Psychology

Myths About Suicide

SuicideSuicide 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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79 comments

  1. Love this post. I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts and attempts throughout most of my adolescence and I and many others struggled with the stigma and backlash from it. Especially in my cultural background, I was made to feel that Africans don’t get depressed, and certainly don’t think about suicide so it was a rough time.

    Even now in talking about my past, there is a lot of stigma directed towards me about the fact that I attempted, and I loved how insightful your article was on the myths and realities there is concerning suicide.

    Thanks for this!

    K

  2. Reblogged this on The Grace Project Blog and commented:
    This so eloquently put everything I’ve wanted to express in words. As someone who has attempted, and dealt with the repercussions, it can be hard to illustrate this message, when you overcome it, and help other without people thinking you are trying to make excuses. Check out this blog lovlies ❤

  3. Hi,

    The write up is quite interesting as well as thought provoking. One thing that came to me was, what if there is life after death and that is quite dependent on how you die…what if there is pain and suffering even after death? Will the only reason we don’t perceive life after death situation while living justify suicide? Suicide in deed is a brave act but is it not a temporary solution to a permanent problem?

  4. Reblogged this on Jazzmelia Kay and commented:
    This is why i speak very openly about my depression and suicide thoughts in my blog. I have little ones that i know deeply needs me to stick around, they keep me going, keep me alive.
    Many say people that talk about their suicide thoughts only does it for attention……
    I don’t want to hide my darker self behind a mask and pretend a smile. For me thats not attention, it’s honesty. Why pretend we live perfect lives and everything is perfect when the truth is that we all stumble once in awhile and why can’t we talk about it? Help and guide each other, friends as strangers?

    If you reach out to touch other people, you can fix your own soul. that’s what i believe, people might tell me that suicide is a sin and i will go to hell if i do it. Maybe? But i refused to take anyone else with me. If i go to hell, that’s OK but i will take my inner demon with me.

  5. Fascinating article. I have just written a short story about suicide that I will share with you once I get the rights back (currently being assessed by a university)

  6. This is beyond the truth, you actually have all the facts. That describe anyone that was bullied or abandoned in any age group.They felt the need to be free. Thank you this cleared everything I buried years ago. Probably the ignorant people who had their own theories, are quiet astounded by this article you’ve written.

  7. I LOVE LOVE LOVE This! It’s sooo true! Imagine feeling there is absolutely no other option in life than killing yourself, and how hopeless that person must feel. It’s awful. I was on medication that caused me to have suicidal thoughts. I met so many people on that journey though life who continue to suffer, and some who are no longer with us. It’s awful. Thank you for writing this! Beautifully put! And thank you for following me!! Stay chipper!

  8. Wow I have to say. A fantastic read. I always find it strange people who say that those who commit suicide are cowards, making the decision to take your own life has to be the bravest decision there is. I mean there is not much else to follow such an act..

  9. What can I say to do what my 17yr old son supposedly did you would have to be brave and courageous as a weak cowardly person could not take their own life using petrol and setting them selves on fire. As in life his 15 yr old sister is still jealous and in awe of him as, as she said he had the guts to do something most only wish they could.

    Only wish those with mental anguish knew how strong they really are and that they can get through it.
    Rip Jett

  10. A student at my university recently committed suicide. It was a shock considering she was such an upbeat girl and devoted editorial manager at our literary newsletter. This was a much-needed article, which helped clear up a lot of things. Thank you for sharing.

  11. I have had to deal with serious suicide attempt’s with my bi-polar son now, for over 25 years. It was the first time in 1991, and several attempt’s after. You’re article was very helpful. I will continue to read you’re post a lot more and I know I’ll learn even more. My son has not succeeded yet, but I know in my heart that some day he will.

      1. It’s working out, hes been placed in a real nice home for the mentally challenged. Could you write something about the feelings and unreal thoughts these people have? For instants he gets on this kick about the police have a warrant out for his arrest. Very serious to him but not really true. How can I help him through this, when it happens?

        1. I am glad to hear you have found a suitable home. Although it is not my area of study, he seems to be experiencing cognitive distortions. Many people would be quick to judge this as schizophrenia or generalized anxiety, but don’t realize that it could also be a subset of OCD called Pure O. Has he seen a qualified psychologist? Is he doing cognitive-behavioural therapy? One suggestion I would give you is to not provide reassurance; instead, listen and show support. Another suggestion would be to receive a diagnosis and find a suitable therapist (if you have not already). Cognitive behavioural therapies are reputable, but it the particular type of therapy would depend on the diagnosis.
          I wish you the best. Let me know if you have any further questions.

