The term suicide came into use for the first time in the 17th century. Even at that time, the context within which it was used varied significantly. For instance, linguists such as Walter Charleston used the word suicide to describe a phenomenon through which people vindicated themselves from imminent destruction.
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This is opposed to Edward Philips view where he saw suicide as nothing but a barbaric act. According to Schneidman (2004), understanding suicide goes beyond evaluating the characteristics of each occurrence. There are seemingly obvious traits of suicide, which require deeper understanding. Schneidman (2004) calls them muted characteristics.
Other than the context, language also contributes towards the definition of suicide. Since the 17th century different phrases from different languages have been used. Their English equivalent have been given here. The most common one states that suicide is the procurement of one’s death. Other popular yet controversial phrases are: “to put an end to oneself, to precipitate oneself, to take death into one’s own hands, to set oneself free with one’s own hands and lastly, to offer death unto oneself” (Schneidman, 2004, p. 15).
Some of these phrases omit important information such as the catalyst for suicide, the role of the spy and the role of religion. Whether suicide is willful or not is also omitted. Additionally, the controversies in these definitions tend to indicate that the motivation to end one’s life differs with each occurrence. Either ending one’s life, escape from humiliation, freedom or terminating of suffering could be ultimate goal of suicide.
In view of the above facts, suicide is the willful initiation and actual completion of an act that will end the life of the initiator either in the full knowledge of a spy, which is motivated by the desire to procure death, avoid humiliation, end one’s suffering or free oneself from misery (Schneidman, 2004).
Causes and triggers of suicide
From this definition, it is evident that suicide is a complicated phenomenon. Tracing its causes has also elicited varied and sometimes controversial theories. While some scholars have chosen to isolate each cause of suicide, others have grouped them into broad categories. This paper will focus on the broad categories as well as the underlying controversies.
Zai et al. (2012) propose that suicide is predominantly genetic. More than 50% of suicidal people inherit the trait from parents. In this study it was found out that most of the victims of suicide had parents who had either attempted or successfully procured suicide. This is corroborated by Bridge, Goldstein and Brent (2006), who argue that there is a genetic component that precipitates suicide behavior.
However, Beautrais et al. (2005) refute this by arguing that research has not yet identified a gene responsible for suicide. While acknowledging that suicide is more common in certain families, this should not be the basis of connecting genes to suicide. Suicide is a non-genetic familial trait.
Environment is also another major cause of suicide. Some environmental factors may precipitate suicide. Bridge, Goldstein and Brent (2006) argue that this is so especially for teenage suicide victims. Aldridge (2001) uses the term ecology to describe these environmental factors. It is possible for people not to adapt to the ecological niche which they occupy. This implies that for such people, suicide is not motivated by the desire to end one’s life, but to escape from a frustrating and harmful environment.
Within the ecological factors, Aldridge (2001) states that ecological niche also encompasses social environment. In most developing countries especially those in the former Soviet Union, the social environment has drastically changed. This, while brought about by rapid modernization, is characterized by loss of job, increase in the cost of living, poverty, lower life expectancy and blurring of gender roles. It causes an individual to lose touch with the ecology which can lead to suicide.
However, Bridge, Goldstein and Brent (2006) dissociate the phrase social factors from the term ecology. They argue that unemployment, loss of social status, negative peer influences, family breakup and child abuse as some of the social issues that may curtail a person’s adaptability to one’s niche. This is likely to lead to suicide, especially in males aged between 20 and 24 years, homosexuals and the homeless.
The causes discussed above focus on the external environment and as such exonerate the suicidal person from any blame. However, there are internal factors such a person’s mental health, emotional state, psychological health as well as neural-biological status, which have been connected with suicidal behavior. This is true especially for people aged 80 years and above.
Symptoms of suicide
One of the most common symptoms of suicide is the unnoticed sudden change of behavior. This may be manifested in sudden loss of interest in an activity previously enjoyed. Additionally, one become moody, reckless and manifest the tendency to lose attention. Speech can also indicate suicidal tendencies. For instance, one becomes incoherent and even expresses disjointed thoughts.
A few suicidal people express the need to escape to a faraway place while others express the desire to end life. Some acquire “destructive behavior such as drug and substance abuse” while others go on hunger strike (Schneidman, 2004, p. 79). As reported by Beautrais et al. (2005) some people at the risk of suicide may also expose themselves to situations that endanger their lives. This includes using brute force.
