That’s Men: Suicide a sad and lonely act that can have many explanations, or none at all

Tue, Jun 11, 2013, 01:00

I have been hearing about more and more cases of suicide lately. Some are related to the recession, some to more traditional triggers such as depression and some have come out of the blue.

One of the conclusions I have come to is that it is impossible to make any statement about suicide that holds true for all cases. For instance, some people seem to withdraw before they take their lives but others have been fully engaged with friends and family before the dreadful event.

It seems to me that the only statements we can make about suicide begin with the word “sometimes”. Here is my list:

Sometimes suicide is impulsive. We can be fairly sure of this from US research showing that sometimes the decision and the act of suicide are separated by minutes, not hours.

This, of course, is exacerbated by the gun culture in the US but here in Ireland we sometimes hear of people taking their lives apparently impulsively. This, it seems to me, is one of the most frightening aspects of suicide.

Sometimes people who die by suicide are ambivalent about taking their lives. Why else do people (thankfully) ring up helplines before they act? And why have many people interrupted in the act gone on to live full lives?

Inexplicable action
Sometimes suicide is completely inexplicable. We hear of these suicides all the time: people who have everything going for them, who seem to be in fine form and who go and take their lives to the utter dismay of all around them. I suspect a concealed depression or despair in many of these cases but I cannot know.

Sometimes suicide is motivated by shame. This has been suggested (by a psychiatrist who treated army veterans) as an explanation for the shocking levels of suicide among US veterans. But I suspect this is also at work in some of the suicides that arose from our own economic catastrophe.

Sometimes suicide seems the only way out. What seems to happen here is that a person gradually rejects every solution to their problems except suicide. The conclusion that suicide is the only way out is irrational. This is obvious to outsiders but not to the person who is trapped in this blinkered thinking.

Sometimes people who take their own lives also have a longing for life. This also is why many people heading towards suicide will, nonetheless, engage with counsellors, helplines and relatives or friends. It is also why acknowledging people’s suicidal intentions, by explicitly asking them if they are suicidal, can be very helpful and effective.

Sometimes people just can’t face what the future holds. I suspect this is often behind the suicide of older people afflicted by bereavement, loneliness or pain.

Meticulous planning
Sometimes suicide is meticulously planned. Many people think about suicide but it is those who actively plan their suicide who are at huge risk. That is why it is a good idea to ask a person who is talking about suicide if they have made plans. If the answer is ‘Yes’, the situation is very serious.

Sometimes suicide spreads like a virus. We have all heard of clusters of suicide that were never reported in the media. It is truly frightening that knowledge of the suicide of others whom one has never met, in some cases, can lead to the taking of one’s own life.

Sometimes the culture increases the likelihood of suicide. Is it a coincidence that suicide has risen as concepts such as solidarity and community have been pushed back by rampant individualism, for example, I’m alright Jack, I’ve got my iPod here to connect with and I don’t need you? What does the Traveller culture, especially the taboo on admitting to and discussing mental health problems, contribute to the high rate of suicide in that culture?

What is the use of all this? Perhaps if we are to get to grips with suicide, we need to acknowledge that this sad and lonely act can have many explanations. And, sometimes, no explanation at all.

Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@ is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living, is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.

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