Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Maybe It’s Harder to Kill Yourself than You Picture

Is thinking about suicide ever therapeutic?

Wikimedia Commons
Gustave Jeanneret, "Sans espoir" (1891), Fondation Pierre Arnaud, Lens, Switzerland.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gustave Jeanneret’s Without Hope (Sans espoir) isn’t easy. Perhaps it’s even wrong. The relaxed pose of the man laid out across a railway sleeper with his head rested on a rail looks more like the position of someone napping rather than that of a man in the perfect station for self-destruction.

Relaxed he might be, but the man is absolutely sure of what he wants. The train, with its two black eyes, is almost on him. Head set resolutely on the railway line, the man has left no room for error. The gaze of the vagabond makes this 1891 painting doubly dreadful. His frightened eyes look straight from the painting and straight towards you and me. The eyes aren’t so much begging for help as making an accusation. They’re saying “why have you done this to me?”

The answer is simple. The Swiss painter, Gustave Jeanneret, thinks that the man is killing himself because poverty-stricken people like him live so rough that they’re living without hope. Death would be better than the miserable existence being dragged out. The picture of the swagman’s suicide acts as a plea for social justice. Gustave Jeanneret is saying that enough food, a warm place to sleep, and a little respect might be enough to stop awful deaths like the one in his painting. That’s the answer for those accusing eyes.

This is not really a painting about suicide. It’s a political painting that uses suicide as a thought-piece for the injustice of the times. The painting uses this image of suicide to try to make things better. The very poor and the homeless, Sans espoir is saying, are so badly neglected by society that they are being driven, in their despair, to terrible solutions. Suicide could be one of those solutions, although it is more of an idea in Without Hope than something real. Gustave Jeanneret can have had no knowledge of whether homeless people kill themselves or not because of their poverty. Perhaps he’d read a newspaper report about the death in his picture.
Emilio Longoni, “Reflections of a Starving Man or Social Contrasts” (1894), Museo civico, Biella, Italy.

The Swiss artist might have made his point about poverty in other ways. Emilio Longoni, three years later, did just that using restaurants. He paints a human triangle, a starving man outside on the pavement, and a plump, plutocratic couple inside Bock’s restaurant enjoying their meal. They don’t care a bit for the starving man and peer contentedly at their food and at one another. If there were no window, the dining man’s left elbow seems ready to give the starving hobo on the footpath the heave-ho.

Like Jeanneret, Emilio Longoni is saying that enough food and a little respect might make all the difference. But being excluded in this way from a plush restaurant is, like suicide, more of an idea than a real situation. I think that suicide better conveys social protest.

There is a troubling point to be raised. Does Sans espoir, rather than saving the poor, encourage or even trigger suicide by its graphic representation? Is it more dangerous than helpful? Might the painting urge us to take our own lives rather than looking to the poor? I doubt it. Emilio Longoni didn’t care very much about restaurants and I’m sure that Gustave Jeanneret didn’t care all that much about suicide. It shows. Jennifer Michael Hecht’s beautiful invocation Stay is not the point here. Poverty is what bothers Longoni and Jeanneret. Sans espoir is an unpleasant, shocking, and at the same, an effective plea for social justice. It’s on a par with Reflections of a Starving Man or Social Contrasts but it is more convincing because it is more frightening. It’s not dangerous though. Imagining suicide for Jeanneret is socially therapeutic.

It’s a bit trickier when it’s you that’s involved in the suicidal ideation. Thinking about your own suicide, I’ve often been told, is a bad thing. It’s dangerous. It’s the first step on the slippery slide toward self-immolation. But is it? I’d reply that I’ve been doing it all my life – well, less as I get older – and I’m still standing. My ideation, like that of many people I know, is linked only with the mildest of dysthymia. Suicidal ideation is symptomatic of considerable danger when it’s allied with, for example, severe depression or bipolar disorder. But that is not the sort of thing I am speaking of here.

Ingmar Bergman and Victor Sjöström on the set of "Wild Strawberries" (1957).
Source: Wikimedia

Here’s another example. Thinking about suicide doesn’t seem to have harmed Ingmar Bergman, the famous Swedish film director, who died at age 89 of old age. He tells us “I have often toyed with the idea of suicide, especially when I was younger and my demons threatened to overtake me.”

Bergman explains this in Images: My Life in Film. He goes on to say “[On one occasion] I surrendered myself completely to the idea that the moment had arrived. I was going to get in my car, take my foot off the brake, and drive over the serpentine roadway leading up to the hotel. This way it would look like an accident. Nobody would have to feel sad or guilty.” Before Bergman could carry through his plan, he received a phone call requesting that he come back to Stockholm to work on a film. "I postponed my suicide and returned home." He threw himself into creation with unparalleled vigor. The final result was one of his breakthrough movies, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). Perhaps thinking about suicide was cathartic and somehow some level of unhappiness out of his system. Maybe it even encouraged the remarkable creative burst that followed.

Bergman died of old age at 89. He never did commit suicide, despite a lifetime of thinking about it. If anything, the gloomy meditation on his own death, such as in the instance I’ve just mentioned, seemed to help him with his creative work and, paradoxically, seemed to help to keep him alive. He used this same suicide scenario six years later with the character of the novelist David in his equally successful movie, Through a Glass Darkly (1961). Suicidal ideation may actually have been a self-protective mechanism or even a life-affirming mechanism for Bergman. Could you call this an example of the therapeutic value of planning your own suicide?

Suicidal ideation is, I suspect, much more common than you might imagine. Not for a minute am I trying to downplay its significance as a symptom of possible self-harm. I’m suggesting merely that suicidal thoughts don’t have much to do with death when they are the product of average sadness and average disappointment. In fact, as you can see in Gustave Jeanneret’s painting, such thoughts may be life-affirming. That’s certainly what Jeanneret means with his picture: He wants us to go out and do the right thing by the poor.

Thinking about suicide for the merely gloomy of temperament may be a self-protective and even an adaptive mechanism. It may make some people feel that life is, by comparison and after all, actually OK. I suppose that the many people who experience suicidal ideation in this therapeutic manner slip below the statistical radar of epidemiologists simply because most of us have no particular need for psychological help. There are no statistics, no figures, no records for the incidence of this strange way of thinking within the medical literature. That’s because the group of people that I am referring to don’t constitute a danger to themselves. Jeanneret’s painting and Ingmar Bergman’s testimony might offer, therefore, evidence that the dangers of suicidal thinking are quite a lot trickier than just cause and effect.

Suicidal thoughts aren’t always the beginning of a slippery slope. When I respond to the doubts of my friends and say that, if this were the case, I should have been dead years ago, they tend to snort. I stress this because I’ve been made to feel guilty for my occasionally gloomy mind once too often. Perhaps I should tell them that I reckon suicidal thinking could sometimes be a sign of healthiness, of a way of getting rid of some of the destructive urges that exist within most people, strangely, through a process of mental coping. Perhaps I should be telling them that thinking about suicide seems to have some therapeutic value for some societal situations. Could it be that it may have some therapeutic value for some, but not all, people?

More from Peter Toohey Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today