Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves by psychologist Jesse Bering attempts to make sense of the complex phenomenon of suicide. It approaches the issue from a variety of different angles, including psychological, biological, spiritual, and evolutionary.
The author admits that he takes an intellectualized, scientific perspective to try to gain a broader understanding. The book presents both the strengths and weaknesses of various ideas on the subject. Bering discloses his own “recurring compulsion to end my life, which flares up like a sore tooth at the whims of bad fortune”.
The book covers a broad range of biopsychosocial contributors to suicide risk. Some information may be familiar to the reader, such as the genetic component to suicide risk. Other information may be new, like anthropological evidence that indicates that suicide occurs across many different cultural groups. The author discussed the risk of suicide contagion and how the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why relates to this.
Certain phrases in the book resonated very strongly with me and my own experience with suicidality. Bering writes: “For the truly suicidal, consciousness is incapacitating.” He also writes about the agonizing slowness of time when one feels suicidal, part of a process called cognitive deconstruction:
When each new dawn welcomes what feels like an eternity of mental anguish, the yawning expanse between youth and old age might as well be interminable Hell itself.
This is not a book that sidesteps around the grim reality of suicidality. Bering points out that while suicide may appear to come out of nowhere, this is because we tend to stay silent about our own unravelling. He also acknowledges the reality that sometimes people find themselves in “very tricky situations where, frankly, it’s hard not to see suicide as a rational decision.” He expressed his view that over-emphasis on the semantics of suicide does nothing to actually combat the problem; in fact, it may even restrict discourse around suicide. While this may be controversial, I actually agree with him.
The book includes some controversial and even distasteful ideas in order to inform and examine rather than persuade. Bering cites one view that, from a purely ecological perspective, suicide could be considered adaptive, as it may not ultimately affect the likelihood of that person’s genes propagating. He also mentions the view (which he disagrees with) that depression results from social problems, and “should abate when a problem is perceived to be truly unsolvable”. The researchers behind this idea described suicide attempts as a sort of trading card to be played to get help from those close to them. One anthropologist referred to this as the “social bargaining hypothesis”. So yeah, that’s pretty gross.
One chapter that disturbed me examined the diary left behind on the laptop of a 17-year-old girl who killed herself. Her parents had shared with the author, who draws on it to demonstrate a theoretical perspective on the stages of suicidality. To me, this felt like a profound invasion of privacy. I would be horrified if my journal was shared with the world if I died by suicide. It wasn’t the content of the diary that I found distressing; it was the fact that these were her most private, vulnerable thoughts that weren’t intended to be shared.
I was fascinated by the chapter that looked at suicide in the context of religion. Bering explains that the Christian bible actually doesn’t explicitly mention suicide. Rather, it takes a matter-of-fact tone regarding the suicide of figures like Judas, King Saul, and Samson. The Catholic church took a strong stance in the fifth century when St. Augustine deemed suicide to be a sin; later in 1485 Saint Thomas Aquinas declared suicide to be one of the worst mortal sins. This influenced English common law, and suicide was made illegal.
The Islamic hadith (sayings of the prophet Mohammed) denounce suicide, and attempting suicide is a crime in several Muslim countries. Hindu scriptures are ambiguous regarding suicide, but for centuries widows were expected to self-immolate on their husband’s funeral pyre. The chapter covered a range of other religious traditions, and presented facts rather than making religious arguments.
In the book’s acknowledgements, Bering admits that he was having thoughts of suicide when he began writing, but he found the process cathartic. I was actually experiencing suicidal thoughts as I read the book, but, perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t find it overly triggering. I freely admit to being very much a geek, and the intellectual aspect of this book certainly connected to that. It was highly informative without having any of the dryness and impersonality of an academic work. I’d definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about suicidality from a broad perspective.
Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves is available on Amazon (affiliate link).
I received a reviewer copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
The Straight Talk on Suicide page has crisis and safety planning resources, along with info on suicide-related topics from the perspective of someone who’s been there.