Psychology

Why do People Commit Suicide?

Drowning

“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.

In conclusion

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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54 comments

  1. Thank you for putting into words and print what everyone ought to undestand about suicide and suicidality. I find the concept of it being cowardly astoundingly heartless and uninformed.

  2. As someone who has experienced suicidal ideation I was expecting to find something to at least scoff at but it turns out you’ve written an amazing well informed piece. Another fact that wasn’t mentioned is the increased rate of suicide in people with bipolar disorder. Don’t quote me (bad memory) but the figure I read was around 20% for attempts possibly. The whole idea of suicide is daunting and I’m very lucky that I am one of those people that just don’t want to give up. I was only recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the crazy awful time I have had has really shone a light on me to why so many people DO give up from the excruciating mental stress. So sad and heart breaking.

  3. Amen, and amen!
    Having just been made aware of a teen suicide yesterday, my heart ached for the pain, the lack of hope that young person must have felt. How important it is to be hope to those we pass as we walk life’s hallways each day … even if just a smile or sincere greeting. Who knows but that it might be the medicine that persons heart and mind need most.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Carole

  4. I appreciate how you acknowledge the mental pain that leads to such tragic and untimely decision some folks make. Exposure to the mental health field has connected my eyes to what undergrad research in Religious Studies revealed. Death has various meanings to cultures/faiths and unfortunately not enough cultures/faiths place enough energy on the need to love, respect, and understand self enough to build a profound relationship with self.

    A relationship with self leads to the humble acknowledgement self is here for and because of a force more powerful then self, a force I empathize with as the Almighty Creator God. Self was created not by personal choice but as a creation of Almighty Creator God, with the recognition other beings beings have also been created.

    In essence, life is created in the creative mind we have been given. Various walks of life hinder the ability to focus necessary energy on wisely focusing the creative powers we have been given. There is not necessarily a measured balance that relationship with self and others demand, just as much as your creative mind requires for the creative being you are.

    Physical pain is demanding and weighs on the mind no doubt. Enough focus on creative energy and accepting such truth consumes the self, which tends to overpower physical pain as the mind is a powerful creation. Herein lies the problem. The battlefield for the spiritual warfare we are all in.

  5. While people can find themselves as victims of its grip, isn’t the solution self empowerment combined with self compassion? In other words, isn’t the way out – oddly – to somehow find a way to eschew being a victim? Easier said than done. Maybe somewhere in there is the rub.

    And fwiw, I can see Canada from my house (buffalo)
    ; )

    1. I think self-empowerment and self-compassion would be hard without compassion and support from others. I’ll need to write a post on this in the future from a more sociological perspective, since this post is very psychologically oriented.

      Glad to know you’re so close to Canada.. hope the snow hasn’t been too bad recently!

  6. Very informative article. As I have had encountered 3 people who are close to me go through this. I’ve learned to pay more attention to body language and how/the way people communicate. We often times miss the little things that triggers it.

  7. Excellently presented. Many of our perception of others is based on people who are well evaluating those who are unwell. I’ve known several people who’ve taken their lives and there was nothing selfish about it. Robin Williams’ death still bothers me. Despair and hopelessness are truly cancers of the mind.

  8. Thank you for including so many links in your blog. They are helping me bit by bit make at least a little sense of what happened with my son. And, I’m hoping, to help alleviate the guilt I constantly feel about letting my child down when he needed me the most.

    1. I am very sorry to hear about this tragic event with your son. You can’t blame yourself since the warning signs are not well-known and stigma often causes individuals to hide the extent of their pain. I’m glad the resources are helping. I wish you all the best.

      1. Thing is when they reach that dark place, the abyss, there is no choice to be made. It’s quite literally a fight between life and death. A real struggle to survive. Without providing any details I can assure everybody my son was fighting not only for his life but his own family’s due to things I’ve pieces together. He was terrified about what was happening to him, but jaie has always been a protector. And in his

        1. Poor tired bipolar mind he was protecting those he loved from possible harm. Just wish that he’d been able to tell me he was falling down. A year today since I last hugged him. Next is his birthday, our first without him and then 2 days later the first anniversary of his death.

  9. I really liked your blog today, but I feel that you skipped over one other reason people commit suicide. It is the reason I almost did it myself. When someone is suffering from a medical condition and is in lots of pain everyday it becomes a personal burden on you and is different from emotional pain. Although it may cause loneliness and mental health issues the root of the cause is still daily physical pain.

  10. This is where faith is truly powerful. You take Self off the pedestal by an act of free will, and you realize what you really already know: you’re not God. You “die” to your Self, and you “live” for God…who loves you, who “gave Himself” for you. His love is unconditional. You don’t need to measure up anymore, because you’re hugged and covered by HIS sufficient Perfectness. You just get to be…yourself.

