Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

Yesterday I was driving around in my hometown and listening to the radio. The DJs did a segment on the suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, a nurse in a hospital where Kate Middleton was being treated, who was pranked by some radio DJs and tricked into giving out Middleton’s medical information.

The DJs on my hometown station put a caller through and asked for her opinion. She said that it’s not at all the DJs’ fault that Saldhana clearly had issues and that they shouldn’t have lost their jobs because of what happened. Furthermore, it was “irresponsible” of Saldhana to kill herself and leave this whole mess behind.

Lesson one: never listen to the radio in Dayton, Ohio.

Lesson two: people have a lot of trouble with grey areas and blurry lines.

(Of course, I mostly knew both of these things already.)

It seems to be very difficult for people to form an opinion on this tragedy that isn’t extreme. Some say that the DJs were just doing their jobs, the prank was completely harmless, just a bit of fun, and Saldanha was messed up and crazy. Others say that the DJs are terrible people and should be blamed for Saldanha’s suicide. The latter seems to be the minority opinion.

I don’t think that the truth always lies between two extremes. In this case, though, I feel that it does.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon and the suffering that causes it–and that is caused by it–makes it even more difficult to comprehend. A particularly painful fact that the friends and families of people who kill themselves sometimes have to face is the fact that suicide often has a trigger. Sometimes, that trigger is other people.

I remember reading a young adult novel called Thirteen Reasons Why a few years ago. The novel is very serious for a YA book, and the premise of it is that a teenage girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of audio recordings in which she explains to every person who was implicated in her mental troubles what it was that they did.

One was addressed to a guy who found a poem she wrote and spread it all over the school. Another was to a guy who took photos of her through her bedroom window. By the end of the book you get a picture of a girl who was just completely used and marginalized by almost everyone she interacted with.

And yet–this is the part that some readers, judging from the reviews, didn’t get–Hannah is not supposed to be a wholly sympathetic character. You’re meant to feel sorry for her, but her actions are meant to make you uncomfortable. The tapes she leaves behind seem a bit vindictive. And at the end you learn that two of the major triggers for her suicide were that she failed to stop a rape at a party and that she allowed her friend to drive drunk–and hit and kill someone.

So, who’s to blame for Hannah’s suicide? Her classmates were cruel, yes. But they didn’t know what she was going through. And she could’ve saved herself a lot of guilt had she intervened and stopped the rape and the car accident, but can you really expect a terrified teenage girl to do that?

The point of the book, to me, is this: you can’t blame anyone. It’s comforting to think that you can, but you just can’t.

Similarly, the Australian DJs who pranked Saldanha could not have known what would happen. In fact, even now we don’t really understand. Although she reportedly left a suicide note, we don’t know what it says, and we don’t know what kinds of personal struggles she might’ve had leading up to her death. To their credit, the DJs have said that they’re heartbroken and sorry.

But blaming Saldanha is sick and cruel.

And while I don’t blame the DJs for her death, I still think they shouldn’t have done it.

The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart. This is why people like Saldanha are blamed and exhorted to “just work on their issues,” even after they’ve died.

We assume that people are always capable, for instance, of refusing repeated sexual advances, ignoring social coercion and proselytism, dealing with mental health issues without ever being taught how, overcoming pervasive racial inequality, facing the humiliation (and, sometimes, terror) of street harassment, suffering through targeted online hate campaigns, refusing to believe it when magazines tell them they must be thin, and so much more. We expect them to do all this without anger, because anger is “counterproductive.” So, of course, is mental illness.

We expect people to conform to an ideal that includes emotional strength, confidence, and resilience, and we refuse to concede that few people are able to live up to this ideal all of the time. How much do we expect a person to bravely, stoically handle? I’m not sure there is a limit.

The DJs assumed, whether consciously or not, that Saldanha would either see through the prank or be able to deal with the international attention she would receive for falling victim to it. As it turned out, she was not.

At The Daily Beast, Kent Sepkowitz writes:

With the recent focus on bullying sparked by suicides of young people who were hectored as outcasts, a new or newly articulated risk factor for suicide has gained currency: humiliation. Though certainly related to hopelessness and to real or threatened financial embarrassment, humiliation is its own very private experience, with its own equally private triggers. How and why certain events might brutally transgress honor and dignity in one person yet the same events barely touch the next, remains inscrutable. In this particular tragedy, it seems a sense that she was being publicly ridiculed—humiliated—somehow pushed Ms. Saldanha over the edge, an edge previously defined and maintained by her tremendous pride in her work.

