“Suicide is not a disease. It is an expression of a host of emotions, hopelessness, guilt, sorrow, loneliness, rage, fear, shame, that have their root in psychological, social, medical and biochemical factors” (Psychological Society of Ireland 1992).
Many psychologists, sociologists, and medical doctors have tried to answer the question of why people kill themselves. To summarize them in three words: to stop pain. Sometimes this pain is physical, as in chronic or terminal illness; more often it is emotional, caused by a myriad of problems. In any case, suicide is not a random or senseless act, but an effective, if extreme, solution.
A slightly more elaborate list of some reasons people commit or attempt suicide follows. The categories are arbitrary and overlap to some degree. However, this is just an outline, and there is no lack of books that discuss suicidal motivation in much more detail and from many different perspectives.
(1) Altruistic/Heroic suicide. This is where someone (more-or-less) voluntarily dies for the good of the group. Examples include the Greeks at Thermopolae; the Japanese Kamikaze pilots at the end of WWII; the Buddhist monks and others who, starting in 1963, burned themselves to death trying to stop the Viet-Nam war; elderly Inuit (Eskimos) killing themselves to leave more food for their families; some Communists who confessed to invented (and often impossible) crimes during the Purge Trials of the late 1930s and early 1950s. Gandhi's tactic of hunger strikes, called "satyagraha" or "soul force", would have fallen into this category, had the British authorities failed to respond to his demands.
(2) Philosophical suicide. Various philosophical schools, such as stoics and existentialists, have advocated suicide under some circumstances.
(3) Religious suicide. There is a long history of religious suicide, usually in the form of martyrdom. This was widespread in the early years of Christianity and was also commonly seen in the various "heresies" uprooted before and during the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Inquisition. More recent examples may include members of the
Solar Temple in Switzerland, France, and Canada, the San Diego Hale-Boppers in March, 1997, the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, and some of the people at . Jonestown, Guyana
(4) Escape from an unbearable situation. This may be persecution, a terminal illness, or chronic misery. There is no lack of historical examples.
Epidemics of suicide were frequent among Jews in medieval
Europe; (sometimes they were given a choice between converting to Christianity and death). Later, both Indian and black slaves in the New World committed mass suicide to escape brutal treatment. One slave owner supposedly stopped such desertion among his slaves by threatening to kill himself and follow them into the next world, and impose worse repression there.
There were large numbers of suicides during times of pestilence in medieval
Europe. More recently, AIDS has generated a similar response among many of its victims.
There was also a wave of suicides among priests and their wives around 1075, after Pope Gregory VII imposed celibacy on the clergy, who had previously been allowed to marry. Marriage had been only slightly more popular than damnation with the Church ("It is better to marry than to burn."), but had been accepted for its first thousand years.
A significant number of killers commit suicide. Four percent of 621 consecutive murderers later killed themselves; and about 1.5 percent of suicides follow murders.
All of these situations can be readily seen as more-or-less "unbearable". However, sometimes "unbearable" means failing an exam, or missing a free throw in the big game. As George Colt notes, "Most adolescent depression is caused by a reaction to an event, a poor grade, the loss of a relationship, rather than a biochemical imbalance....Feeling blue after not getting into one's first-choice college is as appropriate as feeling happy after scoring a winning touchdown. But many adolescents who experience depression for the first time don't realize that it won't last forever."
Or, as an anonymous teenager said, "It sounds crazy, but I think it's true, kids end up committing suicide to get out of taking their finals."
(5) Excess alcohol and other drug use. The observed high correspondence between alcohol and suicide can be explained in several ways, including: (a) Alcoholism can cause loss of friends, family, and job, leading to social isolation. (This may be a chicken-and-egg question; it's equally plausible that family or job problems induce the excess alcohol use. In its later stages, the fact and consequences of alcoholism dominate the picture and are often blamed for everything.); (b) Alcohol and suicide may both be attempts to deal with depression and misery; (c) Alcohol will increase the effects of other sedative drugs, frequently used in suicide attempts; (d) Alcohol may increase impulsive actions.
The significance of the last two points is emphasized by findings that alcoholic suicide attempters who used highly lethal methods scored relatively low on suicidal-intent tests. The correlation between lethal intent and method was found only among non-alcoholics.
Thus, to claim that alcoholism "causes" suicide is simplistic; while the association of alcohol excess with suicide is clear, a causal relationship is not. Both alcoholism and suicide may be responses to the same pain. "A man may drown his sorrows in alcohol for years before he decides to drown himself."
(6) Romantic suicide. "My life is not worth living without him". This is most celebrated among the young, as in Romeo & Juliet, but is probably most frequent among people who have lived together for many years, when one of them dies.
Suicide pacts (dual suicide) constitute about 1% of suicides in western Europe. Most often, their participants are over 51 years old, except in
, where 75% of dual suicides are "lovers' pacts." Japan
(7) "Anniversary" suicide is characterized by use of the same method or date as a dead loved one, usually a family member. "Imitative" suicide is similar to anniversary suicide in its focus on the dead, but uses a different date and method.
