What Makes People Want to End Their Own Life
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows, their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
– David Foster Wallace, American writer and professor (1962-2008)
[Wallace hanged himself, at home, alone, on September 12, 2008]
This is easily the most difficult article I have ever written. It has taken me months to commit it to written text. It takes me somewhere I never wanted to visit again.
I hope to take you today somewhere you have never been. To have a shallow experience of something tragically deep so that you can better understand why suicide has been a taboo subject for so long. Then leave quickly, never to return.
Most of what you have likely read about suicide is wrong. The reason, simply, is that most writers about suicide consider that because anyone can kill themselves, anyone can write about it with authority. The reasoning is similar to that used by people who write about heaven. If you haven’t been there, you just don’t know.
The topic of suicide can be separated roughly into three categories. One is the kind where the victim is distraught, has great difficulty finding a secure place in life, makes what he or she knows is generally accepted as a means of killing yourself, but never intends to die. Such attempts usually attract the attention, or some attention, the person desperately needs but can’t get otherwise and rarely end in death.
This category is the one most people think of when they claim that depression is the mental illness that drove someone to end their life. This is the one where people say “Depression will end” and “Life will get better” and “Find someone who can help.” It’s a call for help that often goes unanswered once the emergency of the moment has passed.
This category is the one most people think causes people to end their lives, when what these people want most is to find someone who will help them to build a life. It is, in its simplest terms, a cry for help. A desperate cry.
These people can be talked out of their suicide attempt. They are most persuaded by the help line “Somebody does care about you, somebody does love you, somebody will miss you terribly if you die.” Later, when they recover and the attention has passed, they find that no one did care that much. So they make another attempt. Sometimes several attempts over a period of years. They seldom succeed because that is not their objective.
They lack the social and emotional/psychological skills that should be taught in schools, but aren’t. Even under care they are more likely to be given drugs than the skills they need to survive and build new lives.
A second category might be called failed attempts at coming close to death without actually dying. In a sense, thrill seeking. People indulging in this may overdose on drugs, even engage in a game where they intentionally asphyxiate themselves. They hope to “see the light” without having to walk into it, to experience coming dangerously close to death without having the inconvenience of dying. Inconvenience for others, of course, if they die, not for themeslves.
People who engage in this also lack social and/or emotional coping skills. Again, despite how basic these developmental streams are to life (the other two being physical and intellectual development), they are not taught in schools. Most parents know very little about these developmental streams, so can’t teach their own children.
Social and emotional skills are surprisingly easy to teach if a teacher knows what to teach and has permission to teach them. If you remember a couple of important life lessons you learned from someone as a kid and remember how easy they were to learn and how simple they were to convey by someone who knew, you understand how easy and devastatingly cheap these would be to add to a school curriculum.
For some reason that is hard to rationalize, some parents object to teachers teaching these skills, claiming that it should be the responsibility of the parents. It is, of course, but so few parents know what to teach, and when. So most parents miss the lessons entirely.
The third category of suicide is the one that has impacted so many of us recently with the death of Robin Williams. Robin intended to die that day. For him, life was over. He tried to slit his wrists, failed, likely because he realized how messy it would be for someone who would find him, then chose to hang himself with his belt. He did not intend to fail.
Though many people in this third category who end their lives leave notes of apology, explanation or (rarely) of accusation, Robin did not. Leaving a note is common, but nowhere near universal for type three.
Why did he do it? we ask ourselves and anyone else who will listen. Was it depression, as many claim, something he was known to suffer from? Was it severe financial difficulty or fear of bankruptcy and the shame of failure society visits on those who fail, as he was known to be obsessed with this struggle? Or the future struggles with Parkinson’s Disease with which he had been diagnosed?
Was it his continuing struggle with substance abuse? Not long before he died he had checked himself voluntarily into the rehab facility he has used previously. Were the mind altering substance the cause or effect of depression? No one can be sure.
Individually, these are each reasons or problems which can be solved, that may be overcome. Collectively? No one can be certain.
There is still another cause for depression, suicide, mental illness, even murder and other forms of criminal activity. Continual and unrelenting stress. The push to succeed, to get even better, to make even more money, to be even more successful. That stress, the driving force of capitalism, never ends.
Is there a pinnacle, a platform at the top for those who have reached the ultimate success, a place to rest when you have finally made it? No. The drive to improve never stops. Most people adjust their lives, recognizing that they have had enough, that it is time to ease back before they crack. Given the shocking number of suicides in the entertainment industry and among other leaders of industries, it’s obvious that too many do not make that adjustment.
We read about the suicides among leaders. Rarely do we read about suicides in the military, among teenagers, among the poor, in aboriginal communities. Suicide rates in these groups are nothing short of shocking. Many times the national average in every case.
