Most of us have some experience with suicide – someone we know has taken their own life. Such a death is difficult in every possible manner. Families cry together. Distraught disbelief overwhelms us. Our emotional system is shocked to the core. We feel personally defeated. We often feel we have failed, failed our loved one in some grievous manner. We ask, both personally and collectively, what happened? What went wrong? We ask both for relief from our grief and for the hope of preventing the next tragedy. Newsweek Magazine recently had a cover story on suicide – the author presents the studies of Dr. Thomas Joiner, PhD in psychology. Dr. Joiner’s father committed suicide many years past.
Some of Dr. Joiner’s findings were expected – but his rethinking of the data presents a new, and more useful, paradigm. We at thefiresidepost.com are authorities of virtually nothing – we look to people like Dr. Joiner to help us understand the world around us – and we comment on our impression. Newsweek’s article can be found here.
Make no mistake, suicide is epidemic:
Source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Global Burden of Disease 2010 Caption: In the developed world, suicide became the leading cause of death in 2010 for people ages 15-49.
Without further debate about the magnitude of suicide in the aggregate we look to the individual – what is the common denominator – or what are the common denominators? Are there similarities in every case? With better understanding is it possible that we might lower the rate of suicide? Enter Dr. Joiner – his rethought paradigm might offer some answers. Our purpose is to ask: What is our role in the suicide of another?
Dr. Joiner’s visual model:
Assuming the paradigm has merit we ask: so what?
From the Newsweek article:
Sociologists in general believe that when society robs people of self-control, individual dignity, or a connection to something larger than themselves, suicide rates rise. They are all descendants of Emile Durkheim, who helped found the field in the late-19th century, choosing to study suicide so he could prove that “social facts” explain even this “most personal act.” But when someone’s son dies by suicide and the family cries out for an answer, “social facts” don’t begin to assuage the pain or solve the mystery. When a government health official considers how he might slow down the suicide problem, “society” is a phantom he can’t fight without another kind of theory entirely.
Some of the causes might seem self-evident. The sense of being alone in the world seems to follow reasonable logic. The question most might ask is: Why did this person feel alone? What does Joiner mean – not afraid to die? And why might one feel they are a burden?
We live in a difficult world – a cruel world as the saying goes. Shame and humiliation are regular components of misdirected attempts at motivation. Educators who minimize their impact on children use public shame as a motivational tool. Grades drop below a ‘C’ – publicly deny the child participation in other activities (like sports or the school play). What lesson does the child learn? We submit that the child feels excluded and the feeling of loneliness follows – the feelings are legitimate – the child really was excluded. Publicly humiliate the child in the classroom for academic weakness – the tactic is clever but not very smart. The humiliation further acts to remove the sense of belonging so important to the developing mind.
What does Joiner mean when he suggests someone is ‘not afraid to die’? Joiner points to a number of professions that require people minimize the idea of death – professions like being a physician or fireman or policeman – or being a soldier in Afghanistan. I live in northwest Missouri and have field dressed large animals. After dropping the deer with a high powered rifle the task of removing the fast decomposing guts is at hand – thus the term ‘field dressing’. We use a sharp knife to split the deer from scrotum to neck and drag his innards out to be left for buzzard bait. Joiner suggests this type of behavior requires a certain desensitizing mentality. Popular violent video games also serve to minimize the idea of the death of another or of oneself.
The final peg in the triangle of self-harm is defined by Dr. Joiner as ‘perceived burdensomeness’. From the Newsweek article:
Joiner calls his second condition “burdensomeness,” and it may be as emotionally intuitive as loneliness. When people see themselves as effective—as providers for their families, resources for their friends, contributors to the world—they maintain the will to live. When they lose that view of themselves, when it curdles into a feeling of liability, the desire to die takes root. We need each other, but if we feel we are failing those we need, the choice is clear. We’d rather be dead.
Those are powerful words, “We’d rather be dead”. I write this post with a recent suicide in my family as my backdrop. I felt a moment of sickness at the prospect of my loved one thinking “I’d rather be dead”. He was away at school – isolated from his family and home community. He had been a hunter and experienced real blood and guts. Loneliness – check. Fear of death – check. Burden to others? What would cause a young man to believe he was a burden to his family or friends?
This brings us to the Burden of the Village. The articulated idea of the need of a village to raise a child was first presented by Joseph Campbell. Campbell studied the mythology of humanity across the boundaries of cultural diversity. Campbell looked for similarities rather than differences. The commonness of child raising was found at the level of the village. Every adult in the village had responsibility for the children. The purpose of the village was to give the child a firm sense of belonging, a sense of moral right and wrong, and a sense of place, a sense of purpose, and a sense of being a contributing member of society.
When a suicide comes around – the village is responsible. Each of us must ask ourselves – what was my role – and further – how am I impacting the people around me?