The truth behind suicide and the suicidal mind

Edwin. S. Shneidman states:

“In almost every case, suicide is caused by pain, a certain kind of pain – psychological pain, which I call psychache. Furthermore, this psychache stems from thwarted or distorted psychological needs’ (The Suicidal Mind, 1996, p.4)

Suicidal death is an escape from overwhelming pain.

The question we should be asking is “Where does it hurt? And “How can I help you?”

Shneidman also looks at some common truths and factors about suicide. These are:

  • The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution to end the pain.
  • The common goal of suicide is cessation of consciousness. Dissociating from the painful reality.
  • The common stimulus in suicide is psychological pain. Pain is at the core of suicide.
  • The common stressor in suicide is frustrated psychological needs. These cause the pain and push the person into suicide.
  • The common emotion in suicide is hopelessness-helplessness. It feels like there is nothing the person can do (except end their pain via death) and nobody that can help them (with the pain they feel).
  • The common cognitive state in suicide is ambivalence. This is the tug war between life and death. Not wanting to live, not wanting to die but wanting to end the pain and death feeling like the only solution. Suicidal people feel forced into this, it is not a want but stemming from the need to end the pain. When the need becomes greater than the want, suicide wins. This is the result of great distress and great desperation.
  • The common perceptual state in suicide is constriction. Black or white thinking. All or nothing.

Shneidman states:

“Suicide is not best understood as a psychosis, a neurosis, or a character disorder. It is a transient psychological constriction, involving our emotions and intellect”. “There was nothing else to do.’ “The only way out was death’. “The only thing I could do was this’.

  • The common action in suicide is escape or egression.
  • The common interpersonal act in suicide is communication of intention
  • The common pattern in suicide is consistent with life-long styles of coping. Individuals who have lost their lives to suicide, have been fighting for far longer than we realise, it’s an accumulation of unprocessed life events that can trigger the final act. Those more prone to automatically use the flee survival response are made vulnerable.

What doesn’t help people who are suffering is the myths that surround suicide that need to be eliminated and based on lack of empathy and total ignorance.

Suicidal people are not selfish, cowards, weak or attention seeking, not only are they in great psychological pain, but did you know that the part involved with empathy is shut down? When overwhelmed our nervous system shuts down and parts of our brain become inactive. In that moment, suicidal people are not thinking, this ability is disabled, they are trying to end their pain. Also children and adolescents commit suicide, do we think of them as weak, cowards…or do we see them as dsyregulated individuals in great distress unable to regulate and soothe selves?

Suicidal idealisation and suicide itself is common and normal, we need a relational approach to this not a pathological approach. We need to stop pathologising human experiences. We need to stop shaming people who open up to us and label them attention seeking, let’s substitute attention seeking with connection seeking. Suicide can escalate when individuals are made to feel unsupported and isolated. If someone brings our attention to the fact they are hurting, we ask where are you hurting? We don’t say people are seeking attention when they have had an accident and are injured, the doctor or paramedic may ask, can you tell me where it hurts? Can you show me where you are hurting? and assistance will immediately be given. We also don’t leave an individual who is bleeding profoundly to bleed alone so why do we emotionally? why is the waiting list and support for people in distress so long, requiring them to have to wait years even for assistance? Why are children being dismissed because they are told they are not suicidal enough for help? This is the root of the problem and this rises suicidal feelings and the risks of suicide.

We see in films the kind act of putting an animal in pain out of its misery and suicidal people feel like they are doing the same for themselves as well as a kind act to those they love in the way of removing the burden they feel they are. They don’t want their loved ones to see them in pain and have to experience that pain every day and feel that death would give them freedom from this. They know that their death would also cause pain, but they don’t see this as worse of a pain than to see a loved one dead inside and in pain whilst alive. It is excruciatingly painful and difficult for someone to end their life, and an indication of how bad that psycheache is. Nobody likes pain, think of what we do, when we have a toothache, we reach for medication to help alleviate the pain, when we are in severe psychological pain such as deep injuries and needing surgery we are given anaesthetic to take away the pain, imagine living with this pain with no anaesthetic day after day. For a suicidal person living can feel like being burned alive each day.

Not every suicidal person wants to end life, it’s not that they don’t want to live but they fear living or life more than death. For others they may feel trapped in limbo where they fear living and they feel dying just as equally. These individuals may find themselves experiencing suicidal ideation but not making plans. This is a torment in its own right. Suicide is trying to find a solution to a problem, it is the trauma response of flight mode. Attempts are ways to self soothe when one is emotionally dysregulated and overwhelmed by so much emotional and psychological pain within.

What also doesn’t help is that we live in a world that causes systematic trauma alone through oppression and exploitation such as racism, capitalism, misogyny…and one that doesn’t meet human needs. A world where emotions are frowned upon and vulnerability which is courage seen as weakness, victim blaming is engrained in our culture and all these things woven into the fabric of our society alone is enough to make any strong, healthy or mentally healthy person, emotionally bleed. Not all people that are suicidal are necessarily depressed because many times what is pathologically labelled as a disease is in effect an emotional reaction and therefore rather a dis-ease (as Peter Levine states) and also if we look at the word depression it means to press down, push down and this is what we are asked to do with our feelings and emotions. Many times, what we feel is dismissed with phrases such as: “just think positive”, “It could be worse”, “things happen for a reason” …making one feel alone and misunderstood and their pain further silenced. We further create more distress to an already distressed individual through hospitalisation where they can be forced by police into an ambulance, sedated and treated like dangerous violent criminals. In past, mental illness treatments were barbaric and abusive to the point they would make you suicidal.

