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 the while suicide may appear to come out of nowhere, this is because of the tendency 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 of suicide, and may potentially restrict discourse. While this may be controversial, I’m actually inclined to agree with him.
The book includes some controversial and even distasteful ideas that are presented 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 (although he disagrees with it) 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”.
One chapter that disturbed me examined the diary left behind on the laptop of a 17-year-old girl who killed herself, which the parents had shared with the author. It’s used 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. In fact, it takes a matter of fact tone regarding the suicide of biblical 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.
The Islamic hadith (sayings of the prophet Mohammed) denounce suicide, and in several Muslim countries attempting suicide is a criminal offense. 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 acknowledgements at the end of the book, Bering admits he was having thoughts of suicide when he began the book, but found the writing of it 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.
I received a reviewer copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.
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