Summer - 2013 Suicide

Published on August 13th, 2013


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.


Further reading:

Durkheim, Emile 1997. Suicide. Free Press.

Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. “Genetic link to attempted suicide identified.” ScienceDaily. Retreived from:­ /releases/2011/03/110328131258.htm

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006. Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers. University of Chicago Press.


*cliff photo by, Golden Gate photo by Salim Virji, girl photo by S. Hart photography

*cover photo by Alex Ovanesian

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3 Responses to Why Do People Commit Suicide?

  1. I typed in why do people commit sucide and eventually it took me here . My brother recently committed sucide and I’m trying to understand why. He jus retired a year ago and had a wife and 2 adopted (at birth) sons and never showed any signs of depression until a week before he did it. He left his wife with 4 life insurances that paid off at 1 millon$ each and they did not have any financial burdens at all . He must of had it planned for years though for them to pay off. He had recently checked his 2 nd son 35 yrs old into an alcohol rehab and his 1st son age 39 is about to be released from a 20 yr stint in prison for drugs . His wife was never nice to him ever in the 40 yrs they were married . I can maybe see where the depression comes from with both troubled sons and a mean uncaring wife who never wanted for anything at all my brother gave her the world and then some but why would he have left these million dollars policy,s to his mean wife?? I don’t get it ?? I was very close with him why wouldn’t he come to me for help. His death has left me just devastated

    • yashoda says:

      not everyone has the long drawn out stage of depression
      he probably had a problem tht week and and just decided to take his life

      and not all people who are suicidal will just come to you and say so
      some people are hard to come forth
      they feel insecure themselves so they dont approach people with their thoughts of suicde
      they are afraid that people will think they are mad

      so sometimes you need to look for the signs of suicide and approach them and comfort them and inquire
      you need to make yourself approachable wen u go to them

      im sorry to hear about the loss of your brother and hope you can use this information

      with sympathy

  2. Anonymous says:

    I almost did this. I was forced out of living in a care home, where I felt safe from outside influences. That wasn’t the only reason I loved living there. I had developed quite a special relationship with a fellow resident living in the same care home. It was all snatched away from me, all too soon. I lived there for six months. By this time, I felt even more closer to the man who became my lover. We hid our relationship from the carers working at the care home, because we knew it was against the rules. We fell in love pretty quickly. It was unexpected. He is such a warm person. I felt I didn’t need to be anywhere else in life. Yet as luck would have it, my social worker and CMHT team, kept making different excuses to me, as to why I had to move out of there. I was inconsolable. I still am. If moving me into a supported living flat wasn’t enough to frustrate me, my boyfriend who still lives at the care home ended up getting cancer. I was even more devastated by then. I don’t know where to put myself. I don’t feel I have any identify anymore. It’s not okay to force mentally unwell people into flats where they’re living by themselves. Isolation isn’t good for mental health. How ironic can it get? Just like when you get locked in a dark room, if you end up in a psychiatric hospital. It’s beyond stupid. So basically, I got thrown out of one community to join a totally new one. How anyone should be expected to adapt to new people just like that, is unthinkable. The only reason I got along with everyone living at the same care home, was because they weren’t forced friendships. We took it in baby steps. Sorry but unless natural friends can be made by forcing people to join group outings, committing to the day centre, etc, I don’t see how supported living is going to be a cure for all.

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