Published on August 13th, 20131
Why Do People Commit Suicide?
By Joachim Vogt Isaksen
Whenever a person commits suicide everyone involved try to understand why he or she did it. Based on the classical works of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, I will in this article show how the private act of committing suicide often can be explained in view of the structure and culture of society.
Since the 1950s the suicide rate, or the percentage of people who die through suicide, has almost tripled for people between the ages of 15 and 24 in the US, becoming the third leading cause of death, behind accidents and homicides. Most people have a need to explain something that feels unbearable and meaningless. Common explanations often given for suicides are that the person must have been lonesome, hopeless, unhappy, unloved or unable to cope with demands of and expectations of contemporary social life.
Focusing merely on individual characteristics, like depression and frustration, does not explain why so many people in this group of age commit suicide, nor does it tell us why their has been such a dramatic increase in youth suicide over the past decades. In the article The Sociological Imagination I described how individual behavior can be explained by social forces. One way of understanding why a person commits suicide is therefore to look beyond his or her private mental state, and examine the social and historical factors that may have influenced the person.
The role of culture and society
Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) argued that suicide is more likely to occur when the social ties that bind people to one another in a society are either too weak or too strong. He saw suicide as a manifestation of the changes in modern society that were altering the fundamental bonds that connected people to one another and to their community. He thought that life in a modern society tends to be individualistic and dangerously alienating. This is a concern that is often shared by contemporary sociologists.
Durkheim mapped out four different types of suicides: the egoistic, the anomic, the altruistic and the fatalistic. Common for all of them is that they represent deviance in the individuals´ adaptation to society. In his view, psychological problems were the result of these miss-adaptations, and suicides should therefore be understood socially rather than psychologically.
Is suicide a selfish act?
People are commonly integrated into society by work roles, ties to family and community etc. Durkheim thought that the egoistic suicide was the result of the modernization of society where people commonly experience feelings of not belonging, or of not being integrated in the community. This can give rise to feelings of meaninglessness, apathy, melancholy, and depressions. To the contrary, traditional societies are characterized by a higher degree of integration with stronger social bonds.
Durkheim for example showed that suicide rates are higher for people without children than people with children, and for those who are single as opposed to those who are married. Durkheim also demonstrated that the suicide rate were higher among Protestants than Catholics. He thought that overall, Catholics as a group were more socially integrated than Protestants. Among several other reasons, he claimed that the Protestantism emphasized individualism as opposed to the more collectively oriented Catholicism.
Some people argue that suicide is a selfish act since it ends the problems and troubles for the person committing it, but still opens a whole lot of wounds and emotional problems for the people left behind. At the same time it is important to understand that some people become unhappy and depressed since they feel disconnected from the society they live in. This may result in a feeling of being unimportant and unworthy, where ending the life is perceived as the only solution. Even if this certainly is a false perception, the person may feel unwanted and therefore choose to commit suicide. In such cases one could therefore argue, at least in this person´s view, that suicide is not necessarily a selfish act.
The Altruistic suicide: the ultimate sacrifice
“Even for a short life, there are many memories. For someone who had a good life, it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel. To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor.”
These were the last words of Hayashi Ichizo, one of the many kamikaze pilots who faced death in the futile Japanese operations with military aviators against Allied naval vessels in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign of World War II. The sacrifice of ones own life was seen as an action of honour.
The Altruistic suicide takes place when a person has lost his individual feeling of self. Typically this happens when the person sacrifices his own life for his society or group. In such cases the bonds within the social group are so strong and intense that they create a powerful sense of group identity, with individuals being completely dependent upon the group.
The altruistic suicide can also be observed these days with the suicide bombers in the Middle East. Strong discipline and repression of ones own feelings are important characteristics of the suicide bomber. They are not only motivated by honour, but also by something they see as a duty to society.
Effects of sudden and dramatic changes in society
The anomic suicide is related to dramatic social and economic changes in a society. These sudden changes lead to moral confusion and a lack of social direction. Durkheim pointed to the paradox that although suicide rates rose during times of economic recession, they also rose during times of boom and prosperity, when we might expect them to decline. In both cases, there is a sudden change in norms and social expectations. One example of this is stockbrokers jumping to their death during the crash of 1929, or lottery winners committing suicide.
The fatalistic suicide is the opposite of the anomic suicide and occurs when there is an overregulation of society. This may for example take place when a servant or a slave commits suicide. In overly oppressive societies some people prefer to die rather than living under harsh constraints.
Social forces or psychological pathology?
To sum up, the four types of suicide are based on the degrees of imbalance of two social forces: social integration and moral regulation. Durkheim thought that changes in society within these two areas lead to different types of suicides. War, for example, can lead to an increase in altruism and personal sacrifice, while economic boom or disaster may contribute to anomie and depression.
Contrary to Durkheim, psychologists and psychiatrists often state that the majority of people who take their own life are in a pathological state.
A study of thousands of people with bipolar disorder, performed at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, suggests that genetic risk factors may influence the decision to attempt suicide. Among people with bipolar disorder, 47 percent think about killing themselves while 25 percent actually try to do it. We now know that chemical imbalances in the brain which often have a strong genetic component may lead to serious depression.
With today´s knowledge we can therefore criticize Durkheim´s one sided emphasis on the social factors, completely undermining the underlying psychological and biological forces. Even if one may criticize Durkheim for laying to much stress on the social factor, his insights still contribute to a greater understanding of our socially and culturally chaotic world. His concepts continue to explain variability in suicide rates in different times and places.
Durkheim, Emile 1997. Suicide. Free Press.
Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. “Genetic link to attempted suicide identified.” ScienceDaily. Retreived from: http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2011/03/110328131258.htm
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006. Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers. University of Chicago Press.
*cliff photo by epSos.de, Golden Gate photo by Salim Virji, girl photo by S. Hart photography
*cover photo by Alex Ovanesian