I feel that this article may be a bit controversial, but it stems from a place of awareness, confession, and is also representative of the short mini-series I created on my blog years ago (“Mental health and suicide are not jokes”) about this very important, very critical topic.
If you’ve been on the Internet for any length of time you may have come across people making inappropriate jokes about suicide—usually with specific methods mentioned that I won’t repeat here.
I think joking about suicide in part comes from a place of joking about hard, dark, and difficult topics, as is normally done. Dark humor is a way of expressing pain while also finding the absurdity of life and all its wackiness just . . . funny. What one person considers a joke may not be considered funny to someone else. Some people use joking as a nervous tic to spread distance between themselves and the issue at hand, some use it as a way of denying their reality, some people genuinely think it’s funny, some people are expressing genuine pain and a plea for help, and some people just get offended.
Suicide and, in turn, mental health in general is really no different in the face of this.
I, for one, when I was actively suicidal would actually joke about it quite often. I’ve actually engaged in this behavior since I first started developing depression. In fact, when I was “only” living with OCD, I didn’t bring it up very much at all in conversation. It was only when I developed secondary depression that I no longer cared about the societal norms imposed upon me and suicide in general became equivalent to talking about the weather. I was so consumed with suicidal thoughts (genuine and obsessive/intrusive) that even when I read articles on suicide warning signs I laughed off the need to “go to nearest ER.”
I also joked, laughed, and smiled about the topic of my own suicide, in some parts because talking about, focusing in on, and ruminating about suicide feeds into the OCD that I live with—in fact, I *still* struggle with what is known by this definition as ‘inappropriate affect’ (think: someone laughing at a funeral). I remember many times where I’d be on a bed in the emergency room and laughing about my detailed suicide plans while I garnered strange looks from the crisis evaluator.
My mom nicknamed this particular laugh that I do in these states as a “hyena laugh”. I’ve been told it’s disturbing and that my emotional expression (or lack thereof) is disorienting.
Some treatment providers have thought of it as a mask, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. Once, I told my psychiatrist about this behavior and Phil actually asked me if I laugh about my own suicide because it’s funny or because it’s a confession.
I think it’s both. I think I find it funny, and I laugh because I find that it’s *true* and I also do it because I’m trying to convey that I really, really need help.
In 2015 when this behavior began, I’d say 95% of the time people would either awkwardly laugh along with me (imagine someone asking how I’m doing and I say, “I’d be better if I was dead” or someone commenting on one of my coping skills and I say “well, it’s better than killing myself”) not knowing *what* to say and wouldn’t ask me if I was genuinely suicidal or not.
I do remember a handful of times that people paused and shot me a concerning gaze and asked if I was okay and I internally panicked at being caught but always retracted my statement and downplayed its meaning.
For nearly the entire duration of my recovery I have not ever worn a mask. If I was upset I would be upfront about it. The exception arose at the start of 2018 where I was actively writing suicide notes in my journal, writing articles that were of a darker nature, and changing my Twitter handle to cryptic messages while acting calm outwardly in a way that was starkly different from a previously intense, dark depression.
I did notice a pattern this year that I’m keenly aware of: there is a clear positive correlation to that fact that if I am having more suicidal thoughts, my amount of suicide jokes exponentially increases.
My point in this article overall is to admit to an inappropriate and problematic behavior I have often engaged in during my time in and out of recovery, and to offer insight into the inner workings of what might be happening to someone if you hear them joke off-handedly about suicide; because maybe it’s not a joke, maybe it reveals genuine intent. And if someone is being that open about their suicidal ideation, we have to be even more alert for those who are silently suffering with just as much suicidal ideation.