How Suicidal Narratives Shape Our Thinking About Suicide

Our thoughts about suicide, if not experienced at a personal level, are often shaped by external factors, media reports, documentaries, movies, and literature. As a reader of fiction, I am interested in how suicide is presented and the inherent dangers in ‘creating art about suicide.’ Writing for ‘The Atlantic,’ Brit Troyen says,

“Many of the features that make a ‘good story’ are also those known to contribute to suicidal behaviours: heightened emotions, heroic or sentimental portrayal of suicidal characters, and, above all, depiction of suicide itself.”

There are risks in reading about suicide. The novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in 1774, is a story about unrequited love. It was blamed for a spike of suicides among young men across Europe. We refer to the phenomena as the ‘contagion effect.’ It is when the portrayal of one person’s suicide contributes to the suicide and suicidal behaviours of others.

The depiction of suicide in fiction and nonfiction needs to be approached cautiously and treated sensitively, thus avoiding any unintended consequences. When it is done poorly, it can have a detrimental impact on people, especially young people who are already vulnerable. It is unhelpful to glamorise suicide, to suggest that it is something easy and peaceful, or to provide graphic depictions or explicit details of the method used.

A suicidal narrative is a personal narrative linked to imminent suicide. It is a coherent life story, capturing the struggles and uncertainties, the diminished hope and despair, the progressive failure and alienation, until the future becomes impossible.

Suicidal narratives tell a story that is unique to the individual. As Steven Schlozman, MD, a guest writer for The Clay Centre for Young Healthy Minds says,

“Much of the difficulty in grappling with the concept of suicide often stems from people’s inability – or perhaps even unwillingness – to consider suicide in terms of an individual’s unique narrative. Once we open ourselves up to another human beings personal, relatable experiences, we can begin to understand what leads to suicide.”

If we are going to understand suicide, we need to understand an individual’s story.

Suicidal narratives not only inform, but they also allow us to empathise. As Schlozman says,

“Narrative is the key to building empathy and understanding.”

Suicidal narratives bring a sense of order to what otherwise seems like a chaotic series of events. We begin to see a thread, linking what appear to be unrelated occurrences.

Suicidal narratives are not definitive. They do not tell the whole story. They draw attention to some of the factors that may have played a part in shaping a persons’ thinking.

Let us consider the following fictional works and the insights they provide into the elements that make up a suicidal narrative.

Miriam Toews ‘All My Puny Sorrows’

I asked Elf if she was thinking at all of reasons to stay alive or if she was only trying to figure out an exit. She didn’t answer the question. I asked her if those forces were constantly battling it out in her mind and she said if they were then it was a lopsided fight. I asked her if she had any idea how much I would miss her. She looked at me. Her eyes filled up with tears. I shook my head. She didn’t speak. I left the room.

‘All My Puny Sorrows’ is a story about two smart and loving sisters, Elfrieda and Yolanda. Elf has a formidable career as a world-renowned musician and a husband her adores her. Yoli is the failed sibling: no money, no job, no spouse, and a sputtering career as a writer.  But it is Elf who is intent on death.

The author, Miriam Toews highlights two important characteristics of the suicidal person: ambivalence and withdrawal.

Ambivalence:

Ambivalence is a characteristic of the suicidal mind. A person at risk can have reasons for living and reasons for dying simultaneously. Most suicidal people do not want to die; they want the pain to stop.

Although reluctant to acknowledge the internal struggle in her mind Elf states that when she wrestles with the will to live or die, it is a lopsided fight.

Withdrawal:

People who are suicidal withdraw socially, limiting contact with family and friends. They are reluctant to divulge their thoughts and are less emotionally engaged.

Elf is guarded and unresponsive to any questions put to her. Although able to express emotion she is not looking for an emotional connection nor striving for emotional transparency.

