Identity and Suicide

In the aftermath of Kelly Caitlin’s suicide, I have been musing on identity and the pressure to perform. I couldn’t even bring myself to list Caitlin’s accolades as a reference- somehow writing, “Caitlin, Olympic silver medalist and graduate student in computational mathematics at Stanford” indites me in her death. That may sound hyperbolic, but we have a responsibility as a culture to think critically about the values we perpetuate.

Reports cite that Caitlin has a recent concussion and cardiac drift, which prevented her from training and limited her mental execution. Her frustration with her inability to “do everything well” drove her to taking her own life. Yes- there is likely deep psychological pain and a myriad of other factors that pushed her to that point, but I think we can all agree that our culture of achievement and perfectionism played a role.

This week I also learned of a young local engineer who took her own life at 22. I heard this information from a colleague and after some investigation, I read that the family never reported suicide as the cause of death. It was deemed “accidental” in written reports- likely out of a need to keep her “honor”, but this isn’t what made my stomach curl … When I read her obituary, it read like a college resume. All of her accolades and accomplishments were listed as her identity. Tears rolled down my face as I thought of this young woman who felt disconnected, lonely, and hopeless enough to take her own life.

“You arrive at the top- where everyone thought you should be- and then you look around and think, “now what?”

Yesterday a beloved friend and fireman took his own life with a gun. He suffered a stroke a few months ago and was out of the hospital on the road to recovery. No one really knows the factors that played into his decision to end his life, but we do know his identity was deeply rooted in his profession and strength as a provider. The stroke threatened both of these identities- he would never work as a fireman again and he would need help to get back on his feet…He left behind a wife and kids.

No one really knows the intricacy of the whys in the above stories, but there is a theme. Where do we place our identity? Is it in what we own; our position in society; our skin quality; how many degrees we have; where we attended school, etc.? Each of us needs to take inventory of what really matters in our life and prioritize our time and systems around those values.

Over the last six years, I have coached many clients who roll in after 30-50 years of working 80+ hours/week in high profile/high stress jobs. Most are very accomplished and usually in poor health- harnessing a simple desire to care for themselves better in their last decades of life. Any lament is often buried deep, because questioning if you spent the bulk of your years doing the “right thing” can be debilitating. All of us need to believe we did the best we could- and we can't change what was- we can only move forward with intention…

If you are reading this, you have a forward trajectory- there are still decisions to be made and the map is open… I encourage each of you to think about what really matters to you and ask the question, “what are my priorities and does my time and resource allocation reflect those values?” If they do have synergy, march on and breath deep….If they don’t, what can you do to move yourself closer to congruency?

Here is a great blog I came across on PsychCentral: “You Are Not One Thing”. I also strongly recommend watching the documentary, Race to Nowhere.


Sarah Lynn