Natasha J. Thomas, MD
Why Are People Ending Their Lives and What Can Society REALLY Do to Prevent Suicide?
Updated: Dec 16, 2022
On December 13, 2022, beloved dancer and DJ, Stephen Laurel "tWitch" Boss, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His crossover appeal and popularity for being a positive, upbeat, "light" in the world has once again thrust the topic of suicide squarely into the public view. Sadly, tWitch now joins the list of joy-bringing celebrities who've died in this manner. It's a topic that is excruciatingly painful and confusing to try to understand.
News about the current rate of suicide is honestly not good. Though the overall rate of suicide has decreased in this country, it is on the rise in blacks and American youth, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. This is despite improvement in efforts to bring about mental health awareness, support groups, research, and crisis outreach. In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death in people aged 18 to 24.
In the United States, someone attempts suicide every 27.5 seconds. In 2020, nearly forty-six thousand people completed suicide. Over 1,000 of those deaths occurred in college students. White men, Native American men, and black men are the three groups most likely to die by suicide. The rate of suicide has drastically increased over the years for blacks in America.
The Personal Reasons
Though this is not exhaustive, the following is a list of the most common reasons people may end their own lives. Consider what it feels like to see the world through the lens of a person having these experiences. Often, those who are contemplating suicide feel as if they're in the fight of their lives - every single day. Maybe you know someone who has had similar experiences, or maybe you've experienced these things yourself.
Loss & Humiliation: The loss of a loved one, a valued relationship, a job, or even the loss of status or reputation, can cause some people to feel like continuing to live will be fraught with humiliation, shame, emptiness, and struggle.
Trauma: Various studies have indicated that experiencing psychologically traumatizing events can result in a lack of desire to continue to live. In addition, some people who have experienced trauma experience a change in their ability to manage setbacks. In them, thinking of suicide becomes an automatic response to stressors.
Loneliness: For years, we've been saying that there is an epidemic of loneliness occurring in the western world. And it appears to be true. Many people report feeling misunderstood, alone, unsupported, and even invisible, despite having people in their lives that could provide emotional support. Some people, especially elders, express a lack of friendship and companionship that makes loneliness even more pronounced.
Worthlessness: A feature of depression and other mental health disorders, feelings of worthlessness can also drive people to suicide. In this state, people may feel those who love them will be "better off" without having them around as a "burden." They falsely believe people will either not miss them or need them, or that the grieving process after their death will be quick and easy.
Illness: Chronic physical pain and illness can be completely exhausting. The same can be said for slowly progressing terminal illnesses. For those who have conditions where treatment options are limited or largely ineffective, death may seem to be the most acceptable solution.
Family History: Did you know that the risk of suicide increases by up to 65% in the relatives and friends of those who die by suicide? That means that when parents die by suicide, their children are at an increased risk of dying in the same manner. Unfortunately, a family history of suicide can increase a person's risk for mental disorders but can also provide an unhealthy blueprint for how to deal with the strain of these disorders, too.*
Impulse: While not the most common cause, sometimes reacting to a situational stressor on impulse can result in death by suicide. This is seen in response to acute losses or sometimes when a person is hoping to emotionally punish another.
Drug & Alcohol Misuse: There is a correlation between use of substances, depression, and thinking about suicide. There is also a correlation between earlier drinking ages and increased rates of completed suicides in youth.
Accident: It's important to note that not all self-harm is done with the intention to create a life-ending injury. Some people cut or otherwise injure themselves to relieve mental distress, to feel "real," to fight off feelings of numbness or dissociation, or to punish themselves. Some people's injuries result in a fatal wound, though that was not their intention.
Untreated Mental Illness or Gaps in Treatment: For people with severe depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other illnesses, being untreated is a huge risk factor for suicide. In addition, treatment that is subpar or inconsistent can put them at risk as well. Regular use of medications or mechanical treatments for severe mental illness is an absolute necessity to prevent suicide. When a person has recently been released from a mental hospital, is waiting for medication, or needs to resume care such as ECT, their risk for suicide is much higher.
