by Andy Greene
Those who have known someone who has taken their own life will always ask themselves this question: “Why? Why did they do it?” This question often leads to a whirlwind of negative thinking patterns, and sometimes people can even come to blame themselves. For this reason, it is important to learn the bare facts of suicide—a clinical perspective on the issue that can help us understand the psychology of someone who has considered or attempted suicide.
There are many risk factors that can lead to a suicide attempt. Some of the more common ones include a history of depression, being in a stressful life situation, and having a disruptive family history.(1) But suicide can come from unexpected places as well—for instance, a known side effect for many medications that treat mental health conditions is an onset or increase of suicidal thoughts or actions. There are so many factors that can play into suicidal ideation that it’s important to keep an eye out for any sign that you or someone you know, no matter how happy you or they may seem, may be at risk of wanting to inflict self-harm.
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in our country. Many people believe that depression is the sole cause of the decision to attempt suicide—however, this isn’t entirely true. In fact, one researcher found that while depression is found in some of those who are suicidal, only around 5% of people who are depressed actually commit suicide.(2) Genetic factors and stressful life situations play a far larger role than previously thought, leading me to believe that those should be some of the first things taken into consideration when addressing someone who is/was suicidal. If someone you know has just been fired or come out of a messy divorce or lost someone close to them, be sure to check in regularly, even if they have never struggled with depression previously.
I can tell you as someone with personal experience in this topic that in my case, the main thing driving me to want to kill myself is both the feeling of overwhelming fear and the fear of being a burden on others. If you feel afraid that your life is meaningless and that others would be better off without you—that’s a big red flag. Sometimes, it can come down to apathy and exhaustion: some people get so incredibly tired out by their situation that they just don’t want to be alive anymore. Their field of view becomes so narrow that they either forget or don’t care about those who they might affect. In all honesty, it can even seem like a selfish impulse to the people in the lives of those who are suicidal. But one thing I can tell you is that suicide does not typically come out of revenge or anger, whatever 13 Reasons Why might be telling you. People don’t often take their lives in order to hurt others—in fact, they misguidedly intend to do the opposite.
If you or someone you know is at risk, make sure to get them help immediately. Get them to a safe location if you can, and if you ever need to, do not feel afraid to call emergency services or hotlines. Even if someone you know often jokes about suicide, this can be a subtle cry for help, so have an open discussion if you can. Treat yourself and others carefully and with kindness, and make sure the people in your life know how much they mean to you. And remember, suicide is not the fault of the person who commits it, nor is it the fault of the people around them. Blame will do nothing but increase the hurt.
1) Franklin, J. C., et. all. “Risk Factors for Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors: A Meta-Analysis of 50 Years of Research.” Psychological Bulletin, 14 Nov. 2016, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/54de6056e4b0409b0654ceb4/t/584177d537c581d3f25b1bfb/1480685526575/Franklin+et+al.+2016+%28overall+meta+of+STB+risk+factors%29.pdf
2) Shermer, Michael. “Why Do People Kill Themselves?” Scientific American, 1 Oct. 2018, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-people-kill-themselves/#