  12. Reblogged this on Hannah Halley's Blog and commented:
    Myths about suicide, by Steveroseblog. I wanted to share this because it’s so true that many people consider suicide as a selfish act, whereas in reality it’s usually selfless with the person thinking they’re doing everyone a favour. Obviously, suicide is never a positive decision, but the misleading and negative stigma attached to those who take their lives, or consider suicide needs to end. The negative connotation is an extra burden on a person who is suffering immensely already.

  13. Great post, thank you for sharing it. I can verify that suicide isn’t a selfish act, as I lost someone close to me to suicide. She believed she was doing everyone a favour, like you said “relieving friends and family of a burden”. She even left a note for the hotel maid to apologise to her, or the person who found her body. It’s the most selfless act, yet the most irrational. Hopefully posts like this will help to eradicate stigma and move one step closer to reducing suicide rates. Thanks Steve, I love your blog.

  14. Steve, this is amazing. I have an ongoing battle with my husband who believes that suicide is a selfish “option” and, no matter what I say, especially when I am talking about my own suicidal thoughts/intentions, he insists we can all talk ourselves out of it (this extends to depression, anxiety and a few other mental health-related topics) “because he has”.
    Just this weekend we were watching Obsessed on Netflix which is about individuals with OCD and other anxiety-disorders. The episode we watched featured both a woman and a man who made great strides in coping with their compulsions, therefore my husband took the liberty of telling me “See? Anyone can get over their anxieties if they just TRY.”
    I have had many days where I have looked at him with terror in my eyes knowing I could not be left alone. While he will hold me and worry every moment he is not by my side, when I am lucid again he tries to coach me through the next one. No matter what I say, what we watch or what I ask him to read, he will not sway from his belief. Unfortunately this means we very rarely discuss my mental health.
    Your comment “When realizing their death would be a burden to significant others, individuals are more likely to be dissuaded from going through with the act.” hit the nail on the head for me. When I am at my darkest, the ONLY thing that keeps me from acting on the NEED to be gone from this earth and my pain, I know that those who truly love me would be more pained by my loss than the burden I feel I am to them.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about this situation you’re in. “Trying” is necessary, but it is not sufficient. This means that in order to improve one’s condition, it is necessary to try, but trying does not guarantee one will improve. There are three other factors besides effort that are required that often go unnoticed, leaving people to believe effort alone is sufficient. These other factors are a supportive social context (absence of feeling isolated/ burdensome), the proper cognitive tools, and neural-chemical balance. People who have these three factors may easily attribute their ability to overcome obstacles to “trying harder,” without recognizing their interpersonal, cognitive, or neurological advantage. Mental illness is truly a real illness in that the sufferer can not just “try” harder to heal themselves — like a person with cancer can’t just rely on will-power alone since they need external intervention from experts. I hope you are receiving adequate professional assistance, whether it is a psychologist (for cognitive support) or a psychiatrist (for neurological support). In terms of the stigma you are having to deal with in your interpersonal relations, I wish you the best.

      1. Your reply means a lot to me Steve. Yes, I am very fortunate. Despite his opinions he is supportive and continues to be there with open arms for every one of my breakdowns. My family is also amazing and we all have something we are learning to cope with. With all of that, I have been lucky enough to find a great support team with both my therapist and psychologist and am currently on meds that are working well for me. Especially since I was properly diagnosed with BP correcting everything from being on just anti-depressants to the right mood-stabilizers and the boost of an anti-depressant when it’s really needed.

  15. I appreciate your post Steve! I’ve noticed that the derogatory comments about suicide come mostly from those with no direct experience with it on either side. Loved ones left behind by a suicide tend not to vilify the suicide, but are angry at being shut out of her/his decision process, and they often believe that there was hope for the person — if only they’d been willing/able to talk about it. I think this is one of the strongest arguments against suicide: you are probably not the burden that you think you are.

