Understanding the Psychology of Suicide: Why It Isn’t Always Selfish

It’s difficult to make it to adulthood without knowing someone who has died by suicide. The language we use to describe it is often blaming. “He committed suicide,” as if he perpetrated a crime that victimized people. Suicide hurts — it hurts everyone around us.

I’ve been a therapist since 2014 and formally studying psychology since 2009. I’ve studied suicide. I’ve treated countless people who have struggled with suicidality. And I’ve lost friends and family to suicide.

I’ve often heard suicide described as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” But there’s more to it than that; there’s more to people who attempt or complete suicide than that.

Today, I’m going to cover some common questions you might have about understanding the psychology of suicide and offer a different perspective on why many people struggle with thoughts of suicide.

Why Do People Die by Suicide?

Suicide is an umbrella term. Some suicides are premeditated, while some result from impulsivity and can be unintentional.

Suicide isn’t just about being super depressedIt can result from a manic episode — where you’re more emotional and impulsive. It can happen from what psychologists call NSSI — or non-suicidal self-injury (aka, cutting) — where you’re not intending to die, just harm yourself. But your self-harm goes too far — you cut deeper than you intended. It can also happen from substance use in the form of an overdose. Sometimes suicidal ideation (thinking about suicide) is a side effect of medications. Some people even lump suicide into the “right to die” debate — when people who are terminally ill want to “go out on their own terms, with dignity.” But that’s a topic for another day.

The biggest risk factors for suicide are feelings of hopelessness, a history of suicide attempts, and impulsivity. But psychologists also assess for a plan, intent, and access to dangerous objects when someone endorses suicidal ideation. The more specific the plan, the greater the intent, and the easier their access to dangerous objects, the more at-risk they are of attempting or completing suicide.

Are People Who Die by Suicide Just Mentally Weak?

It’s easy to blame people who die by suicide when we see them as weak and selfish. They couldn’t handle life, so they took the easy way out, leaving a wake of despair and emptiness for their loved ones.

But let’s set the record straight.

People who die by suicide aren’t broken or mentally weak. To many, suicide seems like a logical option to end suffering — their own suffering or the suffering they think they’re causing for their loved ones.

Plenty’s been said about the first category — people who feel suicide will end their own suffering. And most treatment is geared toward them: Go to therapy. Do a safety plan. Take away dangerous objects. Put them on or adjust their medication. Watch them like a hawk. Maybe go to an inpatient hospital for a few days. And for some people, this works well.

But today, I want to talk about the other category. The people who see suicide as a form of altruism — of self-sacrifice — to save their loved ones. This kind of suicide we don’t talk about enough, which means people who fall into this category — the people who feel like a burden to everyone around them — don’t get the help they need.

Is Suicide Selfish?

We use strong language to describe our dedication toward our loved ones. “I’d take a bullet for him.” “I’d crawl through broken glass for her.” We’d “catch a grenade” or “jump in front of a train” for the person we love. These expressions are in books, movies, songs, any medium where people describe love and devotion. We’d do anything, suffer anything, to protect the ones we love.

But what about when we’re the threat to our loved ones?

What if we’re a burden?

Research shows being unemployed or having a chronic illness increase risk of suicide because the person feels like a burden to their family. Logically, it makes sense that we would remove whatever threatens the wellbeing of our loved ones — including ourselves. These people are the opposite of selfish — they’re about as selfless as it gets.

Now, I said it seemed logical, but it’s flawed logic. In no way am I advocating for this kind of behavior.

But before you can help someone, you have to understand where they’re coming from. If I treat you like you’re “selfish” and want to “take the easy way out,” I might put you on a safety plan and have your family watch you even closer; now, they’re more paranoid about you, and you feel like an even bigger burden. How does that help anyone?

What Does the Research Say About Suicide?

Eusociality is kind of like “colony life.” You’re part of the collective. We typically call eusocial behavior altruism, which is where we’re willing to put ourselves in danger, even risk death, to protect the colony — our loved ones.

