I write a lot about suicide. If you’re interested, also see my articles about talking about suicide (especially after Robin Williams’s death) and about suicide-related terminology. If you’re struggling with suicide, please tell someone—you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free anywhere in the USA. 1-800-273-TALK.
People love the phrase “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. It appeals to something deep within us: our legitimate desire to have something valuable to say about the terrible cost of suicide. It feels like a good way to express our understanding that suicide is often a choice that only seems like a good idea for a brief moment, and that if you can just get through it things will often look better in the morning. The shaping of the phrase also has an appealing prosody to it, and we like the way it weaves and contrasts the ideas of what is quick and what is lasting. Many of us feel like, if we can just “shake people out of it”, their feelings of wanting to die will go away.
All of those feelings and ideas are legitimate.
There’s nothing wrong with you if you’ve said that suicide was a permanent solution to a temporary problem—it’s one of the coded phrases society has taught us for dealing with the mass of emotions that surround suicide, and it’s worth remembering that almost nobody is neutral on suicide. We all have a lot of feelings, and this phrase feels like a useful way to be able to say something when we’re confronted with a person who’s contemplating death.
But I’d like to encourage you, gently, to find another way of saying it.
It’s not effective
The Hippocratic oath that doctors take includes words like “first, do no harm”. It’s a good statement of principle that, when we’re trying to help someone, we should do our best not to make things worse, right?
People thinking about suicide hear the “permanent solution to a temporary problem” very differently. In my post about suicide and Robin Williams, people wrote some wonderful comments relating to this phrase.
One, Joanna, wrote (emphasis mine):
“Good piece, Hollis. As a survivor of chronic depression who had suicidal thoughts, I would like to say that for me when someone suggested that suicide is a “permanent action to a temporary problem,” it caused me to not act on those thoughts, in the hopes that somehow, sometime, the depression would lift and I could begin to live again. The idea that the pain of my depression, which seemed interminable, could have an end without my having to take such a drastic action to end it myself, actually did help me defer action and try other tactics until I found something that worked. The other piece of counsel that was particularly useful was not to take irreversible action when I was at my lowest. It took a long time, with baby steps, to regain hope and even experience joy again, but it did happen for me, and could be possible for others, too. I pray this will be the case for others struggling right now.”
Joanna found it really helpful to be reminded that suicide lasts forever. I really like the other piece of counsel she mentions: “not to take irreversible action when I was at my lowest”. I’ll come back to that. But anyway, Joanna found the phrase helpful.
Anne wrote (emphasis mine):
“When my psychiatrist told me that ‘suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’ I thought, yes, that is what I want. A permanent solution. No more trying different meds, talking about what I’m sad/anxious about, appointments, groups, etc. Permanent. Yay.
The words really didn’t help, they almost encouraged me to do it. It also felt like my feelings were being minimized.”
I really appreciate the bravery both of these people showed in sharing these thoughts.
Anne’s post underscores why the “permanent solution to a temporary problem” language is dangerous: it can backfire.
If the purpose of saying the phrase is to comfort a person who’s hurting and, ideally, help them choose to stay alive, it’s counterproductive to use language that some people perceive as encouraging them to die by suicide. First, do no harm.
It sounds judgmental
I’ve known people whose thoughts of suicide came as a result of temporary life changes, like a bad grade in school or a fight with a spouse or co-worker. But many, many more of the people I’ve know who struggle with thoughts of suicide do so because it’s their experience that the pain goes on and on for months or years or decades. Maybe the specific reasons change, but the suffering is often endless.
Yeah, that’s indicative of depression, and yeah, there are treatments that often work for that. But until you’ve been there, I think it’s hard to understand how exhausting survival is.
People often think that thoughts of suicide arise because of a single critical event, and it’s true that there’s often a precipitating factor—but most of the time, it’s been building for a while. Saying that the problem is temporary is judgmental and dismissive of the fact that the problem often isn’t temporary.
A friend shared some words from David Foster Wallace that expressed some of this stuff really well:
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing.
The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.
And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” — David Foster Wallace, source unknown. Used without permission.
I’ve known people whose thoughts of suicide come because of terminal cancer, where pain and decline are a virtual certainty. Because of the death of a loved one. Because of rape. Because of criminal convictions, or because of pending charges. Because of lots of things that, while you can learn to live with them, don’t necessarily get better.
That’s my biggest problem with this phrase: it judges the person’s situation and invalidates the person’s judgment. It says “Even though I don’t necessarily understand your problems or why you’re considering this option, I know enough to say you’re wrong.”
Minimizing another person’s struggles is a really effective way to alienate them and make them feel alone. Nobody likes feeling that their thoughts are pathologized or disrespected. And by relying on catchphrases, we give up the opportunity to stay in relationship and really connect with a person—and it’s good rapport that has the greatest success in suicide intervention.
That’s the risk of using language like the “permanent solution” phrase, because you don’t get to know in advance whether you’re talking to a person who’ll want the permanent solution.
So what do we say instead?
Try to avoid giving advice. Focus on listening instead. Start with the feelings that the person has, and go from there.
Give them space to talk about why they’re feeling so down, and why death feels like their best option right now. Give them time to tell you about it. Don’t try to force them to feel cheerful by focusing on all the reasons they have to stay alive.
Most people, if you give them space, will start to convince themselves that they’re less sure about suicide than they thought. They’ll find ambivalence. They’ll talk themselves into being open to staying alive. That’s when you support their desire to stay alive.
I liked something Joanna wrote: that it can be helpful to ask people “not to take irreversible action when they’re at their lowest.”
I kind of like that, actually, because staying safe right now is a temporary solution to a more permanent problem. It recognizes that we need to help people get through this moment, and that if we keep doing that, the future will turn out okay.
But really, just do your best to be direct in listening about suicide. Avoid catchphrases and pat advice, and just listen.
Make it less about what you say and more about what they say.
This post is in response to comments on my article about suicide and Robin Williams. Please stay safe—if you’re here because you’re thinking about suicide, I hope you’ll reach out and talk to someone. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) anywhere in the USA.