Why Do People Die By Suicide? 5 Things We All Need To Understand
Understanding why people die by suicide is difficult, but we should all try if we want to help our loved ones in crisis.
When a loved one dies by suicide, the ones left behind are left with shock, grief, and a multitude of questions, the biggest one being the simple “why?” Why do people commit suicide?
Having lost a loved one to suicide myself, I know just how painful it is to lose someone in this manner, and how guilty and confused it leaves the living. Many of us who don’t understand suicidal thought processes make no attempts to do so, for fear that understanding them would be tantamount to endorsing them. But facing the issue head-on and actively trying to get a grasp on why someone would make the decision to take their own lives is essential to having more compassion for those struggling with suicidal thoughts, and perhaps helping them while we still can.
First things first: we need to understand that suicides are usually highly emotional decisions. In a Scientific American article, science communication professor Jesse Bering wrote:
“In considering people’s motivations for killing themselves, it is essential to recognize that most suicides are driven by a flash flood of strong emotions, not rational, philosophical thoughts in which the pros and cons are evaluated critically.”
According to Bering, only about 5% of people suffering from depression kill themselves, and not all suicide victims were depressed. In his book Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, he writes:
“Around 43 percent of the variability in suicidal behavior among the general population can be explained by genetics, while the remaining 57 percent is attributable to environmental factors.”
Sometimes, people attempt to end their lives when they’re under the influence of drugs and alcohol, only to feel differently once they’ve sobered up. Some suicide victims are simply crying out for help, using methods they think will be ineffective, but end up accidentally killing themselves. Some people kill themselves because they’re extremely sensitive to what other people think of them, or are especially critical of themselves. Suicide has multiple causes, and is often due to the combination of several environmental stressors.
Why do people commit suicide? This may seem counterintuitive, but many don’t want to die. Many suicide attempt survivors have said that they simply wanted the pain to stop, and death seemed like the only way out. The late writer David Foster Wallace captured suicidal thoughts perfectly when he used the analogy of a burning building.
“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.”
Research has found that women are around three times more likely to attempt suicide, but men are roughly three times more likely to die by suicide. Why? Much of it lies in the methods used. Men tend to choose more violent, more lethal methods (e.g. firearms, asphyxiation), while women tend to overdose on drugs — a method that is more likely to fail.
Feeling strong suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean that there’s no other way. Someone who has seemingly made up their mind to kill themselves can find that after some time, they feel completely different. Says University of Toronto psychiatrist Ralph Lewis to Scientific American contributor Michael Shermer:
“This is why suicide prevention is so important: because people can be very persuasive in arguing why they believe life—their life—is not worth living. And yet the situation looks radically different months later, sometimes because of an antidepressant, sometimes because of a change in circumstances, sometimes just a mysterious change of mind.”
If you think you know someone who’s struggling with suicidal thoughts, here are some things you can do, according to the National Institute for Mental Health:
- Talk to them about it. Ask your loved one if they are thinking about suicide. Talking about it doesn’t increase the risk of it happening.
- Remove dangerous objects. Access to objects like guns and knives increases the risk of suicide. You can help keep your loved one safe by removing objects like these and staying by them.
- Encourage them to get professional help. You shouldn’t have to bear the burden of your friend’s crisis alone. Help them get the support they need from others, whether it’s a family member, doctor, or another friend.
- Keep checking up on them even after their crisis passes. Just because your friend overcomes a crisis doesn’t mean that they won’t ever feel suicidal again. To help prevent your friend’s crisis from recurring, keep checking up with how they’re feeling.
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, ask for help. It could be from a friend or family member, or from a helpline. Give yourself time. In all likelihood, you’ll experience a change of heart and will want to choose life.
Here are some helplines you can call if you or a loved one needs help.
Natasha Goulbourn Foundation: 804-HOPE (4673); 0917-558-HOPE (4673); or 2919 (toll-free number for Globe and TM subscribers)
Manila Lifeline Centre: (02) 896-9191; 0917-854-9191
Samaritans of Singapore (SOS): 1800-221-4444
AWARE: 1800-777-5555 (Mon-Fri 3 pm- 9:30 pm)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
Institute of Mental Health: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Teen Challenge: 1800-829-2222
eCounselling Centre (eC2): 6787 1125
MeToYou Cyber Care: 6274 6904 / 9173 1766
(Featured image: Unsplash)