Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why People Attempt Suicide

April 24, 1995

Dr. Roy Baumeister, psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio has outlined a theory of suicidal death. The following questions and answers are based on his research and ideas.

Why do people attempt or commit suicide? A desire to escape from painful thoughts, emotions and self-awareness motivates the vast majority of suicides from psychological causes. Personal or family honor motivates other types of suicide, but these are rare in our culture.

How does a person get to a suicidal state of mind? Baumeister outlines six steps on the way to suicidal thinking.

1. A current situation falls far below a person’s expectations. There are either unrealistic high expectations or recent setbacks, specific failures and stresses - or a combination of both. If expectations are low, setbacks won't produce suicide. If events are unusually bad, risk of suicide increases. It is the scope of difference between expectations and events that causes the problem. Societies that emphasize individual pride, shame, and self-awareness have higher rates of suicide.

2. Personal blame is assumed for disappointments. This is especially true when the self-blaming person believes their undesirable shortcomings are permanent and are likely to cause future difficulties. A person may compare their behavior unfavorably with past levels of higher performance or believes he or she cannot live up to what other people expect.

3. A painful state of mind is created when a person judges themself as inadequate, incompetent, unattractive or guilty. Feelings of low self-esteem and powerlessness are common. Suicidal people see others in a favorable light in contrast to their own harsh assessment of themselves.

4. Bad feelings result when they unfavorably compare themselves against their own standards. The most common emotions are depression and anxiety, though anger may also be present. They fail to redefine a setback in a more positive light or make the changes necessary to meet a new reality.

5. In an attempt to escape from bad feelings, people try to stop meaningful thought. An individual hopes to feel better by either ceasing to feel emotion, ceasing to blame oneself for recent events or ceasing to be aware of self. By refusing meaningful thought, they stop all three. This results in emotional emptiness and numbness, something like boredom.

When negative emotions and thoughts break through, increasingly stronger means are tried to stop or block them. Suicide edges closer and closer as a solution for unbearable feelings.

6. Avoiding meaningful thought lowers inhibitions which makes suicide attempts easier. Avoiding thoughts about social and religious norms, obligations to others and desires for the future removes internal barriers to particular actions. Actions no longer have the meaning they once did.

What does a person do to stop meaningful thought? They become passive about long term goals and important decisions. They stop striving and avoid decisions, responsibilities and planning. Their behavior becomes more aimless, mindless or impulsive. They show a lack of emotion - especially positive emotion. They are either bored or vaguely unhappy.

  • Focus is on the present, on immediate tasks and details and on concrete situations.
  • Taking meaningful, constructive action is resisted. They stop trying new things and are unwilling to explore alternatives.
  • Reasoning become rigid. They avoid new thoughts, ideas or interpretations.
  • Wishful thought, irrational thought or fantasy is preferred. Fantasy allows the mind to escape the immediate present and is an alternative to dealing with the real meanings in one's life.

When people achieve a low level of thinking and emotions, they are less rational and have reduced inhibitions. Death in the short run seems preferable to emotional suffering and the painful awareness of being inadequate. Long range implications of death are not considered because of the short term focus. Preoccupation with suicide or a suicidal plan gets the person involved with "here and now" details and techniques while eliminating the need to think about the future. The past doesn't matter either because it has nearly ended and will no longer cause grief, worry or anxiety.

What are the more positive ways of reacting to trauma? A long term response to trauma involves searching for higher meaning to explain changed situations. Religion and/or belief in oneself helps to show the way to find new meaning and consolation in misfortune. Instead of retreating from thought and bad feelings, a traumatized person can actively try to understand the new circumstance and place it into a larger, more hopeful context.

How can a suicidal person be helped? Intervention can be directed at breaking any link in the chain that leads from disappointment and failure to a suicidal attempt. A traumatized person can be helped by learning to have realistic expectations, take blame off themselves and build self-esteem, search for higher meaning about setbacks, see the future in a more positive light, reacquaint themselves with their normal fears and beliefs about death, accept family responsibilities and other duties, strengthen family ties and social bonds, be more effective in managing negative feelings and take a more meaningful perspective on their own actions.

Suicidal people need to think, talk and face themselves and the problem rather than retreating into a self-defeating attempt to shut down their minds and emotions.