What Can We Learn From Famous Suicide Deaths?

New research lends some insight.

Posted Dec 28, 2020

In recent years, famous suicide deaths have included the likes of comedian Robin Williams, Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington, and actress Margot Kidder. The media often sensationalizes famous suicide deaths with little attention to what we can actually learn from them. Luckily, a recent study brings to light some empirical lessons from famous suicide deaths.

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Chester Bennington, former lead singer of Linkin Park
Source: Arun Thomas/Pexels

The Science of Suicide

One of the most common ways suicidologists (scientists studying suicidal behavior) have gleaned insight into contributing factors to suicide is through testing theories. Thomas Joiner, an eminent scholar and psychologist at Florida State University, conceptualized the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide in his seminal book Why People Die by Suicide. Since its 2005 publication, Joiner’s theory has become the most widely applied framework to study, assess, and in some instances, treat suicide.

Suicidal thinking, specifically the desire to end one’s life, is thought to form when a person experiences thoughts of two types: perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belonging. The notion of perceived burdensomeness contains elements of self-hatred and feeling like a liability to others. It may show as low self-esteem, expressions of being a financial or healthcare strain on loved ones, or in many other ways. In a nutshell, thwarted belonging comprises feeling socially disconnected and a lack of mutual regard from others. Commonly expressed as feeling rejected by others, signs of thwarted belonging may include social withdrawal, expressions of loneliness, and interpersonal conflict or loss. Both burdensomeness and lack of belonging may be made worse by a sense of hopelessness about whether these feelings will ever improve.

Suzy Brooks/Unsplash
Military experience is one possible source of the acquired capability for suicide.
Source: Suzy Brooks/Unsplash

We know, however, that many more people experience suicidal thinking than actually attempt or die by suicide. Joiner’s theory elegantly accounts for this in the theory’s third element: the acquired capability for suicide (or “acquired capability” for short). Acquired capability is the behavioral and emotional habituation to pain and death. Military active duty or veterans illustrate this concept well. Exposure to firearms, combat, suicide and other deaths of fellow soldiers, and other influences may lead to lowered inhibitions, escalated pain tolerance, and a decreased fear of dying. As the theory goes, perceived burdensomeness, thwarted belongingness, and acquired capability must all be present for a suicide attempt or death to occur.

Learning from Famous Suicide Deaths: Testing the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide

A recent study by two suicidologists published in the journal Death Studies assessed whether these three key aspects of Joiner’s suicide theory were present in 72 famous suicide cases. David Lester, a retired eminent suicide prevention scholar formerly of Stockton University, and John Gunn, a post-doctoral scholar at Rutgers University, co-authored the study. Using essays about famous suicide deaths, each case was coded for the absence or presence of perceived burdensomeness, thwarted belonging, and the acquired capability for suicide. Wisely, to avoid the confounding impact of the popularity of Joiner’s theory, study authors focused on biographies of famous suicides written before Joiner’s articulation of the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide. Famous deaths they coded included those of Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, and Virginia Woolf.

What can we glean from this unique study? First, contrary to a quantitatively focused review finding mixed support for the role of acquired capability in suicide outcomes, Lester and Gunn reported that the acquired capability was found in roughly two-thirds of the 72 famous suicide deaths. Practically speaking, this suggests patterns among famous suicide decedents of becoming desensitized to pain and death through alcohol and drug use, traumatic experiences, and a variety of other ways.

Lester and Gunn’s findings also provide mixed evidence for the role of suicidal cognitions. While quantitative reviews of prior studies strongly support the roles of both burdensomeness and thwarted belonging in the formation of suicidal desire, Lester and Gunn’s narrative evidence strongly implicates only one of these two thinking patterns. Interestingly, perceived burdensomeness was coded in only 15% (11 of 72) of famous suicide deaths. Compare this finding to the high rate of thwarted belonging: 90% (65 of 72) of cases.

Recall that Joiner’s theory requires both factors to be present for suicidal desire to occur. Yet, among famous cases of suicide death, this was seemingly true in only 14% (10 of 72) cases. A final lesson from famous suicide deaths suggests suicidal thinking may form in a number of ways, not just through the combination of elements of Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory.  

Lester and Gunn appropriately note the limitations of focusing on famous suicide deaths. It would be an interesting next step to compare these findings to psycho-biographies of less famous persons who died by suicide, or to other famous cases of suicide desire or attempt. Doing so may provide further guidance about the potential value of their methodological approach to the study of suicide, and whether it may extend to the general population.