Examining why suicide may feel like the only answer
Opinion by Doaa Morsy Abdel Kader
Trigger warning: this article discusses suicide and suicidal ideation which may be triggering for some. Please navigate away from this page if you are affected by this topic.
Only by talking about it do we begin to understand suicidal ideation, and help us choose life instead.
We tend to link suicide and suicidal thoughts to depression or mental illness, and in doing so, making these experiences seem taboo or other.
In reality, it is common throughout our lives to have suicidal thoughts. A recent study, that added up results of several studies on suicidal ideation during the Covid pandemic, found that suicidal thoughts occurred in 12.1% of the general population.
There is apprehension about examining this aspect of life maybe for the fear of romanticising it and causing more harm, for the fear of analysing our own unexamined feelings, or for the fear that the more we talk about it, the more people do it.
This article attempts to cast a light on suicide and suicidal ideation from a psychological perspective, so that the more we learn about the role that suicide plays in our lives, the greater chance there is that it loses its power, helping us make conscious decisions to choose life.
A manner of coping
Suicide is complex, and various theories try to explain why people make this difficult choice that goes against our basic instinct to survive. One of the agreed-upon facts about suicide and suicidal ideation is that, at its heart, it is a way to deal with pain that feels unbearable and so relentless that self-destruction seems the only outlet. The mind becomes constricted, unable to cope or see other solutions than death.
According to Edward Shneidman, an American clinical psychologist who spent his career understanding and preventing suicidality, suicide is caused by ‘psychache’. He theorised that the most important element in understanding suicide is that it is caused by the intrinsic, psychological hurt of excessively felt shame, guilt, loneliness, or whatever aches the mind and that is deemed unbearable by the person. Rather than choosing to end one’s life, the choice should be to find relief from the pain, but suicide becomes a way to escape from this surmountable pain, and hence a way to cope.
Psychodynamic theories, which focus on our early attachment to our caregivers and how they are represented internally in our mind, view this pain on an unconscious level. They see suicide as ‘anger turned inwards.’ If our early experiences have caused us to feel abandoned, hurt, or angry, we direct these feelings towards ourselves; perceiving oneself as ‘bad’ and protecting our caregivers who hurt or fail us, so they remain ‘good’. Instead of communicating our anger, hurt or frustrations towards our caregivers and risk losing our connection to them, we release these feelings into ourselves. So, thoughts or actions of self-destruction become a misplaced outlet of our rage, shame, and unmet needs.
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Hopelessness and a lack of connection
Looking at our thoughts and beliefs, cognitive theory views hopelessness as the core of suicidality.
Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, proposed that suicidal ideation results from a negative view of life and the future, and hopelessness about any changes occurring. Without hope or trust in positive change, suicidal thoughts give a false sense of hope for change when all else seems overwhelmingly hopeless.
Another important aspect of understanding suicide is our social connections, and our sense of belonging. If suicide is viewed as an internal drama, connection is the stage on which it unfolds. Humans need connection to survive; as we connect to others around us, we grow in our sense of self, in regulating our feelings, and in gaining support.
Without connection and without investment in our coping and resilience, our pain becomes intolerable. If, within our families or larger society, we repeatedly experience loss of control, moral or social oppression, isolation, helplessness, and hopelessness, it chips away at our abilities to cope and connect.
An interpersonal view of suicide presents two psychological states that relate to suicidality:
Thwarted belonging – feeling lonely, unsupported, and isolated; and
Perception of being a burden – believing we are a burden to others, which can foster the development of self-hatred.
Suicidal thoughts are at times signals for a need for connection, for a sense of power and agency over our lives, and for support.
Finding another way
Suicide might be that green sign over the exit door that provides light during our dark times. It lulls us in with a false allure of relief or power which we turn to as an escape from our struggles and difficult emotions.
With time, that green light might become our only source of hope; a false promise of change or agency. But the more we turn towards it, the more we turn away from ourselves and from our pain that wants us to grow and to have our needs met.
It is important then, during our dark times, to find other sources of light and understand what lies underneath our suicidal thoughts. Through the help of therapy, professional support, and our social circles, we can find relief from the pain, comfort in support and build agency over our emotions and our lives. We can make that choice to invest in our own growth and healing, rather than ignore our pain and think only of escape.