September is suicide prevention awareness month. Suicide awareness campaigns highlight an uncomfortable and perplexing question about human behavior: why do people commit suicide?
The driving force behind most suicidal behavior is difficult to comprehend. It’s a style of thought that we instinctually want to push away. We want to argue against it, to defeat it.
I use the word “instinctually” advisedly; it is a fitting word. We instinctually want to survive, and to truly grasp what drives another person to consider suicide involves coming perilously close to endorsing the act – or so it seems.
As someone who has helped people overcome suicidal intent, it’s been my experience that allowing and accepting the thoughts and the feelings behind suicidal ideation is one of the best ways to combat them. It’s frightening business, and quite counterintuitive, but there can be great hope and power in allowing dark thoughts to exist, and in finding the meaning behind them. Let’s look at Tim’s story.
Tim is a 48-year-old real estate salesman. Until recently, he has been reasonably successful, but in this bad economy his sales have declined dramatically. In fact, he has been forced to turn to his aging parents for help.
Tim is also approaching the end of his second marriage. He and Kathy have been together for just over six years, and the last three have been contentious. Their communication has dwindled to extended silences, punctuated mostly by bitter arguments over finances and family – Tim is still paying child support for his two children from his first marriage. Despite the best efforts he could muster, his kids have felt abandoned and now barely speak to him.
The problems seem insurmountable to Tim. Any one of them would be difficult to manage, but heaped upon him all at once, and seeming to grow worse by the day, the problems are so overwhelming that he doesn’t know how to begin to solve them.
Tim would never ask for help. He strives to be proud and self-reliant, and so the people in his social circle either don’t understand the extent of his problems or they have learned to avoid the topic. “I’ll be fine,” he tells them with a forced smile. “Things always work out!” His mind, however, is telling Tim a different story: Things won’t work out. I’m headed for divorce and disgrace. I’m going to die alone, broke, and unnoticed. I’ve become a burden to others, and I’m out of options.
In private, Tim has been contemplating a final and permanent solution to his mounting problems. It’s comforting for him to know that his pain could end with one pull of a trigger.
From the standpoint of someone who is not currently suicidal – which is most of us, most of the time – it is difficult to understand how a person could ignore survival instinct, disregard the good things in life, and foreclose every possibility of future happiness. Why can’t they see that people love them? Why don’t they understand that things will improve?
And if we have considered suicide ourselves in the past – which is most of us – it can be even harder to understand why they can’t shake it off. We want desperately for them to feel better.
Perhaps it is the perplexing nature of suicide that leads us to one of humanity’s old explanatory standbys: diagnosis and categorization. People who are suicidal are usually placed into categories such as “depressed,” “psychotic,” or “manipulative.”
That kind of diagnosing is done with the best intentions, I think, and with some reasonable hope of prevention. It works in some cases. For example, biological abnormalities like organic brain disease, medication reactions, or severe thyroid problems can make someone feel inexplicably suicidal. Problems like these have straightforward answers, and so proper diagnosis is vitally important.
But in the absence of an unequivocal medical diagnosis, categorizing suicidal behavior as something like “depressed” or “manipulative” doesn’t explain the problem and generally skirts the real source of suicidal ideation. There is a certain kind of thinking that fuels suicide, and for most of us it is a terribly difficult idea to sit with: suicide is problem-solving behavior. In the mind of someone considering suicide, the act may seem like an expeditious and effective way to eliminate pain.
The types of problems that drive suicidal ideation often result in an overpowering emotional experience, like shame, anger, or loneliness. People who turn to suicide are almost always in a state of severe emotional pain. Tim, for example, might view suicide as a permanent way to end despair over another failed relationship, or the shame of a faltering career. People turn to suicide when they believe that they are out of options, or when life’s difficulties outpace their current ability to respond.
If you are like me, you have a gut-level, defiant reaction to the idea that suicide solves problems. I want to sit down with Tim and convince him otherwise. I want to teach him that suicide doesn’t solve anything. But to Tim’s mind, suicide may seem like the only thing that will solve his problems. It’s an argument that I probably won’t be able to win. And ironically, trying to argue Tim in submission might even strengthen his resolve to end his own life.
Fortunately, it’s an argument in which I need not engage – assuming I can get past my own discomfort with Tim’s state of mind.
Acknowledging suicide as problem-solving behavior is uncomfortable, I think, because it appears to edge dangerously close to endorsing the act. Nothing could be further from the truth. We don’t have to agree with the desire to die in order to empathize with the pain that drives the urge – pain that the person perceives as inescapable, intolerably painful, and interminable (Chiles & Strosahl, 2005).
An alternative approach to arguing against suicidal ideation – that is, trying to eliminate thoughts such as this will end my pain – is to accept that the thoughts and feelings have a real basis. Thoughts of suicide represent an attempt to solve problems. As strange as it may seem, suicidal behavior represents a desire to make things better.
There is great power in acknowledging that. The willingness to tolerate that single, uncomfortable idea can open doors. It shifts the focus to the sources of pain, rather than the pain itself, and acknowledges a desire to solve those problems. With Tim, for example, putting words to the sources of his difficulties opens the discussion to other ways of repairing his relationships or getting his career back on track. Often, the simple act of verbalizing vague and overwhelming feelings shines a light of rationality on problems and expands our willingness to explore a broader range of solutions.
As is so often the case, fighting the mind’s natural reactions only draws us further into the pain we’re trying to escape. Combatting our own minds – or the minds of others – obscures our higher selves and draws our attention away from higher reasoning abilities that can be our salvation.
Accepting thoughts about suicide creates the possibility of finding solutions other than suicide.
Please note: negotiating the tricky waters of suicidal ideation is complicated business and should always be referred to trained and competent professional. If you are considering suicide, please contact one of these hotlines before you do anything else.
Chiles, J.A. & Strosahl, K.D. (2005). Clinical Manual for Assessment and Treatment of Suicidal Patients. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
* “Tim” is a composite sketch, not a real person. Any resemblance to a real person is purely coincidental.