It’s not funny, stop laughing

How do suicide jokes affect those who are struggling with mental illness? How can we stop them?

Ryleigh Hayworth

“I’m going to kill myself.” “Oh my gosh, just shoot me now.” “Slitting my wrists.” “K-M-S.” These things are so easy to hear. Walking through the hallways at school, sitting in a boring classroom, or stressing over large amounts homework, these comments, almost always jokes, seem to be coming out of our mouths left and right.

“A suicide joke is a joke about harming yourself,” junior Christina Tillotson said.

“When suicide is used as hyberbole (to exaggerate) it actually takes the seriousness away from the issue by making it sound like people who attempt are overexaggerating,” teacher Jennifer Medina said.

“I’m gonna kill myself.” We hear it all the time. It has become a reflex for any situation that is inconvenient. Whether or not a person actually intends to hurt themself, these jokes imply violent tendencies and self devaluation. Tillotson struggles with depression and anxiety herself, yet still makes suicide jokes. She has reduced the amount of suicide jokes she makes because she realized that it is hard to tell when a person is serious or not.

“Sometimes I just say it to let it go, just to say what I have in my mind “I’m gonna kill myself” and sometimes I wish I really could. It’s not a positive way or a good way to express yourself, but it has been a slang,” senior Nawal Rai said.

Thinking of suicide as a slang furthers the idea that it is not something to be taken seriously. It implies that making suicide jokes is cool, and in a sense it is. There is a common trope among high schoolers and people in general that one’s validity comes from the struggle they face. Everyone is racing to be the one with the least sleep, the most on their plate, the owner of the biggest burden. The struggle is in style.

“People think that people who go through mental health that they’re looking for attention. It’s really not that. Just try to talk to them. Just saying hi to someone can make their day so much better,” Rai said.

“People make suicide jokes because they’re the social norm, or because they use it as a coping mechanism,” sophomore Liana Sampson said.

For people struggling with mental health, making suicide jokes can be seen as a way of coping. The humor or light these jokes bring to the issue can be what a person needs to stay alive. These people have high tolerance for suicide jokes and triggers. The effect of suicide jokes depends heavily on the person though.

“Sometimes it can make people feel like they can’t open up about their own problems cause it’s seen as a joke,” Sampson said.

By making jokes about suicide, people struggling with mental illness can turn their problems into something unrealistic: a joke. This can help some, but it can be detrimental to others. Joking about suicide normalizes it, making these jokes a part of a bigger issue, being suicide contagion. The US Department of Health and Human Services defines suicide contagion as “the exposure to suicide or suicidal behaviors within one’s family, one’s peer group, or through media reports of suicide which can result in an increase in suicide and suicidal behaviors”.

Pullquote Photo

To people who go through mental health and depression and stuff: you are not alone. Find someone who you feel safe and comfortable to talk with. I talk to my counselor, my cousins, my close friends, who I feel comfortable with and who I trust”

— Nawal Rai

“For me, if I joke about wanting to die, the idea of actually dying becomes something that is less likely to happen,” Sampson said.

For people who struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts, there are other ways to cope. Journaling, and talking to someone you trust can help people have an outlet for negative thoughts. Making suicide jokes may be a widely used coping mechanism, but it can be hard to tell whether a person it serious or not. The commonality of suicide jokes makes strict attention to the body language of the person making jokes necessary.

“I don’t think there are suicide jokes because it isn’t funny. If someone mentions suicide, it’s my job to pull them aside and a) see if there is something going on with them and b) let them know that they could be perceived as insensitive,” Medina said.  

For people who are not struggling with mental health and suicidal thoughts, there is no good reason to make these suicide jokes. Whatever our reason may be, is making this kind of comment the most effective way to deal with the things that drive us to joke about suicide? Doing your homework, or using your time efficiently will significantly decrease your problem. It seems as though facing burdens head on will bring the realization that a mountain of homework, a tight schedule, or any other stress doesn’t require a threat of suicide, serious or not.

“Students can take accountability and when it’s happening they could be like ‘hey maybe we should rely more on other coping mechanisms than just this one.’ You have to take accountability for yourself,” Tillotson said.

By getting rid of phrases such as “I’m gonna kill myself”, “shoot me” and “K-M-S”, we can reduce any potential stigma and emphasize that suicidal jokes and thoughts should be taken seriously. It can be hard to tell when a person is no longer joking, so why not stop the idea that suicide was ever a joke?

“To people who go through mental health and depression and stuff: you are not alone. Find someone who you feel safe and comfortable to talk with. I talk to my counselor, my cousins, my close friends, who I feel comfortable with and who I trust,” Rai said.