Marilynne Robinson ‘Home’

She had stopped crying, but she had to sit done in the porch. She put her head on her knees. She imagined him in that bleak old barn in the middle of the night, stuffing his poor socks into the DeSoto’s exhaust pipe, and then, to make a good job of it, his shirt. He’d been wearing his favourite shirt, the one with the beautiful mending on its sleeve. All the drunken ineptitude and frustration, his filthy hands, everything he could reach in the engine pried at, pulled loose.

Was this what they had always been afraid of, that he would really leave, that he would truly and finally put himself beyond the reach of help and harm, beyond self-consciousness and all its humiliations, beyond all that loneliness and unspent anger and all that unsalted shame, and their endless, relentless loyalty to him?

The author, Marilynne Robinson has created a character in Jack who is unable to live up to the expectations of other people. Jack is a sensitive person who struggles with conflict but is particularly hard on himself. The thorough evaluation of Jack’s mental and emotional state justifies the inclusion of details relating to his suicide attempt.

Jack is the long-lost son of the aging Reverend Robert Boughton.  Jack left the family twenty years earlier having fathered a son with one of the local girls. Jack has been a constant disappointment to his father and feels his disapproval. The gulf between them is due to many factors including theological and generational differences.

The years apart were difficult for Jack. He struggled to find suitable employment, lived rough, neglected to look after himself, copped abuse, and drank too much. His mind was often occupied with negative thoughts – past failures, poor choices, disappointments, misunderstandings, and personal inadequacies. Then there were the feelings of shame, humiliation, rejection, anger, and loneliness that undermined his sense of worth.

Suicide attempt:

The suicide attempt was a plausible outcome given the multiple risk factors.

Method:

Although it is recommended that authors not dwell on the means, in this instance the DeSoto occupied a significant place in Jack’s quest for redemption. So, it was not surprising that when Jack’s life stalled and began a spiral downward that it should feature in his planned demise.

Mental state:

Jack is in a fragile state. The relationships that provide him purpose and stability are complicated. His father is dying and there is so much that is unresolved and unsaid. Then there is Della who he would like to marry, but the racial tensions of that time prohibit it. They have a young son, Robert, who is not welcomed by either side of the family.

John Grisham ‘The Rooster Bar’

Mark said, “I read a story once about a guy who killed himself. Some shrink was going on about the futility of trying to understand it. It’s impossible, makes no sense at all. Once a person reaches that point, he’s in another world, one that his survivors will never understand. And if you do figure it out, then you might be in trouble yourself.

“Well, I’m not in trouble, because I’ll never understand it. Sure, he had a lot of problems, but suicide wasn’t the answer. Gordy could have cleaned up, got his meds straight, worked things out with Brenda, or not. If he had said no to the wedding, he would have been much happier in the long run. You and I have the same problems with law school, the bar exam, unemployment, loan sharks, and we’re not suicidal. In fact, we’re fighting back.”

“And we’re not bipolar, so we’ll never understand.”

The author, John Grisham is best known for his popular legal thrillers. The Rooster Bar is about a group of law school students who realise they have been scammed, and then try to do something about it. They are indebted to their friend, Gordon, who has carried out the initial investigation. His research proves invaluable.

‘Gordy’ is battling the combined pressure of finishing law school, facing the bar exam, paying back student loans, dealing with a fiancée he is not ready to marry and stopping his medication. His manic outlook and depressive state leads him to take his life.

Grisham deals with the ‘why’ question, highlights some of the risk factors that may lead someone to take their life and makes a definitive statement about suicide.

Understanding why:

It can be futile trying to understand why someone would want to end their life. We will never fully comprehend the challenges they were facing nor where their thoughts were taking them.

Risk factors:

It may be possible to identify some of the risk factors that played a part in leading a person to consider suicide, but we will never have all the facts. In Gordy’s case there were organisational pressures (meeting commitments and deadlines), financial pressures, and relationship difficulties.

Medication:

It is not uncommon for people with a mental illness to decide they no longer need their medication. Such a decision is risky and can have devastating consequences.

Mental illness:

People with bipolar disorder have a 15-fold increased risk for suicide.

Declaration:

“Suicide is not the answer.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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