Why do we expect people to deal with public humiliation for our own entertainment?

I would hope that rather than limiting the discussion to what these particular DJs should or should not have done, we expand it to talk about the exploitation and degradation that modern media thrives on. That these DJs would even think to go through such trouble to obtain someone’s private medical information is ridiculous. That there is a market for that information is ridiculous. I’ve long believed that celebrity gossip is unethical, but when it sets off a chain of events that ends in a suicide, that becomes even more apparent to me.

Not only is it impossible to blame any individual person in this awful story, but to do so would be to miss the point. Something in our culture–in the ways we relate to each other and in the ways we expect each other to be strong–is broken.

If I absolutely had to lay blame on something, it would be that.

Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

18 thoughts on “Who Is To Blame For A Suicide?

  1. 1

    Great article

    Just to point this out. In germany telefone pranks on the radio are indeed a crime, if the victim does not allow the publication of the prank afterwards. The relevant bit is the private matter of a telephone call and the resulting infringement of personal rights

  2. 3

    The insults and remarks about Jacintha Saldanha and suicide are predictable. Some people just want the attention they will get from vomiting out an uninformed opinion. They have no concern for the people involved, only themselves.

    There was another recent high profile suicide, Gretchen Molannen of Florida, who suffered from sexual arousal disorder. I saw the story on two different sites and some of the comments made were atrocious. Most were along the lines of “Why didn’t she do A, B or C?”, assuming to have the “solution” to her problem without any knowledge of it. Many others were rude or trolling (e.g. “She should have enjoyed it”). And still more criticized her suicide without understanding how her condition affected her life.

    Idiots spoke as if she hadn’t tried various medical treatments, and were unsympathetic to her financial plight (her inability to work or get medical insurance). Those like Molannen who suffer from the condition made comment or criticized stupid comments, and were met with even more insulting responses.

  3. 4

    I can’t pick my favorite quote on this subject, so here are all of them.

    “It isn’t given to us to know those rare moments when people are wide open and the lightest touch can wither or heal. A moment too late and we can never reach them any more in this world. They will not be cured by our most efficacious drugs or slain with our sharpest swords.”
    ― F. Scott Fitzgerald

    “Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.”
    — Bion of Borysthenes

    There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—”God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
    — Kurt Vonnegut

  4. 5

    I know from experience how complex depression can be. You never can tell what’s going to set someone off, but this was a brutal thing to put someone who’s depressed through. Because of that I think you’re spot on. The DJs shouldn’t have pulled that prank, but there’s too much context there to make them the explicit cause of Jacintha’s death. And she certainly shouldn’t be blamed for not being strong enough.

    I also can’t get the victim blaming in suicide cases. I even have a friend who attempted suicide who criticizes others with the same problems for being weak and selfish. Why that’s an argument to start blaming people for their struggles as opposed to offering them more support, I’ll never know.

  5. 6

    The idea that one has a right to do whatever you feel like, regardless of the consequences to others, is disturbingly prevalent in our society, and it even goes so far as to demand that it’s out of line to critique anybody for doing something socially irresponsible. You get this where the message is that it’s not enough to simply accept that wealthy people will have immense power over the rest of the population – it’s considered *wrong* by some to criticize their actions.

    Likewise, whenever somebody does something irresponsible for ‘entertainment’ purposes, the chorus starts up that not only did the person have a right to do the prank or whatever, but that apparently free speech means the right to do and say potentially harmful things, but not to criticize them. The prank is free speech, but discussing the harm it did is somehow not equally valid free speech to some.

    Not everybody thinks this way for sure, but plenty of people regard compassion not as weakness, but as a sort of evil, something that ‘the weak’ have invented to deny ‘the strong’ their right to dominate others and to disregard the welfare of anybody else, and plenty of people like to believe that all problems are solely based on individual choices and that only the individual is to blame for all outcomes.

  6. 7

    My take in a nutshell: no, they weren’t responsible for creating the environment that led to someone being suicidal, but yes, they were responsible for participating in it.

    It’s the same with the gay teen suicides we saw (and still see) all over: almost certainly, no one bully or bullying event was wholly responsible for what happened to any of those kids. But all of them were responsible for participating in the creation of the environment that led to the deaths.

