Understanding Suicide

Suicide is a complex and difficult issue and our understanding of it remains quite limited. Dr. Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (2009) stands as the most thoroughly researched and developed model for explaining suicidal behavior.

People die by suicide because they have the capability to do so and because they want to. Those who are capable of enacting lethal self-harm have acquired a fearlessness of physical pain, injury, and death through past experiences typically involving exposure to pain and/or violence.  But acquired capability alone is not enough.  Death by suicide involves a combination of learned fearlessness with two simultaneous, long-lasting states of mind:  1) the view that they burden others to such a degree that their death will be worth more than their life, and 2) the view that they are profoundly alienated from others. It’s the intersection of these three factors that make the suicidal mind. Connectedness protects those who are in pain and feeling hopeless.  Strong suicidal thoughts occur when pain exceeds connectedness.

Joiner, T. (2005) Why People Die By Suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Most of us know very little about suicide and the stigma that surrounds it.  Our reactions are shaped by our own personal experiences, our belief systems, our lack of understanding of suicide, and what is going on in our own lives.  Contrary to widely held beliefs about suicide, suicide is not easy, impulsive, cowardly, or selfish. These myths continue to influence our thinking about those who die by suicide and fuel misunderstanding and stigma.

Myth #1: Suicide is a selfish act.

Just because it feels selfish to those left behind, doesn’t mean that’s the case. Those who are suicidal are thinking “my death will be worth more than my life to other people.” In other words, they think others will be better off without them. This is not selfish, but rather selfless.  Of course, this is not an accurate perception, but this is what they think to be true. 

Myth #2: Suicide is an act of cowardice.

Human beings are hard-wired to fear physical pain, injury, and death.  We are hard-wired for self-preservation and to fear physical pain, injury, and death.  That self-preservation is powerful enough that few can overcome it by force of will.   The few who can have developed a fearlessness of pain and death.  Death by suicide is very difficult because it goes completely against our innate will to stay alive. Cowardice and fearlessness don’t go together. No one can be a coward and fearless at the same time. 

Myth #3: Suicide is an impulsive act. 

To family and friends, death by suicide often seems to come out of the blue. If we had private access to a suicidal person's thoughts and feelings, we’d likely see misery lasting for weeks, sometimes months, or even longer, and a planning process about the death itself. It’s a misunderstanding of human nature to think that we would cast our life away on a whim. These deaths are hard to see coming because many of us have a stunning capacity for secrecy and privacy, including impending death by suicide. Yes, there can be a trigger that finalizes the person’s choice, but it’s likely been painful for quite some time.  

Healing following a death by suicide takes a brave spirit, an open mind, and a compassionate heart.  It requires us to gain an understanding that allows us to approach suicide without judgment and to reduce shame, guilt, anger, and stigma.

Adapted from Myths About Suicide (2010) and Why People Die By Suicide (2005) by Thomas Joiner