Understanding Suicide

Why People Attempt Suicide: Escaping the Flames

The main thing that most people who kill themselves have in common is a belief that suicide is the ONLY solution to their unbearable situation. Many of us have etched in our memories the images of people jumping out of the World Trade Center on 9/11. These people did not want to die. They were leaping to get away from the flames at their back. In a similar manner, people who contemplate suicide are trying to escape some type of peril in their own lives. It is difficult for many of us to truly appreciate the flames that consume the minds of people who contemplate suicide.

The unbearable psychological pain often blocks the ability to see other potential solutions to problems. A pervasive sense of hopelessness stifles the ability to seek help, and yet most people are very ambivalent about taking their lives – they don’t want death, they just want the pain to stop.

A Model of Suicide Risk


In his book Why People Die by Suicide, Thomas Joiner (2006) outlines several theories of suicide that have emerged over the past two centuries. In this theory, Joiner says that those who kill themselves not only have a desire to die, they have learned to overcome the instinct for self-preservation (see Figure 1). That is, wanting death, according to Joiner, is composed of two psychological experiences: a perception of being a burden to others (perceived burdensomeness) and social disconnection to something larger than oneself (thwarted belongingness). The idea behind burdensomeness is that suicidal people believe that their death is worth more to the people who love them than their life is; they no longer feel purposeful. Because humans are so hardwired for connection, social isolation and ruptured relationships can increase a desire for suicide in some people. People often need to feel that they belong to something larger than themselves, and when they do – through an intimate relationship, a faith community, a school, a neighborhood – these relationships can often serve as a buffer through hard times. Thus, many people can experience suicide desire, but never act on these feelings because they do not have the second part of the equation.

In other words, by themselves, neither of these states (perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness) is enough to move a person to act on the desire for death, but together with an acquired capacity (or fearlessness) they result in a high risk state for suicide. Sometimes this acquired capacity is developed over a lifetime of provocative and painful experiences of trauma and injury. Other times it builds as a person moves from suicidal thought to increasingly lethal behavior. Still, there are many people who have survived trauma and others who purposely put themselves at risk (e.g., daredevils, adrenaline junkies) who never take their lives because they do not have a desire for suicide.

Suicide Facts

Fact: Suicide happens much more often than most people are aware: about one every sixteen minutes. For every two homicides there are three suicides, and yet with the media coverage for homicide, you’d expect the reverse to be true. In many areas there are more deaths from suicide than there are to motor vehicle crashes. Tremendous amounts of money are put toward road care, safe driver enforcement, and vehicle safety, and yet very few resources are dedicated to suicide awareness, prevention and intervention.

Fact: Bringing up the subject of suicide and discussing it openly is one of the most helpful things you can do because it relieves the suicidal person of the incredible sense of isolation they experience. Asking about suicide relays that another person has insight to their pain and cares about their well-being.

Fact: Almost all people who eventually die by suicide have given some clue or warning. When suicidal threats are not taken seriously, the person may conclude that no one cares.

Fact: Most suicidal people are ambivalent, wavering until the very last moment between wanting to live and wanting to die. For example, people in a suicidal crisis frequently call for help immediately following a suicide attempt. The impulse to end it all, however overpowering, does not last forever. Suicide is often highly preventable if we can hold someone through the intensity of a suicide crisis.

Fact: There are almost always warning signs, but others are often unaware of their significance or do not know what to do. Agitated depression (feeling simultaneously highly anxious and despondent) and intense insomnia can be warning signs that are evident to friends and family.

Fact: Studies of suicide victims have shown that more than half had sought medical help within six months before their deaths.

Fact: Sometimes a suicidal person can appear calm and serene right before a suicide attempt is made because the suicidal person has come to peace with his or her decision. This state could be a sign of imminent danger, especially if the person has not been receiving professional care.

References: NAMI, Yellow Ribbon

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