Robin Williams was not drugged, drunk or likely depressed enough to want enough to die that he would be willing to resort to suicide. So, why?
Suicide is not an act of selfishness. It’s not a matter of thinking only of themselves, nor an act of cowardice or an easy way out of problems, excuses those who know little attribute as causes. The kind of suicide where the person fully intends to die is completely different, something beyond human life experience.
Have you ever been so wrapped up in music you are enjoying that there is no other world around you but you and that music? If you write or think deeply, the rest of the world disappears, there is nothing around you but your thought. You may attach yourself to a character in a movie so much that you live the role in the movie right along with the character. An actor or performer may be so into a performance that there is nothing else to life but that moment, at that moment. You are no longer an observer, but now an integral part of the action.
When a prey animal, or human, knows it is about to die–when the brain is convinced of the inevitability of death–the brain shuts down. The moment of transition from life to afterlife is actually painless. That’s why when you see a mouse dangling from the beak of an owl in flight or a squirrel hanging from the beak or talons of an eagle, they are not wriggling trying to escape as you might expect.
The brain has a mechanism whereby it refuses to accept pain messages, refuses to suffer at that final stage. A person about to die of hypothermia (freezing) is not cold or even afraid as death approaches. Scientific studies have shown that this is when people who have been that close, then came back to tell about it, find themselves “walking toward the light.” Science is so far uncertain of the actual mechanism for this, but lack of blood flow to the brain is the explanation with the most support.
Would science call that state of not being “of this world” depression, as it does the cause for suicide? Science either totally denies the existence or has trouble diagnosing or explaining anything that isn’t broad enough to shoot a gun at from a short distance. I would call it the human spirit separated from the confines of the corporeal body. With suicide–real suicide–the spirit seeks to make that separation permanent. Whether that may be considered a mental illness or something different may depend on whether or not you have had such an experience.
For a person about to end his life (males end their lives much more often than females–there’s an important lesson there), there is no one else in the world. No family, no friends, no neighbours. No one exists but them and “now” at that time. There is no world other than the room the person is in. Most suicides happen indoors, usually at night, in a closed room, where it is quiet, when they are alone. Their whole world is inside their body.
Isn’t that strange? Yes, may it always seem strange to you.
What could you do to prevent a person in this third category from ending their life? That’s a burning question. Intervention is possible with the first two categories as has been demonstrated many times. But the third?
My theory is that a person in the third category can be forced to postpone suicide, but not to avoid it completely. At least not easily. Anyone who can be talked out of it would be in the first category. Short term intervention for someone committed to killing himself will not work. It will only delay the event.
Consider this: if you are in a position to think about ending your life, or even to consider the pain you will suffer in doing so or the mess and distress you will leave for others if you die, you are not a candidate for category three. You may be depressed or you may be normal as almost everyone thinks about ending their life at some point. They don’t do it for a reason. Category three people don’t consider reasons or consequences. They are alone in their world. There is no “other,” “else,” “later” or “future.”
Isn’t it cruel to end an article on such a depressing note (pun unintended)? Let me throw you a rope of hope. Successful suicides in the third category almost always have the person being alone. Never leave a person who may be at risk alone in a room. Never without another person who is awake and paying attention. All the time, 24/7.
A person who is at risk of suicide in this third category will tell you of his intentions, if asked. Most category threes have hinted or told others outright of their intent to end their life. What if he says no, he does not intend to kill himself? No one says you have to believe him. It may seem surprising, but few category threes will lie about their intent.
If you get the person out of his normal environment, away from the usual stresses of his life, for long enough (it may take at least a year), you may be able to cause something in his brain to change enough to alter his life course.
The other alternative would be akin to brainwashing. This would have to be done by a professional, over several successive long days of intensive therapy, non-stop over those days. A regular psychologist or psychiatrist would not know what to do or how to do it. Drugs would not be used because they would prevent voluntary changes within the brain. Finding a person who could do that would be harder than finding a needle in a haystack. But they exist.
I wish I had positive or encouraging suggestions for you if you know or learn of someone in category three. Let me make it even more complicated.
If a person wants to end his life because he can’t get whatever he needs, may not even know what he needs, what are the ethical questions surrounding denying him that right? A person who is “saved” from suicide by persuasion may not get the help and personal care he needs later. Is that ethical?
What is society’s obligation, if any, to someone who wants to end his life? What would your own obligation be? What is right? Each of us must make that decision, if the time comes, and live with the consequences of that choice.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book of easily implemented and relatively cheap solutions to problems that plague every community. Suicide is a social problem, likely more of a problem than you are aware of in your own home area.
Learn more at http://billallin.com
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