Do Suicidal People Deserve to be Punished?

Similar psychological issues lead to crime and suicide. Why do we treat them completely differently?

I wrote this piece back around 2006 or so I think.

I recently visited an old friend who happened to be having some dramatic fights with his girlfriend who was also the mother of his child. At one point she called on the phone and threatened to kill herself, and my friend responded by telling her that she was a horrible bitch, a worthless person, a horrible mother, and called her all sorts of horrible names that I believe are worse than I have ever heard directed at another human being in an attempt to punish her for even thinking about suicide.

Now, to you and me I’m sure it seems obvious that telling a person she is a worthless human being and a horrible mother is counter-productive to convincing her not to commit suicide, however, you must understand my friends perspective.

In our society, if you burglarize a store you are sent to jail. The idea of jail is that it is a place that makes you feel really bad so that you realize there are consequences to burglarizing stores and won’t want to do it again because you won’t want to face the punishments.

When a child misbehaves, he is spanked or sent to his room or otherwise punished, and parents and would-be parents all over the world insist that there must be consequences for misbehavior, just as most of society insists that there must be penalties for people who break the law.

Now, this same concept can often apply to language, and we will call people names to punish them for things they have done or said. We’ve all done it at some point where we say something we don’t mean in order to get justice on someone who said or did something we felt was wrong.

So my friend decided that the right thing to do in this situation was to punish his girlfriend for threatening to kill herself so that she would feel so awful that she would never want to do it again. There is no doubt that threatening to kill yourself, especially when you have a child (this woman had five children, only one with my friend) is morally wrong and selfish, so doesn’t it stand to reason, under our normal concept of justice in this world that she be punished for her wrongdoing? There needs to be consequences for wrongful action, right? If he doesn’t punish her for what she was threatening to do, then she would just get away with it and there would be nothing to stop her from doing it again, and using his horrible words was the only punishment he had available.

Now, my friend’s reasoning seems crazy to you and I, but can you pin down exactly why it’s so crazy? What exactly is different about a mother threatening suicide from say, a burglar, and why do we react differently to them? Both burglary and suicide harm the people around you, and often times suicide can do a lot more harm. Both burglary and suicide are clearly illegal, and both are considered by society to be reasonably wrong in most situations. So what is different?

You might say that it is because the woman threatening suicide is suffering from severe depression and low self esteem, but a significant number of criminals in our society suffer from all sorts of mental disorders, and many criminals are just as depressed as our suicidal mother.

You might argue that feeling horrible is what drove the mother to want to kill herself, so that making her feel more horrible is only going to make things worse. However, the same is true of a significant number of criminals. They feel horrible about life and about society so instead of choosing suicide they choose violence or thievery, sometimes in an attempt to take out justice upon the society they feel wronged them somehow. So why is it so rational and normal to purposefully increase the negative emotions that caused a criminal to commit a crime, but it is not logical to purposefully increase those negative emotions that caused a person to want to kill herself?

In my opinion, there is no difference. I believe it is counter-productive to tell a suicidal person that they are a worthless person, and I believe it is counter-productive to send criminals to prison simply as a punishment. I know I might sound like a crime-loving monster here, but I truly believe that the most efficient and effective way of preventing a person’s suicide is to show them and tell them that you love them, and that you care about them. I believe the same is true for criminal justice. I know that sounds utterly backward to reward criminals with our love and compassion, but if you look at it from your own eyes, who is more likely to get you to behave the way they want you to: a person who cares about you and shows you compassion and understanding, or a person whose goal is to make you suffer?

So logically, you must forgive my friend for the horrible things that he says to the woman he loves, the mother of his child, because he was taught that with love comes discipline, which sometimes means making another person hurt. His parents at home taught him this and the police and criminal justice system in society taught him the same thing. You can’t really blame him for taking those basic concepts and applying them to a situation that was only slightly different.

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