(8) "Contagion" suicide. This is where one suicide seems to be the trigger for others, and includes "cluster" and "copycat" suicides, most often among adolescents. For example, on April 8, 1986, Yukiko Okada, 18, jumped to her death from the seventh floor of her recording studio. She had recently received an award as
's best new singer. Media attention was intense. 33 young people, one nine years old, killed themselves in the next 16 days, 21 by jumping from buildings. Japan
There are comparable examples from many parts of the world. The highly publicized suicide of a Hungarian beauty queen was followed by a epidemic of suicides by young women who used the same method.
Similarly, there was a spate of ethylene glycol (automobile antifreeze) intentional poisonings in
following two accidental fatalities and "spectacular attention in the Swedish mass media." Sweden
there have been clusters of suicides, most often (or most often reported) among high school students, but not necessarily using identical methods. Even fictional accounts may be enough, as in a claimed spurt of "Russian roulette" deaths shortly after the release of the film The Deer Hunter, with its powerful and nihilistic Russian roulette scene. U.S.
On the other hand, other studies found no linkage between most newspaper reports and suicides. Nor do copy-cat suicides occur consistently. For example, the 1994 death of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain was not followed by a cluster of suicides. In the seven weeks following his death there were 24 other suicides in the
area, compared with 31 in the corresponding weeks of the previous year. Seattle
(9) An attempt to manipulate others. "If you don't do what I want, I'll kill myself," is the basic theme here. However, the word "manipulative" does not "...imply that a suicide attempt is not serious....fatal suicide attempts are often made by people who are hoping to influence or manipulate the feelings of other people even though they will not be around to witness the success or failure of their efforts." Nevertheless, while people sometimes die or are maimed from their attempts, the intention in this case is to generate guilt in the other person, and the practitioner generally intends a non-fatal result.
(10) Seek help or send a distress signal. This is similar to "manipulative" suicide except that there may be no specific thing being explicitly sought; it's the expression of too much pain and misery. This may occur at any age, but it is more frequent in the young. However, "Parents may minimize or deny the attempt. One study found that only 38 percent of treatment referrals after an adolescent attempt were acted on. Another found only 41 percent of families came for further therapy following an initial session. `It's often difficult to get parents to acknowledge the problem because they are the problem,' says Peter Saltzman, a child psychiatrist."
(11) "Magical thinking" and punishment. This is associated with a feeling of power and complete control. It's a "You'll be sorry when I'm dead" fantasy. An illustration is the old Japanese custom of killing oneself on the doorstep of someone who has caused insult or humiliation. This is similar to "manipulative suicide", but a fatal result is intended. It's sometimes called "aggressive suicide." In a power struggle, if you can't win you can at least get in the last word by killing yourself.
(12) Cultural approval. Japanese (like Roman) society has traditionally accepted or encouraged suicide where matters of honor were concerned. Thus, the president of a Japanese company whose food product had accidentally poisoned some people killed himself as an acknowledgment of responsibility for his company's mistake.
It's almost unheard-of to find an American CEO who has voluntarily resigned on account of his company's misdeeds, let alone one who has committed suicide because of them. In
, 275 company directors killed themselves in a single year, 1986 (albeit for a variety of reasons). Japan
(13) Lack of an outside source to blame for one's misery. J.F. Henry and A.F. Short present evidence that when there is an external cause of one's unhappiness, the extreme response is rage and homicide; in the absence of an external source, the extreme response tends to be depression and suicide. Thus, while marriage and children are associated with a lower suicide rate, they are also correlated with a higher homicide rate.
Henry and Short also suggest that, as economic quality-of-life improves, homicide should decrease and suicide increase. Long-time suicide researcher David Lester found such a correlation when comparing 43 countries; and also when comparing American states.
However, national data are contradictory: it's easy to find countries with low suicide and low homicide rates (e.g.
Great Britain and Greece); or high rates of both (e.g. Finland and ). Furthermore, recent multi-national increases in suicide rates are roughly matched by similar increases in homicide. Hungary
In addition, there are high rates of both suicide and homicide in prison. Most jail (short-term) and prison (longer-term) suicide rates have been reported between 50 and 200 per 100,000 per year, while the age-matched male rate in the general population was around 25. Jail suicide is more frequent than prison suicide.
Still, the Henry-Short hypothesis can be used to explain some counter-intuitive facts, such as the low suicide rate among Nazi concentration camp inmates, among African-Americans, and during wartime; though, as Erwin Stengel observed, "It is a melancholy thought that marriage and the family should be such effective substitutes for conditions of war..."
(14) Other. Most suicides have multiple causes.
Consider, for example, an existentialist with a serious illness who is devastated by a recent divorce and consequently suffering from "clinical major depression". He has a prescription for anti-depressant medication which makes him feel well enough to go out of the house. He goes to a bar, gets drunk, comes back and shoots himself with a loaded gun he kept in the bedroom.
None of his neighbors responds to the noise and he bleeds to death. What "caused" his death: physical illness, philosophy, divorce, depression, medication, alcohol, availability of a gun, or social isolation? Or, perhaps, none of the above: from a slightly different perspective, none of these factors caused the suicide; rather it is the pain associated with them (along with the unwillingness to bear it) that precipitates suicide.
"Reasons" cited for suicide change with the times. Dr. Forbes Winslow wrote in 1840 that the increase in suicide was due to socialism, and particularly, Tom Paine's Age of Reason. Additional causes he cited were "atmospheric moisture" and masturbation, "a certain secret vice which, we are afraid, is practised to an enormous extent in our public schools." He recommended cold showers and laxatives.
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