Suicide is one of the most stigmatized acts, yet those who die by suicide are those who needed our assistance the most. This post will debunk some of the common myths about suicide, based on the research of Thomas Joiner in his book Myths About Suicide.
Popular myths are that people who commit suicide are cowardly, selfish, or impulsive; but in fact, Joiner has demonstrated just the opposite. People who are most at risk of dying by suicide are actually less fearful (hence the opposite of cowardly), unselfish in their perceptions, rational in their preparation, and conscious in their decision.
Those who die by suicide are not cowardly. In fact, those who have completed suicide are those who are least fearful since they were able to overcome the brain’s survival mechanism based in the amygdala. The desire to commit suicide, as previously talked about, is fundamentally produced by a high level of mental pain that exceeds the person’s capacity to endure it, but fear is what holds the person back. A police officer named George Thompson used this to his advantage when negotiating an individual out of taking his life by electrocuting himself in a bathtub. He described a gruesome scenario to the individual, emphasizing the extreme level of prolonged physical pain this would cause him, causing him to back out due to the heightened fear-response it provoked.
Those who die by suicide are not selfish. In fact, individuals who contemplate suicide actually perceive themselves to be a burden; therefore, their cognitive state leads them to the conclusion that suicide would perhaps be a relief to those they feel like a burden to. Two major factors related to suicidal desire in Joiners model are thwarted belonging and perceived burdensomeness (and hopelessness regarding these states). When someone feels hopeless regarding their sense of belonging and if they feel that their existence is burdensome, taking their own life does not cognitively register in selfish terms. A tactic used by police officers during a suicide negotiation is to emphasize the fact that they are actually needed by significant others. The ‘need to be needed’ is an idea I explore further in another post. When realizing their death would be a burden to significant others, individuals are more likely to be dissuaded from going through with the act.
Those who die by suicide are not impulsive. In fact, individuals who choose to commit suicide have often thought about it for an extended period of time, plan ahead, and are conscious of their decision to end their unbearable suffering through this last resort. The idea of the “crazed” individual driven to suicide through by a mysterious “madness” is actually based on early misunderstandings in the field of psychology in the 19th century. “Suicidal monomania” was the name given to cases of suicide that seemed to result from a person lacking reason. But it is now known that although suicides can take us by surprise and may be shrouded by mystery or secrecy, people have reasons why they are driven to this act and they are conscious of what they are doing. Perhaps the stigma is a major contributor to the reason why it is often a surprise since individuals are often suffering in silence.
It is important to note that although suicide is a conscious decision, it is not an easy one. As mentioned regarding the two states above, fear and thoughts of loved ones make this decision less clear-cut, causing the desire toward suicide to coexist with the desire to live. Rather than a light-switch, the desire is more like a barometer. Aggravating factors compel individuals while resilience factors push back. Even at the time of death, many individuals are still feeling the pressure of these contradictory forces. It is also important to note that although this is often the case in suicides compelled by mental illness, it is more of a clear-cut decision in cases of euthanasia where the individual perceives their declining state of health to become burdensome to others.
Those who consider suicide are not cowards; rather, their psychological state of intense pain caused them to overcome their fear of death. They are not selfish; rather, they often feel like a burdon, causing their suicide to be perceived as a relief to others. They are not impulsive or crazy; rather, they have thought about it, made plans, and may have suffered in silence due to stigma. Families and friends of those who have died by suicide should not blame themselves for not recognizing the signs or understanding the decision. Hopefully books like Joiner’s Myths About Suicide, will continue to dispel these myths so that people won’t have to live and die with this added burden.
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