Suicide is a definite problem in the United States. This problem does not seem to get as much attention as it deserves, nor does it get addressed. The facts in this paper attempt to describe the problem of suicide in the elderly and in youth, warning signs, what to do to ëhelpí a suicidal person, and finally, a description of what the suicidal person may be feeling.
Few citizens know that suicide takes more victims than does homicide. In fact, in 1992, suicide took the lives of 30,484 Americans. On an average day, 84 people die from suicide and an estimated 1900 adults attempt it. Males are at least 5 times more likely to die from suicide than are females; females, however, are more likely to attempt it. It seems that males choose more definite successful and aggressive means than do females (e.g. guns, etc.). This is proven by the fact that 60% of all suicides are committed with a firearm. In fact, in 1992, white males accounted for 73% of all suicides. Together, white males and females accounted for almost 91%. Another peculiar fact is that suicide rates are generally higher than the national average in the western states and lower in the eastern and midwestern states. Facts for what the reasons are, are not known.
Suicide rates increase with age. In fact, these rates are highest among Americans 65 years and older. Again, men accounted for 81% of these suicides (65 yrs. and older). These rates are recently increasing. From 1980-1992 came the largest increase in suicide rates among those aged 80 to 84. This was an increase of 35%. In the elderly rates of suicide, the most common method of suicide used was firearms; these rates were 74% for men, and 31% by women. Another pattern seen for the elderly was that suicide rates are highest among those who are divorced or widowed. In 1992, the rate for divorced or widowed men in this age group was 2.7 times that for married women, 1.4 times that for never-married men, and over 17 times that for married women. The rate for divorced or widowed women was 1.8 times that for married women and 1.4 times that for never-married women.
Suicide among the young is also a problem. Persons under the age of 25 years accounted for 16.4% of all suicides in 1992. From 1952-1992, the incidence of suicide among adolescents and young adults nearly tripled. From 1980-1992, the rate of suicide among those 15-19 years increased by 18.3% and among 10-14 years by 120%. The greatest increase was for African-American maleís aged 15-19. The rate increased 165.3%. For the entire age group of 15-24 years, suicide is the leading cause of death (behind unintentional injury and homicide). In 1992, more teenagers and young adults died from suicide than died from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia and influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. Again, firearm-related suicides accounted for 81% of the increase in the overall rate of suicide from 1980-1992. It was also found that living in a household where a firearm is kept are almost 5 times more likely to die by suicide than people who live in gun-free homes. In this age range, it has been found again that white males are at the greatest risk of committing suicide, although the most recent increase has been found among young African-American males.
Since suicide is a prevalent problem in the United States, one might wonder what can be done to help prevent it, and to educate the general public about it. A common list of warning signs has been created by various agencies to help people become more aware. The following is a list of warning signs distributed by the American Association of Suicidology: A suicidal person might be suicidal if he/she:
If the basic ordering of adolescent experience is life, then what brings a youth to see suicide as a solution to his or her problems? What happens within young people to bring them to such a point of despair that they no longer want to live? And how does taking one's life become a solution to a youth just embarking on adulthood?
Suicide as a solution is a turbulent one at best. The suicidal state has a conflicting polar structure to it. In a suicidal state, both the forces of life and the forces of death have a pulling and pushing effect on the troubled adolescent. The forces of life pull the adolescent to hang on to life. The memories of good times and good things plus the hope of such in the future create an attraction to life. Yet at the same time, when there is an accumulation of troubles, perceived failures and pain, life can become an enemy of itself. The power of its attraction to goodness turns into repulsion through the aversive powers of pain. This is the pushing away of life.
To the adolescent struggling with suicide, death has the same polar structure as life. Death has a pull and a push. The pull and push of death is juxtaposed to the pull and push of life. The pull of life--an attraction to life--mobilizes the pushing dynamic of death. The more life is experienced as attractive, the more death is viewed as an enemy, robbing one of goodness. Death pushes the individual away. But when life becomes adversive and the pain repulses the youth from engaging life, then death progressively becomes more attractive as an escape from the pain. Death now has a pull.