The most alarming and humbling point to consider here is that none of us is exempt from life experiences that can put us at risk of self-harm or suicide. Certain experiences can create an opening for "no way out" thinking, despair, and hopelessness. These situations create an unbearable pain in the mind. People who die by suicide are trying to find relief from that pain.
Now You See Me...
Can you identify some of the common signs that a person may be contemplating or even planning their suicide? Common depressive symptoms such as despair, guilt, sleeplessness, social withdrawal, lack of interest, fatigue, and talk of leaving this life can all be signs. Becoming overly focused on religion or "going to heaven" can also become signs. But these signs are not the only ones that should get our attention.
Many people who are determined to end their lives are very adept at hiding their emotional pain. These people will never tell you they're suicidal. Why? Because they've finally resolved that they've found a way out of the suffering.
If a person you know has been very depressed and then suddenly seems happy, or even exuberant, you should monitor them very closely and try to get them in to see a doctor. This is especially true if they don't have a strong therapeutic relationship with a counselor or a psychiatrist. Some people become excited once they've decided to end their lives and can seem very joyful just weeks, days, or hours before their suicide.
Suicide: Society's Mirror?
Whenever a celebrity dies by suicide, social media sites are flooded with posts offering support to the family of the deceased. There is also an influx of posts offering emotional support to personal friends and family who may be "suffering in silence." Though the support we attempt to lend each other at times like this is sincere and well-meaning, it unfortunately misses what suicide deaths seem to be telling us about our society.
The reasons people seek to accelerate their deaths many times reflect our shortcomings and misplaced values as a society. We place importance on status, appearance, individualism, hustle culture, ableism, escapism and "strength." However, we fail to adequately hone our skills and understanding of relationship, purpose, understanding and honoring of emotions, community, interdependence, vulnerability, & character development. Though there are a host of reasons why a person may die by suicide, it is unlikely to find any suicide death that was not at least in part related to our deficits as a society.
The Ways to REALLY Help
In the face of shocking suicide deaths, many of us feel completely helpless. How can you "save" a person who no longer wants to live? How can you make sure you don't miss the signs?
While it's important to know how to access mental health care, erase the stigma of seeking help for mental disorders, and to check in with each other, I think there is even more that we can do on a daily basis to help minimize suicide deaths. We can be more kind. We can make the world a place where more people want to be. We can work to prevent unnecessary trauma that leads to permanent emotional scars.
We can let people know (in everyday interactions), that they are seen. It is true that we never know what another person is really going through. One thing is for certain - being kind will never harm anyone or make their situation more difficult.
Many people who are contemplating suicide report being really tired of the daily ills of this world and the nastiness we sometimes show each other. In our everyday interactions, we communicate agitation, impatience, and disdain for the people with whom we are interacting. We have systems and practices that expose our children to psychological, physical, and sexual harm. We have fallen out of the practice of listening to each other's ideas with open minds and hearts.
If you want to know how to really help your community in the fight against premature death by suicide, educate yourself on mental health issues AND seek to bring kindness, patience, understanding, and warmth to every space you fill. You will never know whose life you may save on any given day with your dedication to doing good.
*A Special Note for Those Who Tried to Stop a Suicide
Suicide represents a very complex interplay of genetic predisposition, stressful situations, mental illness, mental fatigue, and soul-crushing, daily pain. "Checking on your strong friend" may sometimes not be enough because we are up against so much! As sad and heartbreaking as it may be, there are times when a person will die by suicide despite our best efforts to stop it. Please know that you are not a failure or deserving of any guilt surrounding those deaths. People can sometimes descend so far into darkness they cannot see any other way to find relief. If you've ever lost someone to suicide, especially if you know they were ill and could not "save" them, please make sure you find help to process your loss, shed your feelings of guilt and shame, and not let their passing put you at risk of dying by suicide, too.
988 Crisis and Suicide Lifeline: Dial 988
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line: Text Hello to 741741
YouthLine: Text teen2teen to 839863 or call 1.877.968.8491
National Alliance on Mental Illness
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance
The Headstrong Project