The Nature of Suicide
Posted in: Rearguard Project
Suicide. A word that no one wants to hear. Yet regardless of age, race, sex, economic status, success level, marital status, ethnic background, people are affected by suicide. There is a veil of secrecy over the subject, injuring the friends and loved ones of those who do end their lives by suicide, and enabling those who are contemplating it.
This article is not written to those who are contemplating suicide, although it may help move them away from that decision. It is written to the friends and family of those same people. We are not experts, but want to share what we have learned, praying that this locked door may be opened and our loved ones may be reached. Much of what we have learned comes from the work of Dr. Thomas Joiner. His resources are listed at the end of the article.
Why Do People Die By Suicide?
Someone’s suicide may come out of the blue, even to those who are closest to them. There are innumerable crisis triggers that may push someone over the edge, and those triggers can appear suddenly and unexpectedly.
It is confusing because that trigger, that last straw, may seem much less consequential for others in the same situation. The question is then: What put the suicidal person on the edge of the precipice in the first place? Joiner uses an effective illustration of mountain climbing in his book, “The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide.” Not everyone who climbs a mountain will fall off a cliff. But some climbers find themselves in a danger zone and could easily lose their footing and fall.
Joiner describes three elements, which all need to be in place before someone will take that extreme action when that last straw hits their back. Here is a brief description of these elements. These three elements are capability, perceived burdensomeness, and failed belongingness. A brief description of these elements follows below. I also encourage you to read any of Joiner’s books to understand this complex situation more completely.
We all have a built-in aversion to self-injury. People who attempt suicide will often reflexively pull-back at the last minute, regardless of how serious their intention is. Those who have survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge have related how they realized too late that they really didn’t want to die. Those who have stabbed themselves will often have numerous hesitation cuts made before the final thrust.
“The only ones who are capable of death by suicide are those who have been through enough past pain and provocation (especially involving, but not limited to, intentional self-injury) to have habituated to the fear and pain of self-injury, so much so that the self-preservation urge can be beaten back.”
Joiner emphasizes however that capability does not necessarily entail desire. Only those with both the capability and desire are at risk. For instance, all military personnel have the training and skill to cause harm, which can easily be turned on themselves. They may also have experienced enough personal injury to overcome the fear and pain of self-injury. But not all military personnel commit suicide.
Think About It:
- What is your own experience with self-injury?
- What do you think the difference would be between a death wish and risk of suicide?
“Perceived burdensomeness is a self-view that includes low self-esteem but goes beyond it. The idea is [the person] is defective or flawed such that not only [their] self is brought down but, even worse, [their] existence burdens family, friends, and society. This view produces the crucial mental calculation that “my death will be worth more than my life to family, friends, society, and so on.” It is essential to note that although suicidal people believe this calculation to be true, it represents a potentially fatal perception.”
Joiner also describes that this person may believe that suicide is actually self-sacrifice for the greater good. We often say that it is the ultimate selfish action, but we need to look through the eyes and heart of the suicidal person. We may know and believe that our friend is not a burden, but that is not be what the suicidal person believes.
Think About It:
- Why do you think knowing that your life is crucial in the life of another person would keep you from killing yourself, when everything else would seem to indicate that is the best solution?
“Failed belongingness is roughly, although not perfectly, synonymous with loneliness and social alienation. It is the experience that one is alienated from other, not an integral part of a family, circle of friends, or other valued group.
“They may feel as though no one cares about them and that there is no one in their lives to whom they can turn. To the contrary, it has been estimated that the average suicide decedent leaves behind 6 and 10 people whom they were in close relationships; these survivors of suicide experience extreme grief. … Many of the people who die by suicide had misperceived their lack of connection.
“Even a relatively modest increase in social support could reduce suicidal desire. This additional support can come in the form of friends or relatives checking in regularly with the suicidal person either by phone or in person or making plans to engage in pleasant activities with that person.”
Regarding Combat Veterans
Perhaps, for some combat veterans, these three elements coincide:
- Capability – Because of their training and combat experience, they have the capability of death/self-injury.
- Burdensomeness –Because of actions they took in combat for which they feel responsible and/or perception at home that the war is useless, they believe they are worthless or even dangerous. Or, because of the severity of their injuries they may believe they have become an intolerable burden of care for their family. Or, possibly because they cannot find useful employment outside the military they feel they are a burden to society. As a result, they begin to believe that the world, their family and their friends are better off without them.
- Lack of Belongingness – Once home, they are disconnected and isolated from their military buddies, who particularly would understand them, and from their friends and family, who cannot or don’t want to understand them.
When these three elements are evident, the veteran could find themselves walking on the edge of the precipice. Then an event happens, out of the blue, which is enough of a blow or crisis that falling off the edge is an easy, quick step: loss of a relationship or life goal, failure in a key job function, etc.
Think About It:
- What kinds of crises have you experienced that could have precipitated suicide, if the three elements (capability, burdensomeness, lack of belongingness) were already in place?
- How do you think removal of any one of those three elements would help move a person off the critical edge of the precipice?
How this applies to The Six Man Project
One of the unique aspects of combat is the tight relationship developed within the combat units.
Military men and women train together, they deploy together, they fight battles together and protect their buddies. They even may die for each other.
What happens then when they separate from the military? Or in the Reserves or National Guard, they redeploy returning not to a base, but their home towns? Those who know them best and understand most completely what they’ve experienced, feel and think, are now disconnected from them, across the state or even the country. They may assume everyone is doing well. Occasional contact via Facebook updates, emails, or calls may convince them that, unlike themselves, everyone has got it together and living their post-military life successfully.
Their family and friends are beyond glad that they are home, but are unable to understand what their life was like … nor do they really want them to. After all, they fought for their families to protect them from that horrible reality. So a major part of their life gets locked away in a compartment, where it doesn’t lie dormant, but festers and morphs into a hidden monster, which comes out in nightmares and flashbacks.
The reality is that suicide among veterans is escalating, especially among Vietnam veterans. So we asked ourselves, “What can we do that isn’t already being done?”
The element of “lack of belongingness” seemed to stand out. So The Six Man Project was born. The goal is not to provide suicide intervention through this website or provide a hot line number, but to equip and encourage believers in those units to reach out, intentionally and purposefully, to their buddies… to work to change the belief that their buddies are alone and disconnected and useless. Ultimately to reveal to them that the most important place of belonging is as a child of the Commander of the Hosts of Heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The goal is to help eliminate one of the three elements which set the stage for suicide: lack of belongingness.
Resources and Articles
These books by Dr. Thomas Joiner can be found in our Recommended Resources page.
- Myths About Suicide, 2011.
- Why People Die By Suicide, 2007
- The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, 2009
Video of a presentation made by Dr. Thomas Joiner on the Myths of Suicide. The question and answer time afterward was just as useful!
Great story on the I Am Second website by John Botts, a wounded warrior who attempted suicide. I found it interesting to read his story after all I’ve learned about why people die by suicide.