When people kill themselves and those left behind are interviewed, they often respond with timeworn phrases, understandably. But such cliches often only spread myths.

Myths about Suicide is a new book by Thomas Joiner. Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University who also authored Why People Die by Suicide, was inspired (if that's the word), to focus on this subject because of his own father's suicide and the pain it caused his family.

Joiner doesn't discuss the morality of killing oneself, nor how suicide can sometimes be a reasonable option. Rather, he seeks to spread the truth about suicide while "leaving a healthy fear of it intact." In that way, many lives may be saved and much anguish averted.

Joiner's theory is that people desire suicide when they simultaneously hold these two psychological states in their minds for long enough: the perception that one is a burden and the sense that one does not belong. Only a more widespread and accurate understanding of suicide, he insists, can help counteract such states and prevent unnecessary deaths.

The popular and psychotherapeutic myths about suicide, however, are rampant. Here are a few:

1. "You'd have to be out of your mind to die by suicide." In fact, one can be coherent while undergoing some sort of mental break that leads to seeing death as "a comfort to others and to themselves." You don't have to be drunk, psychotic, demented, or delirious.

2. "Most people who die by suicide leave a note." In fact, three-quarters don't. Some of those notes, surprisingly, contain "considerable positive emotion" along with the negative ones.

3. "If people want to die by suicide, we can't stop them." In fact, barriers on bridges, automatic gun bans, and restrictions on the number of pills per package have been shown to cut down the number of suicides. The wish for death and the wish for life co-exist, and often one attempt does not mean there will be another.

4. "It's just a cry for help." Suicide talk does not indicate a low-risk situation. Still, studies have shown that once-suicidal individuals who received "caring letters," or even impersonal postcards expressing concern, engaged in fewer subsequent suicidal behaviors.

  • Watch a brief video of Dr. Joiner talking about suicide with Dr. Phil.
  • Or listen to him on NPR.
  • To reach a link to abstracts of Joiner's latest research, go here.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Susan K. Perry

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