Rethinking suicide as ‘hate kills’

(trigger warning for suicide and state and institutional violence)

While a lot of energy has been invested in determining why some people commit “suicide”, other work (as in, the work I am much more interested in talking about) draws attention to environmental and contextual factors in which suicide takes place. Rates of suicide are often higher among communities that are excluded and disenfranchised and(/or) experience huge amounts of (state, institutional, and interpersonal) violence.

Vikki Reynolds, a social justice activist and therapist, argued in a keynote at the Canadian Association For Suicide Prevention, that “hate kills” (its a noun) is a more appropriate way of talking about suicide, one that promotes a social justice based response. The premise of her argument is that people “do not kill themselves but [are] murdered by hate.” She continues:

When we look at suicide from a social justice perspective we resist the individualism of suicide. This isn’t something that happens to one person, and it’s not something that one person does. Nobody kills themselves – these things do not happen in isolation. […] I want to be really careful that while I do believe in mental illness and that people struggle with different things, and that all suicide is not entirely an issue of social justice, at times we can do injustice, or replicate oppression by locating social problems like social injustice issues inside the minds of people (Gergen, 1989). I truly believe that hate kills,  hate is not a metaphor (Richardson & Reynolds, 2012).

She draws on examples from her decades of activism with many different groups, including indigenous and queer (and indigenous queer) communities. The full text of Vikki’s very awesome presentation is full of passion and plenty of examples, is totally worth your time.

Thinking about how this concept of hate kills is at play in the communities I have worked with, I remembered this story about when Inuit people were relocated as human flagpoles and then the funding in place to compensate survivors and their descendants (as if money can really compensate for something that atrocious) was compromised. This is just one of a plethora of examples of ongoing and past colonialism and state-led violence against Inuit.

In 2010 on Purple Day, I wrote about the need to support “LGBTQ+ youth who have felt so excluded, so bullied, so rejected by society and so alone that they have ended their lives“. For these youth, lived experiences of heterosexism led them to believe ending their lives was the best option.

While we absolutely need to support people who as and after they experience marginalization and exclusion, we can also take some steps to prevent these types of things from happening to begin with.  Sound familiar? Yes. I’ve written about this need to shift our thinking upstream to prevent bad things before they happen here and here, and on the Community-Based Research Centre’s website here.

In addition to the important and usual advice given as we seek to prevent suicide – smile at a stranger, let the people in your life know you are here – take a moment today to think about what you can do to stop hate from killing people. Tell someone it hurts your feelings when they are homophobic, transphobic, fatphobic, racist, colonialist, stereotyping, sexist, ableist, and oh-so-many others. Write your leadership at organizational and national levels to tell them the killing and the torture has to stop (Vikki’s full speech talks more about this). Find an every day way to give hate less room the lives of people you love.  Replace “suicide” with hate kills in your language. Shift your thinking upstream. As Leah, a blog writer I came across through many people who posted this link on Facebook, argues, make space for people to talk about feeling really, really sad despite being perceived otherwise, struggling with mental wellness, and feeling suicidal.

These are big asks, and ever-urgent ones to address an issue that is also very big. Maybe, just maybe, they might, along with other, better, more creative interventions, help to address these so-big, ever-urgent issues.