With hope vanished, death now takes on an attraction. This is the paradoxical shift. Death, which is usually perceived as the enemy of life and the living, now comes along as a friend. Death becomes a way out, a solution to the insurmountable problem. The attraction of death is found within the death fantasy. The death fantasy is the scenario put together by the struggling adolescent. In the fantasy, the adolescent casts his or her frustrated, unmet needs and desires into a scenario where they are finally met in death. For some, the death fantasy becomes the solution to their seemingly unresolvable problems. For others, the repulsion becomes a suicidal impulse. Unfortunately, for a growing number of adolescents, the death fantasy or impulse collapses into the reality of death.
The fact is, like it or not, educators will face suicidal youth and youth suicide. The issue is how? Here are some pertinent facts:
*Female suicide attempts outnumber males 3 to 1, while male completions
outnumber females 5 to 1.
*One study found the single factor with the highest correlation to suicidal risk is a history of previous attempts.
*Among youth suicide attempters, there was a tenfold increase in substance use and 30% drank before attempt.
*Among young suicide completers, 70% used drugs frequently, 50% had alcohol in their blood and 75% fit criteria for drug or alcohol use disorders.
*Patros and Shamoo (1989) cite a study that 23% of youth suicides occurred just before the victim's birthday.
*Runeson (1992) reported that less than 50% of suicidal youth consult a mental health professional prior to committing suicide.
As the number of youth struggling with living or dying increases, suicide has become a problem that has come to school. In the past decade, a spate of articles has addressed the issue. Cases of suicidal contagion and multiple suicide have further heightened the concern of educators, parents and community professionals. This rise in concern makes it all the more important that the nature of youth suicide be understood so that school personnel can identify, screen, intervene and appropriately refer, as well as support, treated students.
One challenge in understanding the ambivalent and paradoxical nature of adolescent suicide is that it has no specific cause. Also, there does not seem to be a suicidal "type" of personality. There are personality types more prone to or resilient to suicide, but none that are specifically suicidal. If suicide does not seem to be caused by one specific thing or to result from a specific personality type, how does one begin to understand it?
Near the end of his career (1993), Edwin Shneidman, the patriarch of the modern study of suicide in America, summarized that the cause of suicide is psychache. Psychache is the internal psychological pain of excessively felt shame, or guilt, or humiliation, or loneliness, or fear, or angstÖor whatever. Suicide occurs when the psychache is deemed by the person to be unbearableÖSuicide relates to psychological needs in that suicide is a specific way to stop the unbearable psychachial flow of the mind.
Furthermore, what causes this pain is the blockage, thwarting, or frustrating of certain psychological needs believed by that person (at that time and in those circumstances) to be vital to continue life.
Shneidman goes on to say that suicide and psychache are also related to happiness--or rather the lack of it. By happiness, he does not mean the popular understanding of mundane happiness of comfort, pain, avoidance, and psychological anesthesia. On the contrary, he speaks of the magical happiness of ecstasy, zest consuming exuberance that one experiences best in benign childhood. Happiness is related to suicide to the same extent a young person has lost the inner magical joy and zest of the child within.
Our group endeavored to discuss suicide and several of its implications including ethics, types of suicide, youth suicide, reasons people commit suicide, and treatments for suicidal people. We also included some personal testimonies to complement as well as add realism, relevance and impact to the presentation. The presentation was opened with a statistically-based introduction. I personally shared my experience to add immediacy; I wanted to get away from textbook explanations and impersonal statistics so the audience could put a face to the numbers they heard. My goal was not just to inform, but also to involve emotionally. Based on the feedback received, this goal was attained (the feedback will be discussed later in this essay).
The presentation went reasonably smoothly once we were delivering our speeches, but the meetings of members beforehand is another story. Due to the nature and scope of this topic, there was much to cover. There were six of us involved, and setting up times to meet that fit within everybodyís schedules was difficult. For this reason, our "group" presentation evolved into something like six individuals addressing different facets of the same topic in close chronological proximity, which proved effective nonetheless. The presentation, however, was not without snags. For example, since we had some difficulty organizing meetings, we were somewhat unclear on exactly what each member was covering until quite close to the scheduled presentation date. For this reason, some points were emphasized more than others.
Another residual problem caused by the aforementioned reasons was time allotment. Since we did not know (in much detail) how much each member had to say during his/her respective slot, we had no time-defined boundaries to observe. Thus, we ran out of time and Bill ended up being rushed (I did apologize to him for the time I spoke, but he truly was not bothered at all). Aside from these issues, the presentation was quite smooth.
