory evidence, it’s usually because the myths have deep emotional roots or because people have an incentive that motivates them to hang on to their mythical beliefs.
Depending on your perspective, experiences, and your knowledge base, it’s possible that my list of suicide myths will push your emotional buttons. Maybe you were taught that “suicide is 100% preventable.” Or maybe you believe that suicidal thoughts or impulses are inherently signs of deviance or a mental disturbance. If so, as I argue against these myths, you might find yourself resisting my perspective. That’s perfectly fine. The ideas that I’m labeling as unhelpful myths have been floating around in the suicide prevention world for a long time; there’s likely emotional and motivational reasons for that. Also, I don’t expect you to immediately agree with everything in this book. However, I hope you’ll give me a chance to make the case against these myths, mostly because I believe that hanging onto them is unhelpful to suicide assessment and prevention efforts.
In this chapter, I list the four myths and provide brief descriptions. Read them, see what you think, and notice your reactions. In the next 4 chapters, we’ll dive deeper into evidence against these myths, why they’re potentially destructive, and alternative ways to think about suicide and suicide prevention.
Myth #1: Suicidal thoughts are about death and dying.
Most people assume that suicidal thoughts are about death and dying. It seems like a no-brainer: Someone has thoughts about death, therefore, the thoughts must be about death.
But the truth isn’t always how it appears from the surface. The human brain is complex. Thoughts about death may not be about death itself.
Let’s look at a parallel example. Couples who come to counseling often have conflicts about money. One partner likes to spend and the other is serious about saving. From the surface, you might mistakenly assume that when couples have conflicts about money, the conflicts are about money—dollars, cents, spending, and saving. However, romantic relationships are complex, which is why money conflicts are usually about other issues, like love, power, and control. Nearly always there are dynamics bubbling under the surface that fuel couples’ conflicts over money.
Truth #1: Among suicidologists and psychotherapists, the consensus is clear: suicidal thoughts and impulses are less about death and more about a natural human response to intense emotional and psychological distress. I use the term, excruciating distress to describe the intense emotional misery that nearly always accompanies the suicidal state of mind.