    I suffered from a spirit of suicide as a teenager. I’ve travelled through mental and emotional places that have driven me to making choices; choices that invited me to trust God and leave the outcomes to Him.

    I’ve never been disappointed.

    Life has increased in “preciousness”. I long for others to know….

    1. Thank you for sharing this perspective. I agree that faith can increase this “preciousness,” and it is very powerful for many people. I recognize this despite not being able to find any faith or meaning in a transcendent power.

  11. Hi Steven,

    I cannot say why anyone would take their own life. However, the very fact the thought can surface when a person reach that “Fight or Flight” state at any given time and remain in that state for prolong period, is reality. At which point who knows what one will do. I am attaching an E-book for read and see if this helps with some understanding. I will later send you one of my other E-books regarding the same subject but, in a different light. What is being said in these books makes a world of sense to me.

    I enjoy the topics you write,

    Kent ComputerGenesis

    Date: Fri, 23 Jan 2015 23:15:26 +0000 To: bios-7@hotmail.com

  12. Steve:
    You are a thoughtful and powerful witness. Thank you for your work.
    I spent some time in association with a man that worked a suicide hotline. He seemed to feel no pride in his success. I wonder whether people such as him serve only as a finger in the dyke towards the inevitable consummation of the urge to escape, or whether their availability can produce a long-term healing. Do you have any insights?
    Thanks
    Brian

    1. I really do believe hotlines can produce healing if the attendants are properly trained and are extremely empathetic. Although this is the case, I still think they are only a small piece of the puzzle for long-term healing.

  13. I’ve been suicidal at many points of my life. It feels awful inside, and feels even more awful when those around you tell you to ‘get over it,’ ‘quit whining,’ or ‘be grateful for what you have’.

    In the absence of joy, it is hard to see any positive, and I believe so many people are in a position of such inner turmoil and awareness of themselves as ‘faulty’ or ‘deficient’ but feel unable to express it because in our society now, we so often believe that if life is even the least uncomfortable, then something is wrong. It translates to something being wrong within us, and as it remains unattended, we can’t bear to think of ourselves as ‘wrong’ inside. Having no relief from the pain we experience and having people tell us we are wrong to experience it is a recipe for disaster. I wish more people understood that negative feelings are ok to have, and not always cause to tell someone they’re some kind of freak.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience!

      This the problem of ‘stigma’. Goffman states that the stigmatized individual is asked to act so as to imply that his burden is not heavy and that stigma makes every person their own jailer. This causes separation from society and lonliness. As Mother Theresa said, “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” Jules Verne said, “Solitude, isolation, are painful things and beyond human endurance.” Lastly, Jean Vanier states, “To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unlovable. Loneliness is a taste of death.”

      In “Why People Die By Suicide,” Thomas Joiner argues that a sense oft thwarted belonging, perceived burdensomeness, and a loss of hope causes suicidal ideation. Stigma is a mark of social exclusion, causing further harm to some of the most vulnerable members of society. No one would ever say that someone with diabetes is not a whole person, but people often imply that with mental illness. As Sonia Estrada states: “I had people saying ‘it’s all in your head’. Do you honestly think I want to feel this way?” People say, “just shake it off,” but mental illness is not like a Taylor Swift song; you can’t just “shake it off,” and it’s just “just a phase.”

      Loneliness exacerbates mental illness; community facilitates mental health. A society that promotes mental health must first eliminate stigma. As Luke Richardson states: “We need to change the culture of this topic and make it OK to speak about mental health and suicide.” When the spirit of ‘Bell Lets Talk’ day becomes EVERY day, hopefully stigma will no longer alienate those with mental illness.

      1. Yes, exactly. We all need to be supported and feel a sense of belonging and purpose in our communities. I hope there is some way to turn the tide and create this community for our future generations.

  14. Someone from my coffee group recently jumped off a tall building. The guy was a genius.
    Dripping Vanilla . Kindly take out some time to go through his work.

    I held the belief that suicide was a coward’s last resort. One of my dad’s friend’s daughter had hung herself. I asked the man I was seeing back then if he had ever thought of suicide. He replied – who hasn’t. I hadn’t. But I let it be.

    Then this other day, in yet another coffee shop, while discussing the suicide of a friend a professor commented – after a while, it is the only way, there is nothing one can do.

    I cannot even begin to understand the hopelessness engulfing the one who decides to end it. It is an extremely sad thing, I just hope that the ones who have gone through with it have found their peace.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about both of these tragic events. I went through some of his stunning work.. I actually liked his aesthetics so much that I remade my site with similar elements. Hopefully they have found peace in some kind of afterlife, but since I’m agnostic, I’ll have to go with this: “Sometimes life sucks so much that never ending darkness and silence just sounds very soothing,” as a reddit user stated in response to this post.

