Suicide is a mystery to science. How can people gather the courage to shoot themselves, hang themselves or take a lethal dose of a drug, when doing so violates the strongest instinct that has left us millions of years of evolution?
It’s not morbid curiosity. The answer could be the key to addressing a persistent public health problem: approximately 800,000 people die each year of suicide in the world, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, the rate has been rising for two decades.
In his text on evolutionary psychology, David Buss, of the University of Texas, cites some survey results that show that suicidal thoughts are correlated with feeling a burden on others and, especially in the case of men, few prospects of reproduction. For people over 70, suicidal thoughts are correlated with poor health or financial problems. However, there must be something else behind the few who actually try to kill themselves, as many people with the same problems and feelings do not.
In his book “Why People Die by Suicide” (why people die by suicide, Thomas Joiner, a psychologist at the University of Florida, explores the phenomenon from multiple angles: statistics, surveys, kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers, and even forms of self-sacrifice in animals to be highly social (bees, ants and mole-rats). Joiner emphasizes that individuals who die of suicide are reckless, either naturally or because they may have trained to overcome fear.
Voltaire recognized it when he wrote about the Roman orator Caton: “it seems absurd to say that Caton died out of weakness. Only a strong mind can overcome nature’s greatest instinct.”
Joiner’s effort to understand the problem is partly due to a personal connection to suicide. When Joiner was in graduate school, his father drove away and stabbed himself in the heart. His father, he says, was not a coward.
“People don’t think about this aspect of suicide… but they tend to think about it abstractly, ” he says. “When you stop to think about the details, it becomes very clear the difficulty: the logistics, the fear and the pain, the instinct of self-preservation.”
The Centers for Control and Prevention of Diseases of the united States recently reported that, by job category, suicide is highest among men in the construction and mining fields with a high physical demand which may compel the people to become accustomed to the injuries and to deal with their fears. The rate has been consistently high among doctors of both genders, who may also be reckless or have learned to overcome their fears for, for example, surgery.
Despair and mental illness are also factors, but there are a lot of people who live with these diseases and will not die of suicide. Joiner. However, he claims that his study has revealed a pattern. People who die of suicide often suffer what is called a lack of effectiveness: they have lost a job, or they see themselves as professional failures. Even more important is frustrated belonging: the lack or loss of close connections with others.
Evolutionary psychologists have argued that the latter problem represents a suicide risk given our highly social nature of animals. Joiner also been considered. In a 2016 article published in The Psychological Review, he and his colleagues analyze self-sacrifice among the most intensely social animals on the planet. Some bees are slaughtered by stinging an animal that poses a threat. Mole rats face snakes— and are killed-to defend their colonies. Ants infected with a contagious fungus leave the colony and starve before risking infecting others.
By saving their colleagues from the colony, even if it means dying, those animals can allow the spread of their genes. Perhaps the social instincts of human beings pose a risk to our species, especially when people feel they are a burden to their family. As the authors of this study point out, this kind of extreme self-sacrifice, although adaptive in some animals, “represents a tragic, deficient, erroneous and sometimes fatal calculation (a disorder) among modern humans when it is performed and taken action in the context of suicide.”
For Joiner, those at risk of suicide are a small subgroup of people who suffer from frustrated belonging, lack of effectiveness and mental illness, and are also reckless or have developed a tolerance for fear and self-inflicted harm.
Understanding suicide in this way does not glorify the act. Nor does it save lives by stigmatizing people who die of suicide as cowards or selfish. Understanding the science of suicide in its harshest terms can help not only identify those at risk, but also identify ways to address their suffering.