[Article updated on 20 December 2017]
1. Suicide is very uncommon. False. In the US, nearly 30,000 people die by suicide each year, and the rate of attempted suicide is much higher—so much so that there is an estimated one attempted suicide per minute. Worldwide, suicide claims more deaths than accidents, homicides, and war combined. And many cases of suicide, particularly in the elderly, go completely undetected and unaccounted.
2. People often commit suicide for rational reasons. False. Psychiatrists believe that over 90 per cent of cases of suicide are not the result of a rational decision but of mental disorder. Suicidal ideation can be particularly intense in people with a mental disorder who are unmedicated or who are resistant to or non-compliant with their medication, and/or who are experiencing certain high risk symptoms such as delusions of persecution, delusions of control, delusions of jealousy, delusions of guilt, and commanding second-person auditory hallucinations (for example, a voice saying, ‘Take that knife and kill yourself’).
3. People are most likely to commit suicide around Christmas time. False. Contrary to popular belief, the suicide rate peaks in the springtime, not the wintertime. This is probably because the rebirth that marks springtime accentuates feelings of hopelessness in those already suffering with it. In contrast, around Christmas time most people with suicidal thoughts are offered some degree of protection by the proximity of their relatives and the prospect, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, of 'things getting better from here'.
4. The suicide rate rises during times of economic depression and falls during times of economic boom. False. The suicide rate rises during times of economic depression and during times of economic boom, as people feel ‘left behind’ if every Tom, Dick, and Harry seems to be racing ahead. Although economists focus on the absolute size of salaries, several sociological studies have found that the effect of money on happiness results less from the things that money can buy (absolute income effect) than from comparing one’s income to that of one’s peers (relative income effect). This may explain the finding that people in developed countries such as the USA and the UK are no happier than 50 years ago; despite being considerably richer, healthier, and better travelled, they have only barely managed to ‘keep up with the Joneses’.
5.The suicide rate rises during times of war and strife. False. The suicide rate falls during times of national cohesion or coming together, such as during a war or its modern substitute, the international sporting tournament. During such times there is not only a feeling of ‘being in it together’, but also a sense of anticipation and curiosity as to what is going to happen next. For instance, a study looking at England and Wales found that the number of suicides reported for the month of September 2001 (in the aftermath of 9/11) was significantly lower than for any other month of that year, and lower than for any month of September in 22 years. According to the author of the study, these findings ‘support Durkheim’s theory that periods of external threat create group integration within society and lower the suicide rate through the impact on social cohesion’.
6. Suicide is always an act of individual despair and never a learned behavior. False. For example, the suicide rate rises after the depiction or prominent reporting of a suicide in the media. A suicide that is inspired by another suicide, either in the media or in real life, is sometimes referred to as a ‘copycat suicide’, and the phenomenon itself as the ‘Werther effect’. In 1774 the German polymath JW Goethe (1749–1832) published a novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther in which the fictional character of Werther shoots himself following an ill-fated romance. Within no time at all, young men from all over Europe began committing suicide using exactly the same method as Werther and the book had to be banned in several places. In some cases suicide can spread through an entire local community with one copycat suicide giving rise to the next, and so on. Such a ‘suicide contagion’ is most likely to occur in vulnerable population groups such as disaffected teenagers and people with a mental disorder.
7. Someone who has been admitted to hospital is no longer at risk of committing suicide. False. Psychiatric in-patients are at an especially high risk of committing suicide despite the sometimes continuous care and supervision that they receive: every year in England, about 150 psychiatric in-patients commit suicide. The risk of suicide is also increased in medical and surgical in-patients in general hospitals. Medical and surgical in-patients suffering from illnesses that are terminal, that involve chronic (long-term) pain or disability, or that directly affect the brain are at an especially high risk of suicide. Examples of such illnesses include cancer, early-onset diabetes, stroke, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.