    Of course, intense, chronic pain is a whole other matter that arguments and reason can’t touch, no matter how it originates. But then, aside from the dampening effects of cultural/legal taboos on open discussion of the prospect of committing suicide or for fear of hurting those they think can’t understand, suicides often discuss their plans with their closest loved ones. I wouldn’t want to force a loved one to suffer interminably and then die anyway, just to satisfy cultural or religious expectations.

    I made my decision about suicide as a teenager this way: If I kill myself, there’s no chance that things will get better. Even though they seem sure not to right now, I have to admit that they might, maybe. If things get better, I’ll probably not want to kill myself anymore. If I don’t kill myself, things might get better. And if they don’t, I can still kill myself later. So, the best decision is bite bullets, sweat blood, and hang around long enough to see if things change. They almost always do. And in fact, for me, they always did.

    So, in a sense, I decided that suicide is a premature decision, pretty much at any point. But none of us can account for pain (psychic or physical) so great that it takes us over the edge. Pain changes your personality. It changes your perceptions. It changes everything in spite of what you want, will, and try to do. No human being is without limits, and none of us have a right to say where another person’s limits OUGHT to be.

    If someone commits suicide, I take it for granted that there go I but for not being in her/his shoes. No judgment.

  16. Good work! I would add one more factor, but it is not connected to the mental characteristics of suicide, and I’m not sure if it happens to be true worldwide. Many people here in Czech republic tend to believe that suicides are connected with the harsh climatic conditions, and long dark winters. This would happen to be true for the Greenlandia, but would not hold for Guyana or South Korea. And someone also told me that there is a paper that shows that the majority of suicides in Finland happens during the summer, which is totally cool and unexpected!

    Here is the list of countries by suicide rate:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_suicide_rate

    1. Thank you! A qualitative study of suicidal ideation in Greenland would be very interesting! I suspect a great deal of the problem comes from a cultural clash between traditional customs and the Modern Western influence. A particularly telling example that it’s not merely the environmental influence is the fact that the suicide rate is abnormally high among the youth population.

  17. Thanks for the new insights. IT certainly enlarged my thinking. I definitely believe in the right to choose your time of death. I plan on doing that as well. I am in a very good place now. I thought of suicide in the past but I had such love in my life I could not do it. I feel that as I age and as the quality of my life may change that I have the right and responsibility to choose the time for my death. I have lost my fear of death. I just want control over it.

    1. I’m glad this has contributed to your understanding. I wish you the best in terms of quality of life, going forward. I agree that we should have the right to choose in cases where quality of life is severely diminished to a point beyond reparation.

  18. I’ve had two good friends commit suicide, and I sincerely appreciate this series. It has helped answer questions that have plagued me for years, and helped me to find a measure of peace regarding these memories. Thank you so much.

  19. Suicide. A few of my old service pals took this option.
    Most were broken, if not mentally some were in great pain, some abandoned by family, friends, and those who were meant to help. Some who never made it back from what they had seen.

    It was not fear in their messages, it was relief at not having to cope anymore.
    It was regret for leaving someone to “clear up the mess”.
    It was anguish that one had “sunk so low”,

    One individual died purely because of the sh#tty UK government.
    Kicked in the guts when he was down and too ill to fight back.
    With no money, no food, and no hope, it appears he just gave up.
    http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/killed-benefits-cuts-starving-soldier-3923771

    The other side of serving your country.
    No longer serving is no longer something to worry about.

    1. I’m sorry to hear about this tragic situation. “The other side of serving your country,” can for sure be dark for those who fall through the social safety-net and end up in a downward spiral resulting in hopelessness.

  20. Reblogged this on Jaie's Journey ~ ournewnormalafterdeathbysuicide and commented:
    Interesting read. I do however, still believe there is an element of impulsivity in some suicides. We know Jaie had text his supervisor only minutes past 10pm the night he took his own life, asking for the 16th of April off work. Every other text to every other person was deleted bar this one. I don’t believe Jaie had set a specific time or night to kill himself, but I do believe his mind reached it’s level of psychological pain that night and just told him that enough was enough. And to deal with it. Somehow. Sadly Jaie listened to the depressive part of his mind and suicide won the war.
    Also we know that Jaie was terrified by what was happening to him. He realised he was going beyond a level of fear most of us could only imagine experiencing. But the pain was THAT intense. It drove out any chance of coherent and logical thought processes.
    And here we are. Still in shock. Still in deep grief. Deep guilt. Deep loss. And it feels as if it will stay this way forever 💔😞💔
    ‘Love sometimes comes like a dream & leaves like a nightmare’

    1. I’m very sorry to hear about the loss of your son. I think you are right when you said, “I believe he felt his family needed protection from his illness….” Perceived burdensomeness is a strong contributor to suicidal desire according to Joiner’s research.

