Sometimes I consult on ambiguous deaths. On occasion, I’ve encountered the notion of spontaneous suicide. In other words, a person just decides, for no apparent reason, that today is the day.
My gut tells me that this label is less about a fact than about a lack of facts. That is, when we don’t know a motive, we might decide that there is none. On the other hand, because we’re meaning seekers, perhaps we just can’t accept such a pointless act.
Still, short of a serious mental illness, I believe that people have reasons, maybe several.
I once learned about the death of a young man who seemed to have every reason to live and few or none to die. However, he was found stabbed to death in his apartment, with both doors locked, and his were the only bloody footprints in the place. He’d also bled outside on the porch. He’d shut off the lights and had walked slowly between the kitchen and living room. He hadn’t used a cellphone to call for help, although it was within his reach. He could have made the three stab wounds, and by one account, he’d been depressed over losing a girlfriend. A notepad adjacent to the cell phone contained an ambiguous note about living as if you might soon die.
But there was reason to look deeper. The wounds were through his shirt (unusual), the breakup had been two years earlier, he’d been celebrating with friends that night over a recent promotion (with no hint of depression, they said), he had a good job, had recently purchased land, had made plans for the following day with friends, and had bought a new laptop. Minutes before he’d died, he’d called a friend to go out and he’d surfed the Web for porn sites. He’d also eaten half of a plate of dinner.
There was nothing in his blood, save elevated alcohol from drinks with friends, and no drugs in his apartment. Although there were knives in the kitchen, they were not bloody. The girl who’d suggested he was depressed changed her tune the following day. In addition, there was cast-off blood on the walls near the porch.
The investigators quickly decided that it was a suicide. Neighbors who tried to report the sound of running feet and thumps on the wall felt as if their remarks were dismissed. No one invited them to give a formal statement. No one called the friends who’d been with the decedent the night before.
Without going into the ins and outs of the investigation, what puzzled me was a remark that one official said to a reporter: “People can spontaneously decide to kill themselves.” In other words, the investigators had found nothing to indicate a suicidal frame of mind (aside from the decedent spending a lot of money lately), but they were sure he had committed suicide, so the act had been spontaneous.
What can one say to this? Of course, his family and friends disagreed. So did other investigators. But still, if someone decides to impulsively pick up a knife and stab himself, we won’t find a psychological breadcrumb trail.
The case bothers me. I checked suicide chat boards and saw a few people discussing occasions when they had felt like “Today I’m going to do it, for no particular reason.” Yet there they were, mentally rehearsing it with likeminded others. From time to time, they’re taking a run at it, and at some point, they might do it. But they have pondered it.
So then I looked at the work of a leading expert on suicide, Tomas Joiner. A psychology professor at Florida State University, he’s published several books on the subject, including Myths about Suicide (2010). He dismisses the idea that people die on a whim.
“This is a pervasive and entrenched misunderstanding,” he states. He then demonstrates that behind the scenes of several so-called “impulsive suicides” are details that show planning. He says we find impulsive suicides only in fiction. [Perhaps that’s why the notion sounds plausible – our heads are filled with such stories and they’ve made a dramatic impression.]
Some studies about whimsical self-destruction are based entirely on the self-reports of survivors, which often cannot be trusted. In part, suicidal people have already developed a habit of duplicity and secrecy. In addition, many people remain unaware of their habituated ruminations. Survivors of suicide attempts who claim to have thought less than ten minutes before acting often aren’t including all the prior notions and mental rehearsals.
Joiner’s own research indicates that, after going through nearly 90,000 questionnaires from high school students, those who had the most impulsive personalities in other contexts were the most planful when considering suicide. An act might involve impulsive aspects, but this does not equate to an impulsive suicide.
“The extremely fearsome and often painful prospect of bringing about one’s own death,” Joiner points out, “requires previous experiences and psychological processes that take months – at least – to accumulate.”
Death investigators who decide that suicides can be entirely impulsive seem to be repeating a myth. This “misguided belief,” as Joiner puts it, can derail a rigorous evaluation of the decedent’s actual story.