To summarize the main points/ideas we presented, I offer the following: Jenny introduced the topic, stated our five main points, and offered some background statistics; Richard discussed teen/youth suicide; Joy illustrated and defined four types of suicide as described in Kastenbaumís text; Jody discussed therapies available for suicidal patients; Bill relayed a personal experience as well as some points regarding the ethical implications of suicide; and I discussed various reasons people attempt and precursors to suicide. I also used my own life experience as illustration and support. For further explanation, please see the attached copy of the five main points our group offered.
To address the feedback our group received is certainly my pleasure. Before we even received any write-ups from students, many approached me to shake my hand, tell me that I touched them or made a difference in how they view this condition as well as people they have known who suffered from it; two people actually hugged me! After I spoke the class broke into applause although the presentation was not actually over. I cannot tell you how good this made me (and makes me) feel.
As for the written feedback, it too was very positive. Not one person wrote a criticism of any kind; however, one student suggested breaking it down into two presentations. The following is a sample of some things people wrote. As you read these, please know that the absence of any criticisms is not due to my bias; I am not ignoring the criticism. The reason no criticisms are included in this sample is that there were none. Many people personally thanked me and commended me for my courage and honesty. One girl thanked me "for being real and not transparent". Another was "not left with any questions, just respect." I also received thanks via e-mail. I truly am amazed at the impact I had on the audience. Their feedback shows that I did not just give them a bunch of information to touch them intellectually, but I also managed to touch them emotionally.
Description of Research
I know little about the research done by each member. What I do know
is that both Rich and Bill made good use of the internet. Bill also had
his own personal resources. Joy used the Kastenbaum text. Jody used (as
one source) Davison & Nealeís Abnormal Psychology, and
I used references obtained from psych-lit, the above mentioned text, and
my own experience. I do not know if anyone had information they did not
include. I had a surplus of studies so I opted for the most relevant to
be included in my segment.
(1) Judeo/Christian faiths
- Catholics, Protestants, and Jews are taught that suicide is morally wrong!
(a) Saint Augustine (426 AD) (Suicide precludes the opportunity to repent others sins. "Thou shall not kill", the Six Commandment in the Bible.
(b) Saint Thomas Aquinas (1279AD) argued that "God and only God has the power to grant life and death. Suicide is sinful because it represents a revolt against the ordained order of the universe.
(c) John Locke refused to include self-destruction as one of the inherent
liberties: "Everyone …is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his
1. The intertwining of the church and the state once made it easy to regard suicide as both.
2. Through the years, the civil and divine realms of authority have become more independent. In most cases now, suicide is seen as a crime but not necessarily a sin.
3. Through the years, the interpretation of suicide as a crime is waning, criminal laws either have been erased from the books or they are not vigorously enforced.
4. Decriminalization of suicide is based upon the realization that such
penalties have not served as effective deterrents, and that few people
were willing to enforce the laws.
2. Many people go through disturbed periods without attempting suicide.
3. Some people use the "Social Darwinism" approach to justify a person
who has attempted or committing suicide being weak.
2. Zen Masters have shown how a person might pass admirably from this life. The discipline and devotion of the Masters appealed to the warriors, thus we have the "samurai" and later through the centuries the kamikaze pilots of WWII.
3. "Seppuku" is a traditional form of suicide in Japan,
It is better known in the West as "hara-kiri."
2. Much earlier in history, there is evidence that the harshness of life made suicide an appealing option to many.
"Stoicism", a philosophical position that was enunciated
in ancient Athens and Rome and has since become virtually a synonym for
rational control, was in actuality a last defense against the murderous
squalor of Rome itself.
2. There are a number of factors that could cause a person to be suicidal; every one of these factors, to some degree, is treatable. Being suicidal is not a disease, but a symptom of another problem.
3. According to Robert J. Kastenbaum, the four types of suicide are egoistic, altruistic, anomic, and fatalistic.
4. The question of morality and the ethics of suicide lie entirely within the individual. We ask you to question yourself what your beliefs are regarding this issue.
5. Be aware of the problem of suicide, and also try to
be conscious of any warning signs and what to do/not to do if such a situation