Take meerkats, for example. When the group is hanging out on the plains of Africa, and one meerkat sees a hawk flying overhead, that meerkat will raise the alarm to warn the others of danger. But in order to warn the others, the individual risks focusing the attention of the hawk on itself — its noise catches the predator’s attention. This is altruism. The individual is willing to sacrifice themselves so the colony can survive.

Most heroes — real or fictional — are altruistic. Firefighters run toward a burning building. Police run toward gunshots. The military put their lives on the line to protect our freedom. Superman flies toward the latest evil invasion. They do this to save us, even if it means putting their lives in danger.

But, to quote Joiner et al., suicide is a “derangement of the self-sacrificial aspect of eusociality.” This means choosing to die by suicide, to save your loved ones, is flawed logic. Not only does it not help your loved ones, it actually makes things way worse for them.

The authors go on to talk about other forms of altruism in the animal kingdom. Like how, when some insect species become infected with a pathogen, they withdrawal from the colony to prevent spreading the disease. The authors argue that some people view themselves as toxic, and claim “this view is central to both their decision to withdraw socially and their conclusion that their deaths would be more valuable than their lives.”

If we feel toxic or contagious, if we feel like a burden, if we feel like a threat, it seems logical to sacrifice ourselves for our loved ones…for the greater good. But this isn’t the way forward. This isn’t how to protect our families or help the colony survive. Our presence, not our absence, will do that.

A Message for People Who Feel Like a Burden

So let me speak directly to anyone who’s in this category. If you feel like a burden and think suicide is the only way to protect or save the people you love, listen up.

You are not a burden — to your loved ones, society, or the world. No one who loves you will tell you you’re a burden.

In fact, if you asked your loved ones how they’d react if you passed away, I guarantee you (assuming they’re not complete pieces of shit) they’d tell you they’d never recover from losing you. It may seem like you’re doing others a favor by relieving their burden by ending your life. But your death would be a far greater burden to them. The what-ifs, the unanswered questions, the blame, the void your absence would bring are all too great a price for them to pay.

You are not a burden.

And if your family is toxic and people in your life do tell you you’re a burden, they’re a piece of shit. Full stop. No exceptions. Fuck’em.

You can’t choose the family you were born into, but you can choose the family you grow into. Find good people. Surround yourself with a loving and supportive community, and you won’t feel like a burden. You’ve heard the phrase, lay down with dogs, wake up with fleas? Well, if you hang out with people who are pieces of shit and blame you for everything, you’ll wake up feeling like a piece of shit. Get the fuck up and find better people to associate with. In-person, online, in books, whatever works.

For me, the anthem for suicide prevention awareness is “One More Light” by Linkin Park. Listen to the lyrics. People care about you, even if you’ve never met them.

Suicide Prevention Lifeline number 1–800–273–8255
Suicide Prevention Lifeline

If you genuinely want to save your loved ones, you have to start with saving yourself.

If you feel like such a burden to people that suicide seems like a good option — I’m here to remind you it isn’t. Go to therapyRead books or articles. Find a better social circle. Work on your self-esteem and self-worth. Practice self-care. Work on forgiving yourself. Work on loving yourself. You’re not a burden, and your death won’t make anyone feel better. My family has lost multiple people due to suicide, and we miss them every day. Suicide only adds to peoples’ misery — it doesn’t alleviate it.

Your death would be a burden. Your life has value. You have value to offer the world. But it’s your responsibility to discover how you can make the world a better place — how you can use your skills or your experiences to help others.

Many people who go into the mental health field began with issues of their own. They use their experiences — their struggles and suffering — to help others overcome their own pain.

That’s one route. Find yours. Once you recognize your value, you won’t feel like a burden anymore.

There are plenty of us who care if one more light goes out. You’re not a burden. Remember that. And when you feel it’s appropriate, remind the people you love that they’re not a burden and how important they are to you. Feeling valued goes a long way.

Showing compassion is the only way forward for us as a species — not some distorted version of altruism. So be compassionate — to yourself and to others.

Until next time, take it easy.

*This article originally appeared on Medium*