Many people grieved after hearing about the apparent suicide of Robin Williams.
Fox News anchor Shepard Smith was less understanding.
“It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?” he asked the camera, wondering how Williams could love his children “and yet, something inside you is so horrible or you’re such a coward or whatever the reason that you decide that you have to end it.”
Smith’s labelling of suicide as a decision reveals a misunderstanding — or nonunderstanding — of the what-it feels-like experience of a suicidal person, the vast majority of whom are clinically depressed.
Research psychologist Jesse Bering helps correct that perspective.
“In considering people’s motivations for killing themselves, it is essential to recognise that most suicides are driven by a flash flood of strong emotions, not rational, philosophical thoughts in which the pros and cons are evaluated critically,” he writes for Scientific American in a heartfelt post, one that combines others’ research with a discussion of his own suicidal years.
To Bering, the best (but not only) model of what that flash flood feels like comes from Florida State psychologist Roy Baumeister and his 1990 Psychology Review paper “Suicide as Escape from the Self.”
This model isn’t the only explanation of what leads to suicide — a study in Psychological Review lists a documented suite of risk factors — but Baumeister’s theory offers one way to understand some of the thoughts and emotions that might play a role.
Before we dive in, we must emphasise that suicide is never inevitable: books like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “The Mindful Way Through Depression” can help people find a way out of chronic unhappiness, and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 if you or someone you know needs to talk.
With that said, let’s look into Baumeister’s model of the sequence of cognitive patterns that may lead to a suicide.
1. Failing to meet your standards for yourself
An outwardly privileged life is no protection from suicidal thoughts.
In fact, Bering reports, suicide rates are:
• Higher in nations with a high standard of living
• Higher in countries that “endorse individual freedoms”
• Higher in areas with nicer weather
• Higher among college kids “that have better grades and parents with higher expectations”
It’s these expectations that can sometimes create suicide-driving suffering, Bering says. If you’ve had a privileged life, then you’ll be more fragile when disappointments arrive.
You can see it in the research. Baumeister says a large body of evidence suggests “suicide is preceded by events that fall short of high standards and expectations.”
• Being poor all your life doesn’t predict suicide. But going from wealth to poverty does.
• Being single all your life doesn’t predict suicide. But going from being married to being single does.
Therein lies the seed.
“The size of the discrepancy between standards and perceived reality” is crucial to the start of the suicidal process, Baumeister says.
The Germans have a word for it: weltschmerz, the pain of realising the world isn’t matching your ideals.
2. Condemning yourself for failing to meet those standards
It’s not just that suicidal people have a low self-esteem, Baumeister finds. Rather, they may see themselves as fundamentally flawed in comparison to everybody else.
And some people hate themselves for it.
Bering details the meta-cognitive tailspin that may precede suicide:
Across cultures, “self blame” or “condemnation of the self” has held constant as a common denominator in suicides…
Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, inadequacy, or feeling exposed, humiliated and rejected leads suicidal people to dislike themselves in a manner that, essentially, cleaves them off from an idealised humanity.
To Bering, the way that a sense of exile sometimes leads to suicide is most palpable in the lives of people with minority sexual orientations: if society tells you there’s something fundamentally wrong with you all your life, you’re more vulnerable to wanting to take your own life.
3. Feeling painfully self-aware
Suicidal people may be extremely aware of themselves and how they seem to be failing, according to Bering.
“The essence of self-awareness is comparison of self with standards,” Baumeister writes.
And, according to his escape theory, this ceaseless and unforgiving comparison with a preferred self often fuels suicidal ideation. The suicidal person might view this preferred self as somebody from a happier past or a goal self who is now seen as impossible to achieve in light of recent events.
Suicidal people, in other words, are often trying to escape these selves they so dislike — in any way possible.
4. Experiencing “negative affect,” or extremely difficult emotions
Suicide is neither the result of a single “trigger event” nor continuous anxiety, according to Baumeister.
Instead, “suicide rates are clearly associated with [perceived] personal failure and painful discovery of one’s inadequacies,” Baumeister writes, “with loss of family through death or divorce, with loss of membership in a community or an occupational group, and with loss of culture.” Meanwhile, a mental illness like clinical depression will simultaneously dull positive experiences while deepening the sting of every negative one.
Some people, Baumeister suggests, may start considering suicide after some sort of negative shift in the way they view their identity, and suicide is seen as a means of escape from that painful experience of the self.
5. Trying to avoid meaningful thoughts
The mental lives of suicidal people are considerably different than the cognition of someone mentally healthy. Suicidal people may engage in “cognitive deconstruction,” where they escape from feeling bad by avoiding meaningful thought. Another way to phrase cognitive deconstruction: it all just doesn’t matter.
Baumeister summarizes the collapsing process:
The time perspective narrows drastically to the present, presumably in response to the anxious recall of past events. The future is denied, and long-term plans or goals are either completely absent or conceptualized in unrealistic, irrational terms; however, more evidence that distal goals are absent in the suicidal person’s thinking is needed. Suicidal thinking is very concrete, focusing on immediate tasks and details. The person enters a cognitively rigid state, avoiding new ideas, thoughts, or interpretations.
This “deconstruction” shows up in surprising ways.
In one study, suicidal people drastically overestimated the passage of time, showing that feeling suicidal is somewhat like being bored — the “present seems endless and vaguely unpleasant,” Baumeister writes.
There’s also often attempt to absorb oneself in rote work as a way of escaping these crippling feelings. Bering reports that many suicidal college students “exhibit a behavioural pattern of burying themselves in dull, routine academic busywork in the weeks before” before attempting to kill themselves.
“Most people most of the time would not even consider killing themselves,” Baumeister writes, “for reasons that may include laws, desires for self-preservation, internalized social norms, feelings of obligation to others, and expectations for future happiness. These long-term (high-level) inhibiting factors must be overcome in order for the person to attempt suicide.”
Thus the need for dis-inhibition: in some way, these often abstract or future-thinking factors may have to be sidestepped for someone to go through with suicide. Baumeister notes that this might be why alcohol is so often linked with suicide, since being drunk lowers inhibitions.
Similarly, recent research suggests that people need an “acquired capability for suicide” to actually go through with it.
The capability comes by being habituated to harm.
“Physical or sexual abuse as a child, combat exposure, and domestic abuse can also ‘prep’ the individual for the physical pain associated with suicidal behaviour,” Bering writes, noting how specific the preparation can be. “For example, a study on suicides in the U.S. military branches found that guns were most frequently associated with Army personnel suicides, hanging and knots for those in the Navy, and falling and heights were more common for those in the Air Force.”
What can all this tell us about the death of Robin Williams?
Hard to say, since we don’t have access to the great comic’s mind. But Baumeister and Bering’s research into suicide can help us be more aware of some of the mental patterns — often present in mental illness — that may lead people away from seeing the meaningfulness of their own lives.
To that end, we’ll allow Bering — a psychologist who struggled with suicidal impulses in his younger years — to have the last word:
I do hope that if you ever are unfortunate enough to experience these cognitive dynamics in your own mind — and I, for one, very much have — or if you suspect you’re seeing behaviours in others that indicate these thought patterns may be occurring, that this information helps you to meta-cognitively puncture suicidal ideation. If there is one thing that I’ve learned since those very dark days of my suicidal years, it’s that scientific knowledge changes perspective. And perspective changes everything. Everything.
Special thanks to Scott Barry Kaufman, who tipped us to the Bering piece in the first place.
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