Content Analysis of Suicide Notes as a Test of the Motivational Component of the Existential-Constructivist Model of Suicide

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most predictable response following a suicide is a search for motive. For example, the suicide of Judas Iscariot in 33 AD has been seen as being motivated by self-punishment, whereas the death of Socrates in 399 BC has been interpreted as an act intended to exert rational control over death (Rogers, 2001a). Similarly, Fine (1997) has suggested that searching for the "why" of a loved one's suicide is a major component of the struggle of survivors in the aftermath of suicide. From a more scientific perspective, motivational aspects are often embedded in classification schemes for suicide and suicidal behavior. Durkheim's (1897/1951) sociological classification suggested that suicide is motivated by aspects of one's position in or relationship to society at different levels; Shneidman's (1987) Cubic Model identified Murray's (1938) needs as providing the underlying psychological motivation for suicidal acts. Edland and Duncan (1973) provided a classification of motives that included retaliatory abandonment, retroflexed murder, reunion, rebirth, and self-punishment. Finally, Tanney (as cited in Maris, Berman, & Silverman, 2000) has listed rescue, reunion, respite, rigidity, gamble, rebirth, revenge, riddance, and reparation as reasons or motives for suicide. Thus, the search for motivational explanations of suicidal behavior is an important endeavor, regardless of whether one takes a philosophical, sociological, psychological, or lay perspective.

From a psychological perspective, suicide notes have been used inductively as a medium for identifying motivational aspects of suicidal behavior. For example, the classification system developed by Edland and Duncan (1973) emerged from their content analysis of more than 300 suicide notes. Similarly, the analyses of notes provided the basis for Shneidman's (1987) suicide commonalities and the related motivational aspects of the Cubic Model. Following a more deductive process, Leenaars (1988) used suicide notes to test theory-derived statements, some of which contained motivational content. Although the use of suicide notes to develop and/or test theoretical constructs, including motivation, is not without controversy, Marls et al. (2000) suggested that "when they do provide thematic insight into the motive and intent of the writer, they often do so with remarkable clarity" (p. 274).

Recently, Rogers (2001a, 2001b) presented an existential-constructivist theoretical model for understanding suicide and suicidal behavior (see Figure 1). This theoretical model, grounded in the existential theory of Yalom (1980) and critical constructivism, as outlined by Mahoney (1991) and Neimeyer and Mahoney (1995), represents a meaning-based theoretical approach to suicidal behavior. Thus, the Existential-Constructivist Model suggests that the existential concerns related to death, the inherent meaninglessness, of existence, and existential isolation provide the underlying, albeit distal, motivation for the construction of meaning.


Rogers, Anderson, Bromley, and Kreitz (2001) have taken the general existential-constructivist theory and derived a more proximal four-factor motivational model (see Figure 2) that includes consideration of spiritual, psychological, social or relational, and somatic (i.e., biologically based) motives for suicidal behavior. The psychological domain can best be understood in terms of Shneidman's (1993) concept of "psychache," which refers to intense psychological pain and the perception that death is the only possible form of relief. Accordingly, every person has psychological needs, represented by such concerns as loss of control, disrupted relationships, excessive anger, or humiliation (Shneidman, 1999). When these needs are thwarted, one experiences psychological pain, which results in cognitive restriction. That is, problem-solving ability is diminished to the point that suicide is perceived as the only way to relieve the pain (Shneidman, 1987). …