The Suicide Epidemic

A subject I am quite passionate about is mental illness, mental health awareness, and suicide. Thankfully, there are those professionals in the field that are also passionate about the subject and making great strides in its progress. Longform, a site dedicated to posting great works of nonfiction articles, recently Tweeted this particular article on suicide called, “Why Suicide has become an epidemic and what we can do to help.”

There is much for one to take away from this tremendously insightful article. For one, how big of a problem suicide really is in not just the United States, but on a global level. As the article points out, self-harm takes more lives than war, murder and natural disasters combined. That’s a mindboggling perspective to consider. And it makes study into mental illness, the causation of suicide, and the prevention therein, even more imperative.

Amidst the slew of important statistics that give further perspective to the issue, the article is primarily anchored by a personal story from Thomas Joiner, a clinical psychologist and the suicide of his father, which led the junior Joiner to a career in clinical psychology to better understand the incremental demise of his own father. As a former Marine, successful businessman and generally thought of tough guy, his father’s suicide was perplexing to him. And instead of a typical fall into the stigmatization culture, where some relatives wanted to refer to his suicide as a “heart attack,” Joiner, as mentioned, went into clinical psychology and his work has brought much to bear on the subject.

For instance, Joiner’s Theory of Suicide is a Venn diagram that involves three segments that create the perfect storm for suicide: thwarted belongingness (“I am alone”), perceived burdensomeness (“I am a burden”), and capability for suicide (“I am not afraid to die”). When those two former understandings come together, you get a “desire for suicide,” but add in the capability for suicide and you get suicide.

A great example of the perceived burdensomeness is famed lead singer of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain. He killed himself with a shotgun, but left behind a lengthy suicide note. In the suicide note, he signs off with this bit directed towards his daughter, Frances, “For her life, which will be so much happier without me.” He clearly saw himself as burdensome not only to her, but to her future potential, as in another section he stated, “I can’t stand the thought of Frances becoming the miserable, self-destructive, death rocker that I’ve become.”

With respect to Joiner, his father, the perceived strongman, he states that is perversely, what killed him. He was “strong enough to fall on his own knife.” Such words are powerful in conveying the opposite of the perception associated with suicide: that it is cowardly, weak or selfish of an individual to take his own life. When discussing how one reaches the capability for suicide, Joiner mentions how individuals uniquely conditioned for violence, which enables numbness therein, such as athletes, doctors, prostitutes and so forth, have found a way to negate the “human instinct to scream,” which goes against the stigma of “cowardliness.” The human instinct is to fight death, not court her.

Also, of interest, is that understanding pinpoints the alarming suicide rate among those in the military. They are quite obviously conditioned to negate that “human instinct to scream” as well.

Joiner makes an impassioned argument towards the end of this brilliant piece. “Suicide is the rare killer that fails to inspire celebrity PSAs, 5k fun runs, and shiny new university centers for study and treatment. That has to change, says Joiner. “We need to get it in our heads that suicide is not easy, painless, cowardly, selfish, vengeful, self-masterful, or rash,” he says, “And once we get all that in our heads at least, we need to let it lead our hearts.””

Are we ready to lead with our hearts? I would say not yet. If anecdotal evidence amounts to anything, casual conversations with my folks, other family members and friends, indicate that we have a long way to go to not only understand suicide, but the causes for it such as severe depression and other mental ailments.

2 thoughts

  1. I really appreciate you tackling the important yet difficult subject and pointing to some potentially new ways of understanding.

    As a survivor of a suicide attempt, I feel a profound mixture of survivor’s guilt (I should have died) and tremendous gratitude (thank God I didn’t).

    My hope is, as you point out, we will wage war against the self-destructive forces inside so many minds with the same zest we’ve waged war for other causes in the past.

    Thanks again for your understanding.


    1. I appreciate you sharing your personal story and insight.

      Just to narrow it a bit; it particularly perplexes me that suicide rates are so high amongst our soldiers that we send to war, but even then, that is still unable to capture our hearts and minds. Seemingly, the extent of “support the troops” is a mere bumper sticker on the end of a car…


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