BY NICKI JURINA
Trigger warning: discussion of suicidal ideation and the account of a real suicide.
All of us remember adolescence. Teenage years are an awkward stage in development of personal growth, self-discovery, and, for many, times of trial and personal tragedy. For some adolescents, personal choices surrounding tragedy can dictate well-being and healthy functioning, but it can also open the door to deterioration and loss of interest in living. Mental illness, whether diagnosed, misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all plays an important role in functioning for an adolescent, but it also plays a significant role in the cognitive recognition of two important factors in the psyche of every human being: guilt and shame.
The American Psychiatric Association defines a "healthy" sense of guilt as "the feeling of culpability for offenses, a reactive feeling to misbehavior or omission of an expected behavior, feeling responsible for or remorseful for offenses, or an emotion resulting from the transgression of an accepted standard by a definite, voluntary act." For a teenager, this could be falling into peer pressure; this could be standing by and listening to a peer being talked down to, a premature ending to a relationship, or rage toward a parent or sibling. There are many things swarming through a young person's mind that could make them feel guilty. Alongside guilt, there comes a sense of shame, defined as "a painful emotion caused by the consciousness of guilt, a shortcoming, or impropriety." There is a difference between the two, and shame is often the more powerful emotion; it reminds an individual of their limitations. One feels ashamed when one commits a wrong; it is directed at an action.
But what happens when the guilt and the shame that is meant as a healthy reminder of growth and learning turns inward and the sense and perception of two human emotions directed at what an individual has done point toward who an individual is?
The following is an excerpt from a Florida teen who broadcast his suicide via the internet five years ago:
"I have come to believe that my life has all been meaningless. I keep trying and I keep failing. I have thought about and attempted suicide many times in the past. I used to think of my failure as some mystical way of telling me that I was really meant for something meaningful. The only thing I dread, besides the pain, is the way my family will suffer . . . "
Guilt and shame can enter into a toxic battle within an individual that slowly deteriorates their sense of personhood from the core of their being: in other words, from the inside out. It begins as an experience of an all-encompassing, pervasive sense that an individual is flawed and defective as a human being. It no longer is an emotion that gives the individual a signal of their limits; it becomes a state of being and a core identity. It penetrates the human character and becomes the definition of the person and is internalized through many different means and life experiences. It is the exposure of an individual's believed failure of self. There are many things in a person’s life, most especially a teenager’s life, which can lead to this destructive sense of self; this can be the result of traumatic experiences, the internalized messages of bullying, abuse in any form (i.e., physical, psychological, sexual), familial upbringing, underlying mental illness which affects an individual’s ability to perceive differently, parental divorce, break-up with a significant other, stigma of sexual orientation, social isolation, and many more.
This sense of unhealthy blame leads to a deteriorating toxic shame, which funnels an individual into a despairing pit where the future is hopeless and the escape through ending their lives creeps in, like an intruder quietly sifting through their heart in the darkness of swirling thoughts and images. A stigma surrounds an individual suffering with thoughts of ending their lives, which is why many do not seek help. Stigmas such as selfishness, weakness, "taking the easy way out," and many other self-deprecating messages steer an individual more into isolation where, eventually, they find no meaning in the breaths they take to live throughout the day. As the impending thoughts of ending their lives grows stronger and stronger, an individual begins to feel an unhealthy amount of guilt and it makes way for an even greater awareness of shame.
"I cannot tell you how sorry I am for ending my life the way I did. I hope that you can all find it in your heart to see it as way for me not suffering anymore and that I am finally at rest with myself, for being at rest with the guilt that constantly ate at me for so long . . . "
Without proper help, an individual is left alone in a battle between living and dying: a battle between their mind and their heart; a battle between self-hate and an attempt to love themselves. Oftentimes left alone, an individual finds that the only way out of the battle is to take themselves out of the race of life.
"Please forgive me all for taking my own life so early. I tried so hard to fight against this strong battle."
They leave behind family, friends; they leave behind a future, they leave behind a past and oftentimes they miss out on the present because the past shame, blame, and guilt has consumed them.
"I love you all and will forever live within the memories we created. Forgive me."
Suicide, of any kind, at any age, is a complicated, multi-layered issue, but it is not in the least a hopeless situation. Knowledge of the warning signs of depression and suicidal ideation is key for individuals, families, friends, and communities to be able to recognize it and take action. For more information on the warning signs of depression and suicidal ideation, please visit www.save.org.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of harming themselves or ending their life, please know that you are not alone and that help is available. There is hope; your life is worth it; and no matter what has happened to you, healing can occur. Please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).