Content warning: This story deals with the subject of suicide, and many be triggering for some readers.
As a professor, clinical psychologist, author and public speaker, Jordan Peterson often speaks to rooms full of hundreds, if not thousands of people.
He talks about agency, truth, purpose and meaning, and while controversial, Peterson’s skill appears to be in bringing complex discussions to an audience prepared to grapple with them. They want to engage in conversations about identity, and beliefs, and ethics – and they like Peterson’s ‘no bullsh*t’ approach. They know that if they ask him a hard question, he’ll have a considered, passionate answer.
But on June 15, during a talk in Indianapolis, Peterson was asked a question he presumably hasn’t been asked before.
“I plan on taking my own life very soon,” the questioner, Chad, had asked via an online submission. “Why shouldn’t I?”
“OK, well, this is very serious,” Peterson responded. “I don’t know if I should address it because I’m somewhat tired, but I’ll give it a shot because it’s important, and it’s a very serious, troublesome question.”
These were the four reasons he gave.
1. “You will devastate the people you leave behind.”
“You have to think very carefully through the consequences of that for other people,” Peterson said.
“I have clients in my clinical practice who have never recovered from the suicide of a family member. Decades later, they are still torturing themselves about it. So that’s what you leave behind.
“The problem is, you might be dreaming out that. Maybe you think life is beset against you. Maybe you’re thinking people deserve to suffer for the misery they have imposed upon you.
Who is Jordan Peterson, and why should we care? Post continues after audio.
“But I would say: Think very, very carefully before you go down that route. It’s a terrible thing to leave people with. And so, part of the reason suicide has been illegal in societies, is because it absolutely devastates the people you leave behind.
“You may just absolutely wipe them out in a way they may never recover from. You cannot fix someone’s suicide. You’re stuck with it.
“That’s a hell of a thing to leave someone with.”
2. “You owe it to yourself to look at every possible alternative.”
“There are treatments for depression, and many of them work,” Peterson said. “For some people, antidepressants work.
“They don’t work for everyone. I’m not claiming they are a panacea, but they certainly beat the hell out of suicide. Even if they have some negative side effects — and sometimes they do, quite frequently they do — the negative side effects aren’t fatal.
“Don’t give up hope and do something final before you’ve explored all possible options.
“If you haven’t talked to a psychologist, talked to a psychiatrist, you haven’t tried antidepressants, you haven’t revealed to your family that this is how you’re feeling, then you owe it to yourself and them to explore any possible avenue before you take a final step.”
3. “Consider that your life has intrinsic value.”
“You don’t want to deprive the world of what you could bring…” Peterson explained. “You have intrinsic value, and you can’t just casually bring that to an end. You’ll put a hole in the fabric of ‘being’ itself.”
“A wise man that I once worked with… he was a very strange person, he was a psychologist at the maximum security prison in Edmonton… he said: ‘You can always commit suicide tomorrow.’ And it’s a very flippant statement, but he meant it in a very serious way. You only get to decide that once. You can put it off. So I would say: Put it off, and put it off some more, and see what you can do to put yourself together.
“What the hell do you have to lose?”
4. “Don’t be so sure your life is yours to take.”
“You don’t own yourself the way you own an object,” Peterson said.
“You have a moral obligation to yourself as a locus of divine value. You can’t treat that casually. It’s wrong.”
Writing for The Australian, journalist Caroline Overington found a tweet from the questioner to Peterson thanking him for his response.
Hey dr. Peterson. It’s Chad. You read my serious question tonight at the lecture. I just want you to know that you may have diverted me onto a different path. I am probably going to check myself into a hospital tomorrow night. Thank you.
— ???????????????? (@chadjustin98) June 16, 2018
I don’t really believe in fate, but I have never felt my adrenaline rush like I did tonight when you started reading my question. Never in a million years would I expect you to actually get to my question. And that was a big red flag for me. Once again, thank you dr.
— ???????????????? (@chadjustin98) June 16, 2018
Peterson replied, “I am absolutely thrilled to hear this.”
In light of recent media stories, as well as personal experiences that have likely touched almost all of us, suicide is a terrifying topic to confront. We know we need to be careful, and considered, and informed in the way we talk about it. But perhaps, for many of us, our fear stops us from having those conversations at all.
It stops us from looking someone in the eye and telling them that suicide isn’t an option. That there is always life to look forward to, support to find, and value to bring.
Jordan Peterson’s response might not be perfect, but when asked one of life’s most confronting questions, he did what many of us shy away from: he gave an answer.