Making sense of suicide

Suicide is a highly emotive subject, still often treated as taboo in most cultures. This means that even though it is fairly common, of all the forms of depressed thinking, suicidal thinking is least likely to be aired, discussed and critically evaluated.

Deadly tunnel vision

Isolation and painful despair in conjunction with depressed thinking habits make for a very risky combination. Suicidal thinking often arises out of hopelessness about being able to overcome difficult life problems. When someone is desperate for relief from suffering, yet stuck in tunnel vision at the bottom of the depression habit spiral, they are less able to apply problem-solving skills and are vulnerable to the deadly over-simplification of suicidal thinking. The taboo over discussing suicide also means that thinking about suicide can leave someone feeling very isolated and alone.

So how do we make sense of suicide?

Several different paths of thought can lead in the direction of suicide. All are distorted by the narrowed perspective of depressed thinking habits:

“How bad am I feeling?”

People often first think about suicide not so much as an immediate option, but more as a kind of ‘barometer’ to measure how bad they’re feeling. When you are feeling very low, it can seem comforting to recognise that you do not feel quite low enough to commit suicide. This is a very risky habit, because repetition of the thought brings a seemingly comforting familiarity and dulls the initial instinctive recoil from danger.

“Am I a coward or a hero?”

Debate over whether suicide is heroic or cowardly is another irrelevant over-simplification. This kind of all-or-nothing thinking diverts attention from more complex solutions to the problems which have lead to the suicidal thinking in the first place.

“I’ve got to sort it out on my own”

An over-emphasis on individualism, common in western cultures, creates barriers to help-seeking. Over-valuing ‘independence’ means that when someone can’t find their own solution to their problems suicide becomes the only ‘answer’. Yet many people can be, and have been, helped to survive suicidal thinking and overcome depression.

“Won’t they be better off without me?”

One angle on suicide focuses on its self-sacrificial aspect, not wanting to be a burden. Yet the distorted perspective of believing that ‘they’ll be better off without me’ tends to be greeted with stunned bewilderment and terrible pain by those who will supposedly be ‘better off’. The anguish of a parent who has lost a child to suicide is almost indescribable.

“I’ll show them!”

For some, the desire to cause this pain and bewilderment, or at least to have people take them seriously, is a strong motivation. This is the ultimate in cutting off your nose to spite your face – again an over-simplified solution to the complex problem of engaging in meaningful relationships.

Copycat suicide

It is an unfortunate phenomenon that one suicide can sometimes seem to create a kind of domino effect, sparking off a series of suicides in the affected community. More commonly, a suicide in the community is shocking enough to jolt support networks into action for others.

“What’s the point to life anyway?”

Pervading cynicism in modern societies creates a strongly depression-inducing cultural context. Cynicism denigrates all that is constructive and hopeful and drains away the meaning from life. Depression and suicidal thinking thrive in the vacuum left when people stop investing hope in their lives.

To be or not to be?

The famous “To be or not to be..?” speech in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet reminds us of another aspect to thinking about suicide. It reflects the strong tradition in many cultures of contemplating death as a way of bringing into focus the value of life.

Depression and the meaning of life

Pain, suffering and the inevitability of death are profoundly difficult issues not just for individuals but for all of humanity. See the page on ‘Depression and the meaning of life’ for more discussion of how depression and suicidal thinking might be the starting point on a path of addressing the ‘big questions’ in your life in a more meaningful way.

Next: Understanding self harm

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The depression habit spiral Depression and the meaning of life Planning a life worth living