No single explanation can account for all self-destructive behavior.
Edwin Shneidman, a clinical psychologist who is a leading authority
on suicide, described ten characteristics that are commonly associated
with completed suicide. Schneidman's list includes features that occur
most frequently and may help us understand many cases of suicide.
1. The common purpose of suicide is to seek a solution.
Suicide is not a pointless or random act. To people who
think about ending their own lives, suicide represents an
answer to an otherwise insoluble problem or a way
out of some unbearable dilemma. It is a choice that
is somehow preferable to another set of dreaded circumstances,
emotional distress, or disability, which the person fears more
Attraction to suicide as a potential solution may be increased
by a family history of similar behavior. If someone else whom
the person admired or cared for has committed suicide, then the
person is more likely to do so.
2. The common goal of suicide is cessation of consciousness.
People who commit suicide seek the end of the conscious experience,
which to them has become an endless stream of distressing thoughts
with which they are preoccupied. Suicide offers oblivion.
3. The common stimulus (or information input) in
suicide is intolerable psychological pain.
Excruciating negative emotions - including shame, guilt,
anger, fear, and sadness - frequently serve as the foundation
for self-destructive behavior. These emotions may arise
from any number of sources.
4. The common stressor in suicide is frustrated
People with high standards and expectations are
especially vulnerable to ideas of suicide when progress
toward these goals is suddenly frustrated. People who attribute
failure or disappointment to their own shortcomings may come to
view themselves as worthless, incompetent or unlovable.
Family turmoil is an especially important source of frustration
to adolescents. Occupational and interpersonal
difficulties frequently precipitate suicide among adults.
For example, rates of suicide increase during periods of high
unemployment (Yang et al.,1992).
5. The common emotion in suicide is hopelessness-helplessness.
A pervasive sense of hopelessness, defined in terms of pessimistic
expectations about the future, is even more important than other
forms of negative emotion, such as anger and depression, in
predicting suicidal behavior (Weishaar & Beck, 1992).
The suicidal person is convinced that absolutely nothing can be
done to improve his or her situation; no one else can help.
6. The common internal attitude in suicide is ambivalence.
Most people who contemplate suicide, including those who eventually
kill themselves, have ambivalent feelings about this decision.
They are sincere in their desire to die, but they simultaneously
wish that they could find another way out of their dilemma.
7. The common cognitive state in suicide is constriction.
Suicidal thoughts and plans are frequently associated
with a rigid and narrow pattern of cognitive activity
that is comparable to tunnel vision. The suicidal person is
temporarily unable or unwilling to engage in effective
problem-solving behaviors and may see his or her options
in extreme, all or nothing terms. As Shneidman points out, slogans
such as "death before dishonor" may have a certain
emotional appeal, but they do not provide a sensible basis for
making decisions about how to lead your life.
8. The common action in suicide is escape.
Suicide provides a definitive way to escape from intolerable
circumstances, which include painful
self-awareness (Baumeister, 1990).
9. The common interpersonal act in suicide is communication
One of the most harmful myths about suicide is the notion
that people who really want to kill themselves don't talk
about it. Most people who commit suicide have told other
people about their plans. Many have made previous suicidal
gestures. Schneidman estimates that in at least 80 percent
of completed suicides, the people provide verbal or behavioral
clues that indicate clearly their lethal intentions.
10. The common consistency in suicide is with
life-long coping patterns.
During crisis that precipitate suicidal thoughts, people
generally employ the same response patterns that they
have used throughout their lives. For example, people who
have refused to ask for help in the past are likely to persist
in that pattern, increasing their sense of isolation.