Why Someone Commits Suicide: Understanding It–Or Not

Each way to suicide is its own: intensely private, unknowable, and terrible. Suicide will have seemed to its perpetrator the last and best of bad possibilities, and any attempt by the living to chart this final terrain of life can be only a sketch, maddeningly incomplete.  Kay Redfield Jamison, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, on why someone commits suicide

Why someone commits suicide is often a mystery.

But we still wonder.

Although Robin Williams once quipped that “comedy is so much cheaper than therapy,” he’d reportedly also sought help for his addictions and depression. So. Why? people ask. Everyone’s trying to figure it out.

Every day there’s more info, but info isn’t the same as answers. In this situation as well as others, we don’t tend to ever find out or understand all the possible answers.

One highly respected expert who has studied this topic is Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. Two more quotes (in addition to the one above) from her 2000 book Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide are offered below.

“When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown.”

“It is tempting when looking at the life of anyone who has committed suicide to read into the decision to die a vastly complex web of reasons; and, of course, such complexity is warranted. No one illness or event causes suicide; and certainly no one knows all, or perhaps even most, of the motivations behind the killing of the self. But psychopathology is almost always there, and its deadliness is fierce. Love, success, and friendship are not always enough to counter the pain and destructiveness of severe mental illness.”

Another leading researcher on why someone commits suicide is Professor Thomas Joiner, author of several pertinent books. He believes there are three main contributing factors: feeling a burden to others; loneliness and isolation; and lacking fear.

As the first two may be more readily grasped than the third, here’s a deeper description of the latter concept from Joiner’s Myths About Suicide (2010):

Getting used to pain, injury, and death — becoming fearless about it — is, according to my theory, a prerequisite for serious suicidal behavior. People get used to such things by having repeatedly experienced them, often through previous self-injury, but other painful experiences serve too. A corollary to this view is that the self-preservation drive — the fear of pain, injury, and death — protects people from death by suicide (which is why this fear should remain more or less intact). This corollary is supported time and again by cases of people who report that they genuinely desired to die by suicide, but that their bodies would not allow it (e.g., people have cut at their veins for hours, only to eventually surrender to their bodies’ ability to clot the wounds).

Having a longstanding pattern of substance abuse is one possible way the body becomes inured to self-harm and/or pain. Others include (Todd Kashdan, Psychology Today):

  • playing violent and extreme sports
  • getting multiple body piercings and tattoos
  • shooting guns
  • getting in physical fights

Why? isn’t the only question, of course, that arises when someone kills himself. For more resources and help, see the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255.

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