When someone threatens to commit suicide, what should you do? I've been teaching a course on the ethics of death and dying this year, and my students have been wrestling with this question as budding ethicists and philosophers. The default answer is to get someone help, and that carries with it the benefit of erring on the side of caution -- when a fellow human being finds this vale of tears beyond their ken, the reflexive response is to want to extinguish their pain, not their life.
My students have come up with a few exceptions to this rule: when someone is living with a terminal illness and wants to be the architect of his death, when someone decides to die in order to make a political (or religious) statement, when someone chooses to kill herself because of cultural expectations. There are reasons for and against each, but reason that they've found most compelling is the idea that persons own their bodies.
But given this, why do we think (that's 'we' in the general sense -- I know there are exceptions out there) that sometimes ownership of one's body is not enough? Why do we think that there are reasons, good reasons, for us to cross that threshold of respecting the individual? When is it morally permissible to block the actions of someone who is determined to end it all? If autonomy is what we value most in this society of rugged individuals, why not just let people do what they will with their bodies, including ending their lives?
One part of the answer is that we're not as independent as we'd like to think we are. Historically, some states (governments, that is, not our fifty) have codified suicide as a crime against the state -- when people reap benefit from society, this comes with a corollary obligation to contribute back to the state. But that seems a bit ridiculous when one is so dogged by depression that even getting out of bed in the morning is a monumental chore.
When humans lived in tighter social communities, keeping tabs on each other was a bit easier. Imagine Albuquerque's original Old Town -- just a bunch of folks living 'round a plaza, isolated from the rest of the world in ways that we cannot imagine today. If your neighbor is struggling, you'd know it: it'd be pretty hard to miss.
The commons of today still includes our neighborhoods. Some are more cohesive than others and sometimes this depends on historic reasons. (I'm thinking of Barelas here, and all of the family connections shared by so many of my neighbors, which is both blessing and curse according to many!) Our plazas today are as much networks and pixels as they are adobe bricks and mortar. The digital commons of Duke City Fix, Facebook and Twitter aren't just places to share news, political opinions, and humble-brags, but have become sites where personal disclosures of pain are cloaked as appeals for social support. A family member dies, a pet gets sick, a cherished goal gets thwarted through circumstance -- all of these posts elicit expressions of love, encouragement, and comfort.
But sometimes a cybercommunity isn't enough.
Sometimes a real world community isn't enough.
When a person announces on social media that he intends to take his life, what should one do? I've offered a few philosophical responses, but here are some more practical ones. This is taken from Facebook's official page on the matter.
First, don't ignore it. Contact the authorities (e.g. call 911) and provide the person's address and phone number if you have it. If you don't, and you see this on Facebook, you can contact Facebook directly (see this link) and they can aid in getting that information.
Second, get in touch with theNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8355). If the person isn't in the United States, go to the Befrienders website and get the information for that country. http://www.befrienders.org
This time of year, with winter fading into a memory, it is easy to become intoxicated by the emergence of springtime and the signs of new life -- buds of leaves unfurling, the scent of fruit blossoms, the sounds of little birds chirping in the nest. But it is also easy to overlook that despite all of the joy that comes with the herald of spring, some among us are unable to grasp the rungs of spring's promise.
When they call for help, it's up to us to step into the breach -- quickly.