      1. Afterlife is a romantic notion and i have reservations on that but…thanks a lot for taking time out and going through his pictures and his words …. Oblivion is imminent but thats a start …

  15. Occationally suicide or attempting it is an accidental conciquence. As i kept saying to the ER Doctors the night i took god knows how many painkillers i wasn’t trying to committ suicide i just wanted the pain to go away. Not sure of others but my accute mental anguish right before my depression became cronic manifested into mind blowing migraines that just wouldnt go away

  16. Society has a much bigger role to play to properly understand and educate people who want and need to know more about suicide. The fragile voice of suicide needs society to sponsor more lectures and forums. This blog is a good example.

  17. Intense physical pain is another reason. Sometimes the decision to complete suicide is based on rational thought of knowing what your situation is and deciding the quality of life is not there. Great post.

  18. Hi Steve.

    You are a very good writer in my opinion. I feel like you understand better than most, or the average, who indeed think someone who flirts with suicide is “weak” I appreciate your cancer-analogy.

    I humbly confess that I can attest to some of the things you wrote… We (humans) are the worst judges of ourselves, but I dare take an assessment on my own thoughts and choices because only I can perceive my dark reality…

    There are times when consolations such as “It’s going to be okay” or “It could be worse” sound as negotiation terms that cannot fool one. This is because no one knows the future… and the mind is taken hostage by the fact that nobody knows the future.

    Just wanted to share that with you.

    I am glad for writers such as you. (:

  19. Someone on Reddit was nice enough to link your article. Thank you for your time to research and author this work. I will paste my reply there to your comment section for sharing purposes and to invite feedback. It’s not based upon any research so much as from personal experience and working with SI/HI clients. It’s in more of a narrative format than an ordinal listing of factors:

    We literally start as parts of two other people with no “self-identity”. Soon we grown in the womb and then are born, earning a further sense of self through having a separate physical boundary from the rest of the world. As we grow and develop, we begin to see ourselves cognitively as an individual while also realizing that we need our caregivers to survive. Our caregivers are PERFECT beings…divinity in the sense that all nourishment, security, and stability come from them. When the caregiver finds fault with us or acts in a less than perfect manner, we internalize it as our fault for displeasing the Gods. If they abuse/neglect/reject/abandon us in some way then our survival instinct kicks in, telling us we NEED to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to regain their approval. This puts a child in a schizoid position, because the only way to regain their caregivers’ approval is by also hating their self with the parent, thusly regaining their parents approval through an alliance. This starts the fall into “The Abyss of Madness” (Read this book by George Atwood if you haven’t!) and the annihilation of the self. Suicide can then been seen as an ultimate act of trying to gain approval through nihilation (self-destruction) or, conversely, a final act of defiance in the sense of “I have nothing left of my identity, except for my ability to choose when/how of my own demise.” The former reasoning may be emerging from despair and the latter from anger.

    Also, I believe this narrative can hold true not only for the individual’s relationship to caregivers, but also to “pack mentality”. This would be similiar except the initial/fundamental driving forces stem from social rejection and how that tells us, as pack animals, that we are not accepted by the pack and will be isolated to go off and die on our own. Victims of severe bullying are good examples of this dynamic.

    Just my random thoughts 🙂

      1. The book I mentioned would likely be the closest at heart, which is part of psychoanalytic metapsychology. Atwood falls under “self-psychology” of psychoanalysis, although he refers to it more as intersubjective relational or even phenomenological contextualism at its core. The rest is intermingled with my own blended beliefs through studying psychology, philosophy, and my own meandering experience.

  20. An excellent post by a gifted, thoughtful writer. Over a long life, I have had the misfortune of knowing several suicides, two of them close friends. Perhaps I was young, too blind, or, as I was those days, just drinking too much, but I did not recognize the signs in any of the tragedies except in hindsight. There was one, a good friend, who, when I bade him “Good night,” as I left him, his wife and friends in a bar, said, “Good-by, Frank.” There was something in his tone and expression that frightened me and I said, “You don’t really mean that?” He smiled, and said, “Don’t I?” When I heard the next day that an unidentified body had been found at the edge of our small town, I knew who it was and what he had done. Later, it turned out he had family and money troubles. There I was, believing I knew him. I later heard people say he had taken the “easy” way out. I think I heard that comment or “the coward’s way” more than once of the others.
    Who are we to judge; what do we really know of anyone’s story? William Blake wrote, “For Mercy has a human heart/Pity a human face…” I saw none of that compassion for those I knew.

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