Suicide – Brave Or Cowardly?

A person from my past had issues.  She was diagnosed with Bipolar I, which they don't diagnose unless you have psychotic episodes, which she claimed to have had.  I never witnessed any (I don't think); in fact, what I witnessed mostly was the depressive side of her bipolarity, which included a suicide attempt or two.

In that depressive state, we would often talk about her situation (sometimes, it seemed like that was all we talked about), and she would occasionally talk matter-of-factly about killing herself, listing the people who would be "better off" if she wasn't alive (including her daughter).  Her rationale made no sense, but… that's the nature of the being bipolar: the perceptions of a bipolar person are usually wrong, even when (especially when) they feel so so right to the bipolar person.  When you are bipolar, you can't trust how you feel.  Which must be very difficult.

One of arguments she liked to make was that committing suicide was a very brave thing to do.  I didn't take a contrary position, although I know what she was responding to — that old chestnut you often hear that people who commit suicide are "cowardly".  They are afraid to face their difficulties, the myth goes, so they do the "cowardly" thing by ending it all.  My ex's point was just the opposite: it takes chutzpah, gonads, bravery to end it all.

i am reminded of those conversations now that question had been raised again in the public conscience, in light of the recent and tragic Robin Williams suicide.  Was Robin Williams cowardly for "checking out"?  

My answer is the same as always.  Of course he wasn't cowardly.  But I wouldn't agree to call him brave.  Not everything that happens falls on that scale.  He was sick.  His depression had control over him.  He couldn't help it.  So the answer is "neither" and the debate itself is silly.

The same goes for the question of whether suicide is "selfish".  Yes, of course suicide is selfish, but not in the perjorative sense that we usually mean when we say "selfish". After all, depression is selfish — is there ever a time when a person is more self-indulgent and self-involved than when he or she is depressed?  So of COURSE a person attempting suicide is selfish — he/she is in pain.  Just as much pain as if shot with a bullet.  

But all you can say is that they were "selfish", then you are missing the larger point.  What MADE them selfish?  It's NOT a character flaw, but more likely (and certainly in the case of Robin Williams), a mental illness known as depression or bipolar disorder or something along those lines.  The selfishness is incidental to the illness.  Calling them selfish, even if it happens to be true, only serves to malign and stigmatize those with a mental disorder.  It's turning a sickness into a callous act of blaming the victim.

Why do that?

What do you think?