Sunday, May 2, 2010

Deconstructing "myths about suicide"

A few days ago, NPR's Talk of the Nation spoke with Thomas Joiner of Florida State University, a prominent researcher in suicidal behavior, on deconstructing "myths about suicide" Joiner has a new book out called Myths about Suicide in which he talks about this very thing.

Though I've posted about suicide before, I think it is still an important issue to discuss, especially as May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Like with many other disorders, suicide is often stigmatized as well.

There were several points in this conversation that Joiner made which really struck out to me. One was the myth that suicide is a selfish act. He explained that to those on the outside this is how it appears, but really what the suicide sufferer is thinking is, "my death will be worth more than my life to others." Although this thinking is mistaken, to the sufferer, it is true.

This often rings similar to those with eating disorders. On the outside, people think "how could someone with anorexia think they are fat? Can't they see they are not?" (I know this isn't the case for everyone, but just an example) Or it is like when we say we are "feeling fat" to someone, and they say "fat isn't a feeling." This may be correct, but to that individual, it feels real at the time.

Another point Joiner makes is that suicide is not an impulsive act. He says that even though suicide appears out of the blue for some people, often times, there has been a long built up process to it. If you think about it, it is really hard to kill yourself. Your body's natural reaction is to fight back and resist. For some, it is one reason why their body doesn't let them commit suicide.

He also mentions the film The Bridge, the controversial documentary about the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, a place where many have gone to commit suicide. For one year, the director and his crew, filmed people walking across the bridge, trying to determine which ones were vulnerable to jumping. In the end, they could not tell who would or would not. This deconstructs the myth that suicides are easy to tell. Even those that seem to be functioning well outwardly, inside the person is a mess and in misery. Again, this is so similar to eating disorders. How many times do people think we are okay just because we are weight restored, functioning, or look "normal"

One other myth Joiner discussed was the idea that if someone was really going to commit suicide, they would. He felt that physical barriers were important and was an underappreciated means of suicide prevention, especially as high railings have been installed at other historic buildings like the Empire State Building which dramatically reduced the number of suicides.

Since callers were invited into this show, there was one guy who had had several members of his family commit suicide. This led into the question of genetics which Dr. Joiner agrees contributes to suicides. He feels that genes, risk factors, personality traits, etc. operate via three aspects of his model which are learned fearlessness, burdensomeness, and alienation. He explains his model as:

I think that there are two main processes that have to develop and that have to collide to end in this catastrophe that is suicidal behavior. One has to do with the-I think very basic insight that death is inherently fearsome and daunting. Therefore it requires a kind of fearlessness, a fearlessness specifically about physical pain, physical injury and death, in order to enact it. So that's one process that's unfolding. It takes time to develop.

So does the other process, which has to do with: Why would people desire suicide in the first place? And I think it has to do with states of mind having to do with the idea - two ideas, actually one, that you're a burden, and one other - that's what I meant when I was referring to death being worth more than life kinds of thoughts; the other is that you're hopeless alienated, cut off and isolated from others. When these two processes combine, the desire for suicide spurred by alienation and burdensomeness, when all when that collides with learned fearlessness, that's when you see these catastrophes.

This makes sense to me and again resonates with eating disorder sufferers. There is the fearlessness of becoming malnourished, starved, unhealthy, or even dying. Then, there is the burden factor where we feel like we are burdens on our families and may not communicate how we feel to them or that we really need help. And with alienation, we often cut ourselves off from people and isolate to feed our disorders.

These same aspects could also be why a number of those with eating disorders do wind up committing suicide. These traits, brain chemistry, and feelings all collide, leaving the sufferer to feel suicide may be the only way.

I think this is one reason why I think education is important. Mental illnesses, in general, have so many stereotypes and we need to de-stigmatize and deconstruct the myths behind them.

Lastly, if you feel suicidal, please get help or call 1-800-SUICIDE, 1-800-273-TALK

FYI: the Discovery Health Channel is broadcasting "Six Nights of Understanding" series, showcasing individuals' experiences with Anxiety, Rage, Dissociative Disorder, Schizophrenia, Addiction, Bipolar Disorder, Hoarding, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Thanks Dr. Deb for posting this!


what if summer... said...

I've always found suicide to be a very interesting topic. That, and there have been a few suicides in my family.

I think you're right about the comparison of eating disorders with suicide, since they are slow forms of suicide.

I'd like to watch The Bridge. I love depressing documentaries.
And thanks for the heads up on the 6 nights of understanding. I'll have to check that out :)


The Binge Diary said...

How do they help people who ate suicidal? What does treatment include?

Anonymous said...

Interesting insights, and lots of it totally resonated...... now that I don't have that long drive to work like I did in California, I hardly ever get a chance to listen to NPR anymore. - Moo

Tiptoe said...

Summer, thanks for commenting. Suicide has always been interesting to me as well. There are many facets to it. I don't necessarily think eating disorders are slow forms of suicide per se (sometimes,it becomes about survival in a perverse sense), but I do think there are a lot of similar characteristics.

The Binge Diary, treatment for suicide can vary, but usually involves therapy. It can be in the forms of psychodynamic, CBT, or DBT oriented. Some have to go into inpatient centers while others can be outpatient, just depends all on the individual. In any case, if you are someone you know is feeling suicidal, there is help.

Moo, thanks for stopping by. I actually have a little more time in the car than I did before but it won't last, and I'll miss all my NPS shows.

Zena said...

My husband committed suicide 7 weeks ago, I have been told my several professionals that it "is" a selfish act, that yes they are in such horrific pain they see no other way out, but the act itself is very selfish, they dont think of the pain, trauma, and complete and utter despair this act will create for those that loved them. We have three small children, who had a father one day and the next did not. I have been in the past been sucicidal so I understand the thinking that I others would be better off without me around, i have been to the point of sitting on my bathroom floor with a bottle of vodka and every medication that i owned ready to just get it over with, and somehow amazingly I have that brief moment where I think "what would happen to my kids, what would their pain be?" and I have sobbed and called for help, To go so far as to not think of those who you are leaving behind well it must take a degree of selfishness, Yes my husband was in a living hell but now he as at peace, and we are now living the hell. I have not been angry at him I actually have thought so many times( obsessivly) what could I have done to prevent him from hanging himself, but for the first time when i truly saw how pain and suffering my children are RIGHT NOW, I became angry, what he did can not be taken back, its permanent! This is such a real thing, these things happen, thank you for posting this, and yes the sufferer is in complete emotional turmoil they see no other way but i must disagree to some extent at least some people who do this it is a selfish and angry least I feel it was that way with my husband, he was an angry abusive alcoholic, he tried to recover but couldnt so he choose the "easy" way out he was in pain, didnt want to be anymore, made a plan and carried it out with no regard as to how his action would effect any of us...the devastation he left behind, the mess that i have to clean up its just unimaginable.

Tiptoe said...


I'm really so sorry for your loss. I can only empathize what you and your kids must b efeeling. Suicide is such a hard thing for everyone.

I certainly understand your viewpoint, and we always have to look at these case by case. I sincerely hope you an d your kids are receiving the help you need to help process and grieve. Many thoughts your way.

tia @ dietcolagirl said...

I love the name of your blog...
it's exactly where I am in life right now...

tia @ dietcolagirl