“All I do is suffer each and every day. Every moment is pain or numbness. How long can one go without pleasure. I guess these will really be my last words.”
– Arthour’s suicide note from Edwin S. Shneidman’s Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind.
“It’s like drowning, except you can see everyone around you breathing.”
– AshKaay in What is depression like?
Suicide is not a “cowards way out,” nor is it the result of someone being “crazy”. Rather, it is a desperate attempt to escape intense mental pain when hope of relief is lost. This post will hopefully dispel some of the stigma surrounding suicide and shed light on why some people are driven to commit suicide, but it is not meant to be a comprehensive description of all cases. The types of suicide I discuss in this post are based in states of anxiety and depression, and the theories of suicide described here are among the best available to-date in the field of suicidology, but it is not an exhaustive list of all of the theories.
Intense emotional pain
In Suicide as Psychache, Shneidman argues that suicide is the result of an intense level of emotional pain that exceeds the individual’s threshold to endure it. Of course we all experience emotional pain in your lives, but in the case of suicide this emotional pain is both intense and prolonged; combined with the loss of hope, suicide seems like the only way to relieve the pain. This pain may come from the dark numbness of depression, or a state of anxiety where, “you’re wrapped in a prickly blanket of unexplained, unwanted emotions,” as described by AshKaay.
Escape from the self
In Suicide as Escape From Self, Baumeister argues suicide is the result of “painful self-awareness”. This is the pain of perceived failure to attain a desired standard. An interesting finding in this area of research is that, “favorable external conditions often seem most conducive to suicide.” Suicide rates are often higher in nations that have higher standards of living, higher among women after the 1960’s when they achieved greater financial opportunity, and higher among students who go on to higher education. These favorable conditions raise social standards, putting pressure on individuals to attain ever-higher levels of achievement, leading to a “painful awareness of oneself as deficient.” The “escape theory” states that suicide becomes an appealing way to relieve this form of pain.
Lack of belonging and feeling like a burden
In Why People Die by Suicide, Joiner builds on the pain-oriented theories, arguing that intense emotional pain often comes from a perceived lack of belonging or feeling like a burden. Thwarted belongingness is characterized by the statement “I am alone”. This has two aspects: loneliness as the result of feeling disconnected from others (living alone, single, no children etc.), and the absence of reciprocal care (family conflict, loss through death of divorce, domestic or child abuse etc.). The ‘perceived burdensomeness’ factor is characterized by feeling like a liability to others, as well as a sense of self-loathing. When combined with a sense of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide are a likely result.
Intense guilt or shame
In Shame, Guilt, and Suicide, the authors argue that these two factors are significant contributors to suicidal risk. The concept of moral injury has been developed to address psychological issues based on the experience of guilt and shame. Intense feelings of guilt and shame are particularly painful because they contribute to Joiner’s two risk-factors. When someone feels a sense of shame, they feel isolated and cut off from a valued social group. In addition, shame can be produced by unattainable social standards, as described in Baumeister’s escape theory. Guilt is also dangerous because it can lead to feeling like a burden, causing a sense of one’s liability and sense of self-loathing. In addition, guilt, like shame, can be produced by the external pressures described by Baumeister.
People who die by suicide are victims to its painful grip; they are not “weak” or “crazy”. These terms are unfitting to the reality of mental illness, in the same way we wouldn’t describe someone with cancer as “weak” for not surviving. Those who are driven to the point of suicide suffer an extreme level of emotional pain, perceive themselves as alone or burdensome, and may experience high levels of guilt and shame. When hope is lost, suicide becomes a way to escape this tragic reality.
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