Information that Could Save a Life (and Other Reflections on Suicidal Ideation)

I came across the following list of six warning signs or steps leading to suicide (See the note at the end of this post for the source material). Obviously, no one of them is dangerous on its own, but together they represent a dangerous constellation of cognitive activity. Understanding and discussing them could very well save a life — maybe even yours.

1. Falling Short of Standards — Suicide rates are higher in more prosperous and successful demographics: “[I]dealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks.”

2. Self Blame or Condemnation — Failing to meet high standards does not itself lead to suicidal ideation. One must also blame, condemn, loathe, or demonize oneself for those failures: “The self is seen as being enduringly undesirable; there is no hope for change, and the core self is perceived as being rotten.”

3. High Self-Awareness — Heightened reflection on oneself, when coupled with the factors above, can fuel thoughts of suicide.

4. Negative Affect — Depression, anxiety, hopelessness, etc.

5. Cognitive Deconstruction — From what I can gather, this step or symptom is basically a kind of psychological shutting down. Thoughts of the future are hopeless and thoughts of the past are painful, so someone with suicidal ideation withdraws into a kind of bland present. Similarly, there appears to be a decrease in abstract thought or complex reasoning and a gravitation towards the simple and concrete: “What this cognitive shift to concrete thinking reflects … is the brain’s attempt to slip into idle mental labor, thereby avoiding the suffocating feelings that we’ve been describing.”

6. Disinhibition –This is perhaps the most dangerous factor of all, as it is what can turn suicidal thoughts into suicidal action. It is speculated that, while perhaps there is some personality difference at play here (i.e., some people are naturally less inclined towards dangerous behaviour than others), the disinhibition required to commit suicide — preempting the strong drive toward self-preservation and worries about the potential pain to loved ones — is a further example of the cognitive deconstruction discussed above: cognitive deconstruction “disallows the high-level abstractions … that, under normal conditions, keep us alive.” Furthermore, other studies suggest that prolonged our repeated exposure to high levels of pain can also contribute to disinhibition.

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By way of personal reflection, it is well known that homosexuals (particularly teenage males) are particular at risk for suicide. This makes total sense: when you are, at no fault of your own, wired in a way that places you at odds with the vast majority of society, when people like you are held up as objects of ridicule, disdain, and condescension, and when expressions of love that are natural for you are proscribed and reviled by Scripture and religious tradition, it is not difficult to see why feelings of isolation and hopelessness are common among gay teenagers. It really does feel like life is a no-win game. But, while I definitely had times of great personal struggle, I can’t say I was ever suicidal. I was very lucky that way. I’ve often wondered why, though. Particularly in my teen years, life was pretty miserable. In a nasty confluence of circumstances, personality, and immaturity, I really had ceased to be a ‘person’ in any meaningful sense of the word. I was isolated, withdrawn, and frightened out of my mind, and this coupled with a rather subdued and melancholy personality. I think I was saved primarily by close relationships with some of my family, which provided a strong barrier against suicidal thoughts, and by an active imagination, which — as much as it may have contributed to my isolation — enabled me to escape the pain, confusion, and negative thoughts.

A couple of years ago, when I was in another very dark period of my life — one in which my feelings of hopelessness were far more intense than they were at any point in my teenage years — I was preserved from suicidal ideation I think primarily because I had long before learned how to deal with my affect and cognitive distortions in a positive way. That is to say, I’d learned not to take myself or my emotions or thoughts too seriously and had learned that sleep cures many ills, and failing that, there is a place for distraction (hello, television) as an analgaesic during certain seasons of life.

I consider myself very blessed and fortunate never to have been down the darkest roads of suicidal thoughts. But I think my experiences also underline the importance of preparing oneself for difficult times that may come. Building close relationships, learning about the foibles of one’s personality and discovering healthy ways of dealing with them, learning about and discussing warning signs — these are things we can all do when times are good to protect ourselves and those we love. They aren’t guarantees, but when the costs are so high, any little bit can help.

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* The steps were described by Roy F. Baumeister, “Suicide as Escape from Self,” Psychological Review 97 no 1 (1990): 90-113. I found them in Jesse Bering’s essay “Being Suicidal: What it Feels Like to Want to Kill Yourself (Part II),” found on pp. 238-248 in his book Why is the Penis Shaped like That? … And Other Reflections on Being Human (New York: Scientific American, 2012). All quotes are from Bering’s text.

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