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Why Government Doesn’t Understand Suicide

Why Government Doesn’t Understand Suicide

The perfect storm of misunderstanding, misguided policies and programs, and bloated agencies with neither empathy nor compassion explains why government doesn’t understand suicide. Even worse, it explains why government can’t really do anything about it.


Here are two recent examples:




It’s enough to make one want to kill themselves.


We pay the government to do better, especially in ways that we, as individuals, cannot. But suicide is a very individual issue, and trauma plays a part. The government will never be able to do what human beings can and, in these headlines, we can begin to understand why:


In the face of suicide and trauma, the thing that works best is an authentic human connection.

Authentic Human Connection

When you provide a human connection, regardless of the issue, things can improve. Respect, trust, acknowledgment, empathy, compassion. That’s what makes human-centered programs work.


  • The VA causes loss of life when it fails to offer respect, trust, acknowledgment, empathy, and compassion to trained warriors whose ethos works because of those very human attributes. There aren’t enough VA workers who offer every Veteran the respect, trust, acknowledgment, empathy, and compassion every Veteran deserves! Remember Vietnam? We can do better. But government solutions are expensive, so all of us had better be willing to ante up or we will pay the price: defending broken, understaffed government programs that don’t work.


  • An immigration policy that tries to scare off asylum seekers? It’s hard to say anything useful about how misguided this is. What an embarrassment. America used to be better than that.


It ought to be no surprise to any thinking and feeling human being that things won’t get better by paying the government to fix problems. Even if we had the political will to afford government solutions, they take too long to implement, are usually misguided, and don’t serve anyone outside the first standard deviation, which means that the most at-risk people or issues will go unserved or unresolved.


But not un-stigmatized.


The stigma of suicide

Stigma serves the government by separating human beings that need help from the rest of us …and from solutions that actually work. Think carefully about that. The scare quotes around “mental illness” are there for this reason: if you can be convinced to see “mentally ill” people as separate from you in some way, then you don’t have to recognize everyone’s common humanity. This stigma helps the government step in to “solve a problem” no one else wants in their backyard.


Suicide is a good example. If one claims to be “suicidally ideated” it’s almost a guarantee that the next stigmatizing label will be “mental illness.” Sweeping suicide into the “mental illness” dustbin allows the government to expand its ineffectual attempt to help. But, remember, government programs don’t work at the margins, and someone who’s thinking about taking their own life is well outside the government-served first standard deviation. When it comes to suicide, the government’s approach is to wait for a call.


So why do we keep looking to government as a suicide solution?


  • No government can offer Veterans a fair exchange on the full price of what Veterans pledge when they swear to protect and defend their country. Examples of this range from the decades-long fight of many Vietnam Veterans for disability benefits from exposure to chemical combat such as Agent Orange, to Veterans suffering from exposure to the Gulf War burn pits. The American government continues to deny compensatory damages to these most at-risk Veterans who did what they were asked to do without regard for life or limb.


  • No government can offer a safety net to a human being standing on a bridge, but another human being can offer that person a hand up. The government is often the reason someone is standing on that bridge in the first place.


This takes nothing away from the dedicated public servants who believe they can make a difference. They can and do…not as government employees but as human beings. Sometimes they get arrested for doing the right thing. And this has nothing to do with “privatizing” government services, by the way. Instead, it’s about humanizing our entire approach to suicide and “mental illness.”


Mental illness

Like suicide, the stigma of “mental illness” is used by agencies and associations to scare the rest of us into a false belief with government agencies as the answer, even though the results of thinking that way can be reliably predicted: #fail.


Stigmatizing “mental illness” is like living in a glass house while throwing rocks at people who don’t: it’s disrespectful, deceptive, devaluing, disdainful, and merciless. Yes: “mental illness” is a thing, but tying suicide to “mental illness” by stigmatizing both completely misses the point – and the implied opportunity for actually making positive change.


Stigmatizing “mental illness” and linking it to suicide also conveniently absolves government from both responsibility and blame. A more humane view of the stigma of mental illness might reveal that many of those of us so characterized are actually well within the first standard deviation of garden-variety crazy, not the outliers whom those doing the stigmatizing would prefer us to be. The irony is comical: government can’t fix the outliers anyway, but they need to cast regular people dealing with extreme issues as if we, too, are somehow “mentally ill.”

Human being and human belonging

Human beings who, like me, consider suicide often are still human beings. Human beings who, like me, struggle with depression, distress, and anxiety, are still human beings. These human issues require human solutions, not apps, websites, hotlines, or government-run navigation centers.


All of us who really do care about such things must invest our talent, time, and treasure more wisely.


  • If that means electing officials who understand that government cannot and will not fix all things for all people and, instead, empower non-governmental organizations to serve the most at-risk at the margins, let’s do that.


  • If that means calling government officials to account for their misbehaviors that, instead of helping solve problems, actually make them worse, let’s do that.


Research is proving that respect, trust, acknowledgment, empathy, and compassion work, but only when human beings stop seeing “us” and “them” – whether that’s us and Veterans or us and suicidal people, that’s a misguided view.


If enough of us perceive suicide as a human response to inhumanity, we can make a difference. We can make this difference by offering our fellow human beings something that government never can and never will: a sense of belonging.


Will you accept your place in the human race? It’s a race that needs you.


I choose compassion

My volunteer work with at-risk active duty military, Veterans, and homeless people over the last nine years convinces me that all it takes to break the us/them wall is some kind of genuine connection. Music, for me, has done that. In the PowerMusic class I teach regularly, about a dozen of us take time to experience the healthful effects of music. A few weeks ago, it was music the class chose for sadness and loss, followed by music for joy and hope. That’s the kind of experience that brings human beings together. We don’t need to wait for a natural – or other – disaster to find and connect with one another as human beings. In that environment, mutual compassion – and respect, trust, acknowledgment, and empathy – are natural.


I encourage you to choose compassion and to rejoin the human race. It’s a good one, and it’s better together.


Why Government Doesn’t Understand Suicide