When our survival is threatened and pain overwhelming the real aim is to end the pain, it’s to find a solution. Suicide isn’t primarily in my view about self destruction although the act itself has this element, but rather it is a form of self protection. It’s a reaction to a threat so great, the threat of never being the same, the threat caused by overwhelming fear for our life or our reputation, the overwhelming of shame. It can be a different threat to different people as all of us are individuals with individual circumstances. I believe it’s the threat that leads to what distressed individuals come to see as the only solution. It is not intentional and rational, it is determined by various social and biological forces. Like us humans it is complex and needs to be given the attention it deserves and victims and survivors of suicide or attempted suicide(s), need to be given the dignity and justice they deserve.

If something so heavy is falling on us and it threatens to crush us, chances are without support we cannot free ourselves and the weight of something we cannot possible hold alone will come crashing and potentially kill us. Something has happened or happens that has metaphorically ended a person’s life before suicide ends it physically as in kills the body. Many times, we fail to see that the person who we have lost to the world, was trying to survive, wanted to survive and intended to survive and had been strong for so long and yet we fail to see this is the case in a lot of suicides. We just label them cowards just like soldiers in wars who developed PTSD and could no longer bring themselves to function or fight. We cannot judge anyone or ourselves even by the same standards when we are faced with a threat or when we are in great distress. When are needs are not met and we are starved and deprived of these needs or need to survive.

An example is, if we are safe and regulated and have security and resources and say we are thirsty, we will drink something that is drinkable, if we were in a desert for days and the threat of death by dehydration was looking us in the eye, in despair we would drink poison just to quench the thirst, this would lead to death but our intention was not death, it was to ease the discomfort, to find a solution even if it came with repercussions. Our choices, our behaviours, our actions, our thoughts, all change when faced with things.

So we can’t judge and compare, victims of suicide with someone who feels safe and in a calm state because of this. Another example is seen even in animals, scorpion suicide was long featured in Iberian folklore, but George Bryron’s 1813 poem: The Giaour, brought attention to it. When ringed with fire and faced with no means of escape, the scorpion was said to end the threat by thrusting its sting into its own back which would see it dying. A bee will sacrifice their life to string to protect itself from threat. Suicide is an act to protect self from the threat of overwhelming emotional and mental pain.

We can also consider the IFS (internal Family system) modality, which is an approach that doesn’t pathologise rather normalises aspects within ourselves and looks into them with a lens of compassion and curiosity not judgement. It is of the belief that our mind is made up of sub-personalities, this is why we can experience conflicting emotions, because there is more to us than just one part. We are made up of many parts. That is why many suicidal individuals may have a part of them that wants to live and a part of them that wants to die with the latter taking over.

IFS claims that these parts are divided into exiles (parts of us that are wounded, vulnerable, traumatised), protectors (these are pro-active and try to protect the exile parts from becoming wounded again and experiencing emotional flooding which overwhelms us), and finally the firefighters (these parts are reactive and try to end the pain, these are the parts that can have us feel suicidal or act on suicide). So what we see, is that suicide is an act of self protection, an attempt to protect self from pain and like a firefighter the goal is to put out the fire (pain), everything else isn’t important and will get destroyed, just like suicide ends the pain but destroys the body in order to do this which results in a life lost.

I have aimed to argue and present my argument that suicide has absolutely nothing to do with a character deficit and as Aphrodite Matsakis states when talking of trauma:

“At some point in your life you have probably cut your finger with a knife. If the blade was dull, you may have suffered only a little nick. If the blade was sharp, you may have bled all over. If the blade was very sharp and the force behind it was great enough, you might even have lost part of your finger. The extent of your injury depended more on the sharpness of the blade and the power behind it than on the toughness of your skin. Given enough force, even extremely tough skin would not protect you from the knife, and anyone else in the same situation would also be injured, even if they had the toughest skin in the world. The same holds true on a psychological level. There are events in life that would almost make anyone ‘bleed all over’.

What I mean by trauma is anything that affects our ability to function, what happens inside us. Even the things like losing a job, a breakup/divorce, the loss of security, loneliness…

In addition, we need to change our language around suicide. Don’t say: They committed suicide, they had a failed attempt, they are attention seeking. Alternatives and the truth are, they died by suicide, they were in psychological pain, they are asking for support and help. Let’s end the stigma and stop hurting those that are already hurt and in pain by words, myths and ignorance.

Let’s get educated and spread the love! Let’s remember those that have made attempts and survived along with those who have lost a loved one and those that have lost their lives to psycheache.

Reference: Edwin. S. Shneidman, The Suicidal Mind (1996

Copywrite: Antonella Zottola

This article is copywrite protected and no content may be reproduced or used for any purpose without the permission of the author.

 

6 Replies to “The truth behind suicide and the suicidal mind”

    1. Thank you so much. The book took information from is: The Suicidal Mind by Edwin. S. Shneidman. I am so passionate about breaking the stigma and the myths and educating and putting that information out there so that discussions can be started and perspectives shifted. Thank you so much for the feedback, taking the time to read it and comment, really appreciate it.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, it means a lot. Hopefully it will change people’s perspective and open the door for greater insight and help others to become more self aware of their own beliefs 🙂

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