Those jokes you make so lightly? They're not funny

Artwork: Matthew Patchett
You're not OCD because you like to arrange the heels on your shoe-rack in height order. The lecturer who assigned you three chapters of readings isn't psychotic writes Jean Balchin. Artwork: Mathew Patchett

It's 9am and I'm heading to class, weaving through the crowds of coffee-swilling students and trying not to slip over on the wet tiles.

Just before I enter the Burns building, I catch the tail-end of a conversation between two girls. ''God, I have so many assignments due. I think I might just kill myself.''

My stomach drops. Her flippant comment doesn't make me smile wryly or empathise with her heavy workload. Instead, it forces me to think of my brother, drowning in the cold Waihou River.

It conjures up an image of him lying face-down in the mudflats. It makes me remember his startlingly small coffin being carried out on the shoulders of his friends. It makes me sick.

Jokes about topping yourself, about walking in front of a bus or borrowing your dad's handgun are horrifically commonplace. They're a quick and effective way to dramatise the situation. I know I've made suicide jokes, unthinkingly.

I've angrily berated the so-called ''PC Brigade'' that seem hell-bent on sucking all fun out of the world. Humour can be cathartic, right? Sometimes laughing at a bad situation is just a way of coping. Yet we forget that when these careless words roll off our tongue, they diminish the seriousness of suicide.

Our jokes trivialise the act, and make it incredibly difficult for someone experiencing suicidal feelings to seek help. Why would anyone voice their suicidal thoughts if they thought their words would be brushed aside as just another way of being dramatic?

Scrolling through Facebook recently, briefly glancing at funny pictures of dogs in flowerpots and outrageous comments about the finale of The Bachelor, a picture caught my eye. It was a photograph of Chris Cornell, the lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave, superimposed against the background of Netflix's hit series Thirteen Reasons Why.

The caption read: ''Chris Cornell finished the final episode last night'' and the meme already had thousands of likes. In the comments, someone made a joke about how Cornell is an excellent Robin Williams impersonator. How is this funny? Why is the tragic death of a beloved man something to make fun of?

Please think twice before declaring you want to kill yourself. Ask yourself, is it possible that someone within hearing distance knows someone who has actually killed themselves? Is it possible that someone around you is suicidal and has actually seriously contemplated killing themselves? Is it possible that your ''joke'' could cause horrible memories to come flooding back to someone nearby?

Instead, show respect for those who are struggling, for those who have committed suicide, and for their loved ones who live on. Take it from me, those who are left behind are full of regret and confusion. I'm plagued by what else I could have done to help my brother and some days, I feel heavy with sadness. Your snide comments and so-called ''jokes'' make everything 1000 times worse, and hit me out of left-field.

This respect doesn't just apply to issues of suicide and depression. Other mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder aren't just words you can throw around to describe people. You're not OCD because you like to arrange the heels on your shoe-rack in height order. The lecturer who assigned you three chapters of readings isn't psychotic. Stop casually labelling quirky habits or negative behaviour as mental health conditions. It's incredibly offensive to those who are actually dealing with debilitating disorders.

In my opinion, we've done a pretty awful job of creating a society where people with mental health issues or suicidal feelings can safely and easily seek treatment. We silence and suppress those who are struggling and then wonder why New Zealand has skyrocketing rates of suicide.

My brother's death is not a joke. It's not something you can or should laugh at. We need to seriously change our discourse surrounding mental health issues and suicide. Glib jokes aren't the answer.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.

Lifeline: 0800 543-354

Depression Helpline: 0800 111-757

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828-865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Healthline: 0800 611-116

Samaritans: 0800 726-66


To do this, be considerate, requires empathy. It is difficult, because young people don't mind their P's and Q's. To respect the feelings of others within NZ Rugby Culture is an impossible dream. The Lions, eg, are touring while their country is under attack. At this particular time, death gestures in haka are not appropriate.


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