Duck Test Failure, Part 2

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In response to a recent post of mine about a friend’s suicide, a commenter referred to suicide as “an extreme position to take”.

On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc sat down in the lotus position in a busy intersection of Saigon. A 5-gallon can of gasoline was poured over his head by a fellow monk. He then lit a match and set himself on fire. He did not move as his flesh burned and his living body turned into a charred corpse. In the days that followed, there were several other similar acts of self-immolation by Buddhist monks.

These suicides were acts of protest against the South Vietnamese government’s mistreatment of Buddhists. These were indeed extreme acts, intended to draw attention to the plight of Vietnam’s Buddhists and put pressure on the regime (and its US allies) to carry out the reforms it had promised.

But these suicides were not due to mental health issues. I do not believe that most suicides are acts of protest or attempts to get attention, but I think that belief is not uncommon, and highlights a fundamental problem with our attitude toward mental health issues.

We are often dismissive of mental health concerns because most of us really don’t have a perspective on it, which was largely the point of my post. When you look at, say, a paraplegic, even if you’re not one, you can sort of speculate on the challenges they face on a day to day basis. On the other hand, when you look at someone with a mental illness, you cannot speculate (unless you’ve had one yourself maybe) because you cannot see inside their mind. You assume that, if they appear on the outside to be similarly-abled to you, then they should have the same problems as you. So if someone confides in you that they have suicidal feelings, and you have never had similar feelings yourself, except maybe as a passing thought, then you’ll judge it as such (“Aw c’mon, life isn’t that bad! There’s always a way!”), because that’s how you would have dismissed those thoughts from your own mind. Unfortunately, our brains are not all wired the same way. For many, they cannot simply “get over it”.

I believe there are usually neurobiological causes for persistent suicidal feelings. Whether it’s BDNF dysregulation ( or something else, it’s not something you can simply shrug off with positive thinking or exercise or stupid platitudes, and dismissing people with suicidal feelings (or any mental health issue for that matter) as weak-willed or attention-seeking is like dismissing people with physical disabilities as not trying hard enough.

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