Mysteries of Suicide Lead to Myth, Taboo and Stigma

Article excerpt

Byline: Thomas Joiner

Note to readers: Thomas Joiner is Bright-Burton professor of psychiatry at Florida State University. His book, "Why People Die by Suicide," seeks to describe the circumstances that lead to suicide. He was interviewed by Editorial Page Editor Mike Clark. The following excerpts were edited for space and clarity.

Q. WHAT'S THE CAUSE OF SOCIETY'S TABOO REGARDING SUICIDE?

A. It has several sources. One is that people are afraid of death. So death has a taboo, but of all the various forms of death, you definitely rank suicide No. 1 in terms of stigma and taboo. It is strongly linked to mental disorders, which, of all the medical conditions, are still by far the most misunderstood and stigmatized by people.

Q. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEY MISUNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE DIED BY SUICIDE?

A. I think a big one is that the suicide is motivated by weakness or revenge or selfishness. Those things are not really primary.

Take weakness. It has actually been demonstrated that overcoming one's instincts for self- preservation is a fearsome prospect. It actually requires, in a sense, the opposite of weakness, a kind of fearlessness, to be able to do it.

We're just wired for self-preservation, and are scared of things that threaten self-preservation.

Another myth is that it is a selfish act. Actually, that is completely backward.

One of the main motivations for people involved in death by suicide is the idea that death will be worth more than their lives to those they care about. They're mistaken in that belief, but that is in their heads, and that motivates them toward suicide. That is quite the opposite of selfishness.

Q. IS ANOTHER ASPECT THAT SOCIETY HAS CONSIDERED SUICIDE A MORAL DEFECT?

A. That's in the same area as selfishness. It can take on moral overtones. Certainly, the topic of suicidal behavior has gotten tied up in the thinking of world religions in ways that are very disapproving.

Q. WHAT SORT OF OCCUPATIONS ARE MORE PRONE TO HAVE SUICIDE AS A RISK FACTOR?

A. There is not a terribly strong association between occupational status and suicide. There are some occupations that instill a kind of fearlessness in people. If they develop a desire to die by suicide, they may act on it, because they've developed the fearlessless through their work.

An interesting example is physicians. …