All too often, a friend makes a joke about wanting to die followed by a chuckle and an explanation about some seemingly dreadful assignment he has to do or meeting he has to attend, and I laugh with him. Suicide jokes are evidently quite popular among our peers – tweets about wanting to die over an awkward encounter, finsta posts about the seven hours of work ahead that make you want to jump off a cliff, snapchats about wanting to be hit by a car while sitting in a line of traffic…Without proper context, it would seem like an overwhelming majority of our peers are suicidal. The popularity of these jokes, however, is not representative of the population of people that suffer from suicidal ideation.
Suicide jokes can be a coping mechanism, like any other form of dark humor. Perhaps that’s how they became so popular amongst our society. Nonetheless, I fear the frequency with which we use them today is doing more harm than good. How many people who make these jokes are currently burdened by suicidal ideation? I assume most people who jokingly wish for death do not actually intend to act on these impulses, seeing as the prevalence of these jokes is significantly higher than present suicide rates. Of course, I am glad that these jokes are merely jokes, and there are far fewer people experiencing thoughts of suicide, but the frequency, regularity, and normalness of suicide jokes makes it increasingly difficult to identify those who do need help. Further, these jokes trivialize this very critical cry for help, and they could upset those who have experienced or currently suffer suicidal ideation.
As somebody who is trained to recognize the signs of suicide, I feel conflicted when a friend makes a suicide joke. I feel obligated to probe about it later and ask if they are okay, but, because I know that they are probably kidding, I refrain out of fear of being that annoying friend who can’t take a joke. The problem with that statement, though, is that I am inferring that they are probablyjoking. While this may be true for many of my friends, what happens when these sentiments are backed by genuine feelings? How will I know when it is time to follow that twisted joke with a serious inquiry about my friend’s mental health?
I think dark humor is funny, but constantly hearing jokes about wanting to die terrifies me. I am afraid that by normalizing these jokes, we are making it harder for ourselves to recognize a person in need of support. I am scared for the day that it is not simply a joke. I am scared for the people who make these “jokes” to cope with genuine feelings of hopelessness. I am frustrated for the people who hear these jokes and are reminded of their traumatic past. I am sad for the people who do not receive the help they need because suicide jokes saturate our conversations and diminish the sincerity of these claims. I am angry because these jokes belittle very real, dire issues.
We are becoming sensitized to the innate grimness of suicide jokes. We are a generation that cries suicide for the sake of a laugh, for relatability, for a few retweets. Perhaps these jokes allow us to connect with others who endure the same stressful situations that seem to warrant them, but, there are other ways to effectively communicate feelings of distress that do not involve these bleak jests. I can’t write this pretending that I don’t indulge in dark humor – because, believe me, I do, but I try to be more cognizant of what I say. I think about the implications of the words I use and how the overuse of certain phrases depreciates their significance. As a community, we can do better. We can think about the language we use and its ramifications. We can take these claims seriously and always follow up because we do not know if someone is joking until we ask.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifelineat 1-800-273-8255. The lifeline provides free, confidential support 24/7 from trained counselors and can connect you with local crisis centers and professionals.