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Suicide: The Social Causes of Self-Destruction


Suicide is the most destructive thing that most people will encounter.  It can destroy families.  But It can save others.  It can also be a powerful statement that can be used to transform the world.  The question that Suicide: The Social Causes of Self-Destruction aims to answer are the motivations and desired outcomes people have for ending their lives.

Cry for Help

Attempted suicide is a cry for help.  Signals sent about suicidal ideation are a cry for help.  The question is what is it a cry for help for?  In other words, what is it that the person is seeking to change?  Are they seeking to change their personal pain, which Shneidman calls “psychache?”  (See The Suicidal Mind.)  Are they instead trying to right a moral injustice that they are partially or completely impacted by?

When Mohamed Bouazizi died by self-immolation (setting himself on fire), he did so out of both personal despair as well as a strong statement about a corrupt and harmful system.  Bouazizi was successful in his societal quest, setting off a series of protests and political changes across multiple countries that would be called Arab Spring.

Self-Control via Punishment

Another direction that we can see suicide come from is the results of self-control through punishment.  Some people have a degree of self-hate and frustration that causes them to create punishments for themselves like they might do to others.  It may be depriving themselves of their favorite activity, assigning themselves more work, or other attempts to internally implement the kind of social controls for their behaviors (and thoughts) that they feel are lacking.

The problem with this approach is that they’re forced to be their own enforcer.  This means they’re left with no one – not even themselves – to turn to for comfort or to support them while they’re struggling.  Tragically, some of those struggles end in suicide.

Economic Value

Society today – and perhaps in the past as well – has valued what we do more than what we are.  Though we’re called “human beings,” most people struggle to just be.  We’ve got a strong bias towards action that leads people to believe that they should be called “human doings.”  (See Change, Antifragile, and Cognition and Suicide for more.)  It’s no surprise then that when people retire, become unemployed, or become disabled, their risk of suicide spikes.

It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to change society to value people on their intrinsic merit rather than what they can or will do.

Falling Behind

Since the 1940s, the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses” has entered popular use.  It refers to our desire to acquire the same material positions as our neighbors.  Daniel Kahneman’s work shows that our measure of doing well isn’t driven in abstract terms but rather by the degree to which we’re seen as doing better than our neighbors.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow.)  Even in cases where we’re keeping the status quo, if we see our neighbors, contemporaries, or Facebook friends doing better, we’ll feel the same sense of loss and inadequacy as if we had really started a backwards slide.


Sometimes, it isn’t a material challenge that creates a problem.  Sometimes, the challenge is a claim that damages our reputation – false or not.  While in large towns, it’s possible to escape the velocity and voracity of reputation, those in small villages, towns, and communities realize that reputation changes swiftly permeate the community, and once those perceptions have been formed, they’re permanent.  Nothing is as good as new gossip.  Nothing can make someone forget an accusation, whether true or false.

This sets up a situation where you’re not able to make mistakes, because they’ll always be with you and creates a sense that once you’re alienated that you’ll always be alienated – even if you don’t see that you’ve done anything to deserve it.

Marital Conflict

As I covered in my review of Divorce, in the United States and most of Western Europe, divorce has become much easier to obtain.  That has freed many from the bonds of a marriage that is abusive or simply leaves people with a sense that they’re not connected.  This creates a pathway to freedom for both spouses.

In some countries and cultures, the same cannot be said.  Sometimes, lopsided rules allow for men to have mistresses and initiate divorce, where women are perceived as property and have no freedom for sex outside their marriage or the capacity to divorce.  (See Anatomy of Love for more.)

Arranged marriages mean that neither party feels good about the arrangement, but men’s options are frequently broader.  This sometimes traps women and causes them to use their life as the last bargaining chip.  They know that their suicide will cause the community to consider whether the husband was being fair or not.  Sometimes, at least there are repercussions for the husband.


In my review of The Available Parent, I shared the story of the manager whose child was playing soccer because he missed out on a scholarship.  He decided that his daughter would help him live his dreams.  I’ve long since lost track of him – but I wonder how much he accepted her as an individual separate from him, who could make her own decisions as she grew.

There’s some degree of enmeshment.  (See The Gift of Failure.)  He can’t see how she’s a different person than he is.  As a result, he’s likely to apply his judgement of himself to her – and that’s not fair.  There’s a common refrain from children that are overtly loved but have trouble making their own choices that parents should just accept them for who they are.

Suicide may be seen as the only way to escape their perceived control or persecution because the children aren’t making the choices that the parents want.

Relationships are a Zero-Sum Game

Have you ever noticed that when your friends get into a new romantic relationship, whether that’s dating or marriage, they seem to pull back from friendships?  It’s not you.  It’s not intentional.  You’re not imagining it.  Robin Dunbar spoke of the number of stable social relationships of primates – including humans – and said there is a number of relationships that we can maintain.  (See High Orbit – Respecting Grieving for more.)

Once we reach our capacity for relationships, any new relationship we form requires energy to maintain.  Maintaining that energy takes away from some other part of our lives – primarily, the relationships with others.  Certainly, there are some people who aren’t at their capacity for relationships – particularly in terms of time – but for many of us, to intensify a relationship requires that another must de-intensify.

This is why new romantic relationships can strangle out existing ones and destroy marriages.


If we want to be the most resistant to the pulls of suicide, one of the best approaches is not just strong relationships but a degree of interdependence on others.  The completely independent person would not need to worry about their impact on others.  They can stay inside their mind and decide that suicide is the best option.  However, when others will be caused hardship by your loss, it creates an opportunity to reach out to them – and to be dissuaded.  Mothers, with the exceptions of those caused by incest and rape, are less likely to die by suicide.  There’s a dependent who needs them; even if they themselves are feeling miserable, they know they need to help their baby.

Similarly, the degree of risk in close-knit groups is lower (but not zero).  The kind of relationship that creates the interdependence isn’t the primary concern.  What is the primary concern is the presence or absence of these relationships.

Homicide with a Willing Victim

Too many suicides slip into the range of being careless or reckless with one’s life.  Whether it’s the person who drives their car too fast, the motorcyclist who takes the curves while the bike is sliding out from under them, or the person who takes risks in other ways, not caring whether you live or die is relatively indistinguishable from any other form of suicide.

Too many suicides, whether suicide by cop or jumping in front of a train, creates a situation where someone must commit homicide and kill the willing victim.  In many cases, it cannot be avoided.  Once a train is moving, it’s impossible to stop quickly.  However, these often traumatize the engineers who know it was their train that killed the person – even if that was their intent.

Maybe it’s time we look further back from the intent of suicide into the social factors that led the person to the precipice in the first place.  Maybe it’s time to stop the conditions that create the desire for Suicide.