  21. The living are full of fear and resentment, then comes awareness and acceptance. As the blog states the suicidal are in pain. Any hate between the two makes it harder to be aware and accept the fear and resentment. The living will grieve. The hardship can be a lesson. Usually, the hardship is put aside. Yet, there is always worse ways to deal with pain and loss. I like this blog because it seeks understanding and acceptance and the best way to work out problems. Yet, there is still going to be pain and fear and resentment . But there will also be awareness, acceptance and love, peace and forgiveness. And there is awareness, acceptance, and action. There can be prevention of suicide with enough compassion for change and a willingness to accept each other.

  22. suicide, Steve, has been my default position for many years, since even my early adolescence, yet somehow I’ve reached, if you can believe it, retirement, something, usually a philosophical notion, kept me always alive

    were I to resort now to this dire solution, I know the method I’d use, the people I’d call, how I’d relay the information, better than I know even the names of the streets around where I live, in fact my last words to everyone i love have been for a long while I love you, just in case

    but there is a point at which I can no longer bear the intolerable anguish, of merely being alive

    none of my loved ones understands this, it’s like speaking French to their English, they tell me to, invariably and even comically, just keep on taking my pills, I have been

    thanks for the forum

    Richard

    1. Hi Richard – I’m sorry to hear about this. This chronic state sounds like the experience of the individual studied in “Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind” by Edwin S. Shneidman. Perhaps you can direct some of the people who don’t understand this state to this resource, or any of the other resources I cite? I’m curious about the philosophical notion that has kept you going. Would you mind sharing?

      1. if there’s a philosophical notion that has been my salvation, Steve, it has been service to others rather than to myself, once I’ve accepted that my life is fundamentally expendable, no longer worth living, I get on with it and do what I can, each act of generosity makes me feel better about myself, rebuilds my confidence if not my validity, sometimes it’s a long hike, a very long time alone

        when a caller at a distress centre where I volunteered asked once if I had found my own reason for living after my own bouts with myself, I answered that maybe it was to be there to help him, where would he be if I weren’t, I think that helped us both

        at the moment of crisis, I ask myself, will I or won’t I do myself in, I insist I make up my mind, always I’ve found the action itself inhibiting, finding the tools, putting the deed together, therefore I succumb to life, decide that since I’m not about to die, then I should start making my life better, however difficult, rather than steep in the same mire, little by little that gets me out

        medication has helped

        also, for me, art, but that’s a whole other story

        Richard

        psst: thanks immensely, Steve

  23. Reblogged this on Relinquished Reversal and commented:
    Myths about suicide are very common. Here is a post that discusses three of the main myths concerning suicide. Let’s start the discussion and eliminate the stigma of mental illness. Please visit and refer people to the original post. Be well out there folks.

  24. wow, you really pulled all those examples together in a nice package. not only that, but all that you said is exactly true. if you were to interview those with suicidal ideation, using similar issues, or even more specific questions, i think you would find those with a serious intent have or are going thru exactly the same overwhelming mental pain. as a matter of fact, it is almost as if you had questioned me, and here reported my answers. it is true, in my experience, that only those who have really had serious suicidal intentions really have all the other experienced perceptions you mentioned. and i think it is also true that very few providers recognize this state, much less respond to it, because they themselves have never experienced it or known a loved one who did.

    it would be hugely beneficial if providers were required in their continuing education to read the new studies of suicidality, such as the article you used here, in order to be more able to recognize it and treat it. it is a sad thing that most cannot do either, and by that they betray the suffering individual(s) when they finally confide in him and are dismissed.

    1. Good to hear that this is accurate to your experience. Thomas Joiner’s research is among the very best in the field and is based on a great deal of empirical data. I agree that care-providers or first-responders should be required to read the new research in this area.

  25. My brother told me “people who commit suicide are weak and don’t know how to face their problems” but I’ve been suspicious of what he’s told me about suicide; I appreciate you for writing about suicide in a clarifying manner.

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