Why do people commit suicide?
What mental states drive people to take such an extreme step?
Once, when I was in my teens, I read a newspaper piece about this politician who’d died in a helicopter crash. He was dearly loved by the people of his region and when they heard of his death, many died of shock while others committed suicide.
My young mind was unable to comprehend why the death of a popular public figure could have a profound impact on the psyche of the masses that they’d go on a self-killing spree.
At the time, I considered people who committed suicide idiots and those who did it for a celebrity, even bigger idiots. I thought that thoughts of suicide would never cross the mind of a rational person.
Fast forward to my undergraduate days…
We were playing cricket when the ball, bouncing unexpectedly off an object on the ground, hit me right in the eye. The pain was so excruciating that it left me in agony for almost an hour. It was the first time I ever had suicidal thoughts. I no longer thought of people who had suicidal thoughts as idiots.
Following are the 3 major reasons why people commit suicide:
1) Pain-avoidance mechanism of last resort
We are motivated towards seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. We have emotions such as anger, hatred, and fear that motivate us to avoid pain. We typically seek to end our pain by solving the problem that’s causing us pain. But what if the pain is so extreme that nothing works to alleviate it?
When all else fails, suicide can be the preferred option to end one’s extreme pain. This holds true for both physical and psychological pain.
This is why people with unbearable chronic illness and those with severe mental illness are more likely to commit suicide.1,2
You only need to look at the words that people use in their day-to-day conversations to see how suicide is linked to pain-avoidance:
“Hey, check out this new Justin Beiber song!”
“I’d rather commit suicide.”
“The movie was so dull and boring that killing myself seemed like a better option.”
Even though these sentences are used in a joking manner, they highlight the function of suicide as a pain-avoidance mechanism.
2) Altruistic suicide and failing in heterosexual mating
Passing on one’s genes to the next generation is a central purpose of all life forms. While this can be achieved by finding a mate and successfully reproducing, it can also be achieved indirectly by helping your close kin reproduce since your close kin share most of your genes.
Sometimes, individuals sacrifice their own lives so that their kin are benefited. This usually happens when the individual who makes the sacrifice either fails in heterosexual mating or has little prospects of succeeding in heterosexual mating in the future. (For more details, see Understanding the psychology of self-sacrifice)
This is the reason many who attempt suicide report feeling like a burden to their close kin. Old people, for example, can no longer reproduce and are likely to see themselves as a burden to their families because they drain the family’s resources that could be invested in the reproductive success of the younger generation.
It’s no wonder then that this perceived burdensomeness toward family is strongly correlated with suicidal ideation.3
Also, studies of suicide notes of people who successfully commit suicide (as opposed to those who survive a suicide attempt) show that they often describe in great detail how they’re a burden on other people and society at large.4
A survey showed that items more strongly related to reported suicidal ideation were expectations of poor future health, perceptions of being burdensome, and unstable heterosexual relationships.5
I lost a high school classmate years ago who committed suicide after he broke up with his girlfriend (aka failed in heterosexual mating).
If failing in heterosexual mating is linked to suicide, then the loss of factors that contribute to heterosexual mating may also prompt a person to commit suicide.
For example, public humiliation causes a person to lose status and respect of other people which in turn makes it less likely for him to find a potential partner. This could be why those who’re publicly humiliated or bullied are also likely to attempt suicide.
3) Attempted suicide as a cry for help
Since most suicide attempts fail, they could be nothing more than attempts to bring the attention of close kin to one’s dire situation. This could accelerate, with the help of family members and friends, the process of getting out of the troublesome situation.
When we’re in pain, social support can go a long way in helping us deal with our pain. This is especially true for women who deal with stress by bonding with other people. Also, women are more likely to seek help for their problems than men.
Although women are more likely to attempt suicide, they’re less likely to actually die from it. They’re more likely to use methods that allow for second thoughts or rescue such as an overdose of sleeping pills.
When benefits trump the costs
No matter what the exact reason behind a suicide, the perceived benefits of dying have to outweigh the perceived benefits of living for the individual who commits the act.
There’s this one case of a 6-year old girl who stepped in front of a train leaving a note that said, “I want to be with my mother” who had recently died from a terminal illness.
The perceived pain of having to live without her mother coupled with the belief that she’d ‘see her on the other side’ prepared the grounds for this unfortunate tragedy.
- Ferro, M. A., Rhodes, A. E., Kimber, M., Duncan, L., Boyle, M. H., Georgiades, K., … & MacMillan, H. L. (2017). Suicidal Behaviour Among Adolescents and Young Adults with Self-Reported Chronic Illness. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 0706743717727242.
- King’s College London. (2010, December 6). People with severe mental illness 12 times more likely to commit suicide. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 21, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101206161740.htm
- de Catanzaro, D. (1995). Reproductive status, family interactions, and suicidal ideation: Surveys of the general public and high-risk groups. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16(5), 385-394.
- Joiner, T. E., Pettit, J. W., Walker, R. L., Voelz, Z. R., Cruz, J., Rudd, M. D., & Lester, D. (2002). Perceived burdensomeness and suicidality: Two studies on the suicide notes of those attempting and those completing suicide. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 21(5), 531-545.
- de Catanzaro, D. (1984). Suicidal ideation and the residual capacity to promote inclusive fitness: a survey. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 14(2), 75-87.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve written 280+ articles and published one book about human behavior on this blog that has garnered over 3 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur.