Why People Die by Suicide: Review and Notes

Recently, a very distant acquaintance – I infer, from Facebook – died by suicide. Because I was not close to this person and am not close to any of our mutual friends, my curiosity surrounding the circumstances of this surprising departure is thwarted and I remain fairly troubled regarding the whole thing (possibly since this recent pregnancy and birth made me more attuned to matters not just of life but of death – pregnant women and new mothers are not really allowed to talk about this, though I can’t be the only one). I decided to deal with this anxiety by reading a book recommended by my friend Sarah who I consider an expert on suicide.

Why People Die by Suicide by Thomas Joiner offers a simple and empirically-grounded theory of why suicide happens. Obviously, people who commit suicide are evidently both willing and able to kill themselves. To fulfill the “able to kill oneself” condition, suicide victims have to work up to lethal self-harm and/or become habituated to pain and “provocative” experiences. This can include violent and otherwise hardening experiences over a lifetime, like injuries, fights, incarceration, cutting, and more. It can also include a string of discrete suicide attempts, or escalating efforts at the time of suicide attempt (like non-lethal shallow cuts followed by deeper life-threatening ones). After all, it is the obvious norm for living things to try to go on living. Overriding this default instinct is not something that can happen especially quickly or easily.

Wanting to die is probably more common than being able to kill oneself. At any given time, plenty of people are quite unhappy and lacking in will to live (if temporarily), but most of them lack the ability to inflict lethal self-harm as described above. What seems to make people want to die, according to Joiner, is a sense of failed belongingness and perceived burdensomeness. These reflect some of the most basic of human needs: to care for others and be cared for by them, to have found a social place in the world, to contribute in some way.

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