    This whole, “No one’s to blame because I can’t blame it all on one person”, mindset is outrageous.

  7. 8


    Do you suppose that the only possible motivation for comments that you do not like is that the person likes attention or is narcissistic? I think you’re grossly over-generalizing the reasons why people might leave comments on stories in which they have very little vested interest, or of which they have little knowledge.

    Why did you leave your comment on this story? Why did I leave mine?

    1. 8.1

      I know this wasn’t addressed to me, but I’ll respond anyway because it’s my blog and I DO WANT I WANT. 😛

      I think that anyone who writes publicly is operating under the assumption that people may be interested in what they have to say, which in extreme forms could be called narcissism.

      However, there’s a difference between leaving a comment that says, “I think you’re wrong because X” or “I think the person in this article is wrong because Y” and leaving a comment that says “ugh what a fuckin idiot lol she got what she deserved.”

      And the difference isn’t just that one comment is completely inane and the other might not be; it’s that the first type of comment actually aims to convince someone of something, whereas the second is really just venting one’s own thoughts without concern for how they will be perceived or what they might accomplish.

      1. Then we are in agreement that it’s reasonable that the motivations for the first comment cannot be easily generalized, and certainly can’t be simply attributed to attention-seeking narcissism.

        The second comment is, exactly as you say, inane.

        I’m only bringing this up since I am starting to believe that it’s dangerous to dismiss comments with generalizations as to their motivation, when upon inspection it may be that we either don’t agree with them, or that it is ‘not the way we would have responded’. By posting in a public forum you are accepting that it is not a homogeneous audience that will all respond in the way you desire, whatever that may be. To me this means you ignore the inane comments, and at least approach the others in good faith until you have reason to do otherwise.

  8. 9

    I suppose it’s a version of Morton’s Fork that whatever suicide is, it’s not a crime committed by the suicide victim: either they committed suicide because they were mentally ill, and then it’s not their fault, or they did what they decided to do, and no one’s rights were violated. Whatever blame there is, it should never be assigned to the suicide victim.

    As I see it, there are four extreme views: it’s the victim who’s to blame, it’s the DJs who are to blame, no one is to blame because what happened was simply a symptom of mental illness manifesting itself, and no one is to blame because it was her free choice. The first view is flat out wrong, but still common (“suicide is murder” is a phrase some people actually use, and agree with!); the truth is somewhere between the other three.

    I think when people say (non-snarkily) “messed up and crazy”, they’re most likely to be in the suicide-is-murder crowd. They’re wrong. Suicide isn’t, ever, a crime.

  9. 10

    I agree 100%. People need to be more aware that not everyone is an extrovert who thrives on attention (and even to some degree enjoys negative attention). There are many introverts and shy people who want to fly under the radar and for whom getting attention, especially public one, is very painful. This does not mean that these people are faulty and need therapy, they just function really differently than extroverts.
    This is probably hard to comprehend for a typical radio moderator. If I had been this nurse, this story had been extremely painful for me as well and very difficult to process. Another thing that struck me is how difficult this must be for the royals couple: how terrible that a pregnancy starts with a death just because they are chased by reporters, and the same child does not have a grandmother because she was chased by reporters too. It is a mystery to me how anyone would freely choose such a life and not go crazy over it.

  10. 12

    I made the mistake of reading some of the comments section at a CNN story about this. Huge numbers of comments were devoted to explaining how all suicides are attributable to pure selfishness on the part of the victim. Really?!? Out of all of the thousands of suicides every year, not one of them had anything to do with mental illness, physical illness, humiliation, fear, shame, suffering, poverty, economics, loss, bullying, pain, or anything else? I understand the inclination to seek single causes for complex events like suicide, which are typically the result of one or multiple triggers occurring within a greater context, but of all the possibilities, the meme of selfish suicide is the one that people latch on to? /sigh

    I’m glad I ran across your post afterwards, Miriam. A breath of fresh air. I’ve really been enjoying your blog since you moved to FtB and I discovered you.

    Also, this. So much this:

    The thing is, we live in a world that presumes that everyone is “strong” and mentally healthy and capable of dealing with whatever life throws at them without falling apart.

    Why does hardly anyone realize this?

  11. 13

    I totally agree with the last statement. I just lost a friend to suicide and he had an arguement with his father the morning he killed himself. He said something to the effect that ” your going to push me over the edge one day and have to live with it.” So tragic. So preventable.

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