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The symptoms identified above suggest that people at the risk of suicide experience a level of internal turmoil. Seeking treatment should focus on treating the patient. There are a range of patient centered methods available. Psychotherapy is one of them.
The main aim of psychotherapy is to change how the patient reacts to the prevailing circumstances by evaluating the patient’s thoughts, moods and feelings. Psychotherapy presupposes that suicide can only be treated by changing the patient’s worldview. Other scholars claim that the administration of medication such as antidepressants cures suicide. However, there is very little evidence to prove their efficacy (Jacobs et al., 2003).
Scheidman (2004) suggests that the causes of suicide are actually barriers to a comfortable life. This approach suggests that suicide is not only a means to procure death but is seen as a way of escaping from disillusionment but also hints at a person’s inability to cope with the prevailing circumstances. As such, suicide can be treated by either eliminating, circumventing or mastering the prevailing barriers.
According to Aldridge (2001), treating suicide medically provides short term remedies. Such a superficial approach limits the problem solving opportunities as it does not address the real cause. Instead, Aldridge (2001) proposes a method that seeks to change the social situation. This can be achieved by looking to the society and coming up with solutions that help to address the individual causative factors. Other strategies within this line of thought include treating the whole family especially where suicide is familial or a relapse has occurred.
Issue that emerge when dealing with a suicidal person
Suicide does not just happen. When dealing with a suicidal person there are issues that are likely to emerge. For instance family history is one of those issues. Family background may manifest itself in different forms. To begin with, there are families that have a history of suicide. While this might imply that members of those families have come to accept suicide as part of the family, developing society based prevention brings desirable long term solutions.
It helps the suicidal person as well as the family eliminate justification for suicide. Secondly, the environment within the family might encourage members of those families to commit suicide. Breaking of family relationships is a negative family environment that triggers suicide.
While most the causes outlined above point at external causes of suicide, underlying issues within a suicidal person should not be ignored. For instance, while dealing with a suicidal person, issues such as personal pain and suffering are likely to emerge. There are people who can successfully hide such pain. However, acknowledging that suicidal people suffer unbearable internal turmoil long before deciding to commit suicide is usually beneficial. Denial is another issue that one is likely to deal with.
It is manifested in various ways. For instance suicidal people may deny that they need help, and instead seek to justify suicidality. Additionally, a suicidal person may also deny the intention to procure one’s death. This means that helping such people to understand that they are suicidal is paramount.
Saleebey (n.d.), in one of his articles, offers practical solutions for suicide. He suggests that treatment of suicide should be patient centered. Instead of seeing the destructive behavior that might lead to suicide, it is necessary to look at a person’s strengths and develop ways in which those strengths can be utilized in turning around the person’s fortunes. Instead of dealing with the problem, the suicidal person is helped to see possibilities of improving the status and quality of life.
Transformation from suicidality fundamentally helps a person overcome the stressor and other suicide precipitating factors. This is achieved through liberating and empowering the person. Liberation means exploring all possible choices to better the life of the victim.
A person is helped to be committed to actions that will improve the status of one’s life. It explores new human energies and helps a person explore new ways of thinking that challenges traditional beliefs. Liberation offers hope and aims at turning the suicidal person, the villain, into a hero. It helps suicidal people not only to dispel suicidal thoughts but to carry on hopefully “amid searing stress” (Saleebey, n.d., p. 7). It is a way of renewing the mind.
Aldridge, D. (2001). Suicidal behavior, a continuing cause for concern. Web.
Beautrais, L. (2005). Suicide prevention: A review of evidence of risk and protective factors, and points of effective intervention. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
Bridge, J., Goldstein, R. & Brent, D. (2006). Adolescent suicide and suicidal behavior. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47, 372-394.
Jacobs, G., Baldessarini , R. J., Conwell , Y., Fawcett, J. A., Horton, L., Meltzer, H.,… Simon, R. I. (2003). Practice guideline for the assessment and treatment of patients with suicidal behaviors. Web.
Saleebey, D. Introduction, power in the people. Web.
Schneidman, E. (2004). Definition of Suicide. Salzburg: Rowman & Littlefield Inc.
Zai, C., Luca, V., Strauss, J., Tong, R. P., Sakinofsky, I., Kennedy, J. L. (2012). Genetic factors and suicidal behavior. Web.