Book Review: Thomas Joiner’s Myths about Suicide
Perhaps many who know me would be surprised to know, but when I was a young mother in her second pregnancy, I was very pregnant, very depressed, and very suicidal. Dr. Joiner writes, in his book Myths about Suicide that people who are about to die by suicide may look and act very much as they always have, very much like you and I do today and very much as I did when suicidal. I.e., it’s a myth to think you can tell someone is suicidal by their social appearance alone.
The author is a research psychologist and director of the University Psychology Clinic at Florida State University. He lost his father to suicide in 1990. He is therefore also a suicide researcher who, from personal experience, understands the perspective of survivors. He wrote Myths about Suicide to reduce the stigma and ignorance suicide raises.
I found Myths about Suicide to be sobering and instructive. Thomas Joiner looks at many myths that exist about suicide and draws on clinical cases, media reports, literary works and scientific studies to tackle them one by one in a logical and readable manner. Here I’ve selected three of the myths he analyzes to share some of what I learned about them and to give you a flavor of the book’s content and style. They are:
“Suicide’s an Easy Escape, One that Coward’s Use”
Joiner asks, “If it’s so easy, why is it so difficult to do?” Few attempts are actually fatal. He goes on to give example after example of suicides that were physically hard to accomplish. And first the suicidal person must come to terms with the self-preservation instinct, which is hard-wired and strong.
But people do die by suicide: Why? Joiner says: ”I believe that when people hold two specific psychological states in their minds, simultaneously and long enough, they develop the desire for death. These two states are the perception that one is a burden and the sense that one does not belong…” He concludes, “Death by suicide is not easy, it is tragic, fearsome, agonizing, awful, but it is not easy.”
“If People Want to Die by Suicide, We Can’t Stop Them”
Since the Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937, 1300 people have jumped to their deaths from the bridge. In 2006, over thirty people died. Dr. Joiner reports that for every person who dies by jumping from the bridge, the California highway Patrol restrains two or more people from doing so. He asks what happens to those who are restrained. Do they still die of suicide? He describes a 1978 study showing 95% did not. “…restraint saved hundreds of lives.” Dr. Joiner cites other studies of bridges where barriers have been built and the suicide rate plunged with no increase in people jumping from neighboring bridges. Why don’t we have more barriers? The problem he says is fear and prejudice.
“It’s Just a Cry for Help”
Thomas Joiner emphasizes that the suicidal mind is ambivalent about living and dying. “Talking to others, especially about something personal and painful like ideas about suicide represents a reaching out to others, a questioning about whether reliable social ties are there and can be counted on, he states.” “Much can depend on the answer to this questioning.” If the person is encouraged to talk and to access care, Joiner feels life can be affirmed. If the answer is dismissive “you’re all talk” or “you’re just trying to get attention” —life may not prevail.
In conclusion, Thomas Joiner tells readers” We need to get it in our heads that suicide is not easy, painless, cowardly, selfish, vengeful, self-masterful, or rash…. [T]hat it is preventable (e.g., bridge barriers) and treatable (talk about suicide is not cheap and should occasion treatment referral). And once we get all that in our heads at last, we need to let it in our hearts.”