Causes of suicide

Causes of suicide

Both positivist and interpretive sociologists recognise the limitations of the official statistics on suicide; they differ, however, in their response to these limitations. Positivists try to 'correct' the statistics so that they do provide a valid and reliable measure of suicide. For example, Adelstein and Mardon (1975) suggest that to obtain the 'true' rate of suicide, open verdicts, accidental self-poisoning verdicts and suicide verdicts should be added together. Interpretivists argue that suicide statistics can never be anything more than a record of coroners' activities and that we cannot know how this relates to the actual suicide rate.

The theoretical problems in Durkheim's work hinge on two main, linked issues:

  • Its claim to scientific status.
  • Its neglect of meaning in the suicidal act.

Douglas (1967) The Social Meaning of Suicide

Douglas argues that Durkheim worked with an implicit theory of shared meanings. He had no information, other than his own 'common-sense' on the meanings given to suicide by those involved. Thus Durkheim decided, rather than showed, the social meanings of suicide. Thus status loss, anomie, and so on, are Durkheim's way of describing the 'causes' of suicide.

Durkheim also assumed that suicide was considered equally immoral in all the nations and groups of Europe. Bayet (1922), argues that this assumption is false and that even within France there were varying attitudes towards suicide. Durkheim also explained the lower suicide rate of women by arguing that women are more easily satisfied than men, less prone to anomie and happy in the company of a few pets, but provides no evidence.

Douglas argues that sociological analysis should focus on meaning rather than social structure. He argues that to understand suicide sociologically we should examine the meaning of suicide for the participants - using diaries, suicide notes, psychiatrists notes and biographies. He suggests a number of typical meanings suicide can have in Western society:

  • Suicide as reunion - release from cares/pressures.
  • Suicide as atonement - transforming oneself forothers.
  • Suicide as revenge - most increased form in 20th century.

Baechler (1979) Suicides

Uses a similar approach to Douglas, he identifies four main types:

  • Escapist - from intolerable situations such as grief or punishment.
  • Aggressive - an attempt to harm others.
  • Oblative - as sacrifice, or to attain a desired state in others' opinion.
  • Ludic - as a test to prove oneself.

Interpretive approaches involve the examination of the suicidal individual and the meanings given to the suicidal act, but such an approach tells us very little about how individual experiences of suicide are influenced by wider society. Another criticism is that both interpretive and traditional approaches ignore the complexity of the suicidal act and are based upon certain common sense and perhaps unwarranted assumptions about suicide. It is this idea that is explored in what are often called micro-social approaches to suicide. These generally employ an ethno methodological approach and are based upon case studies of suicide.

Sacks (1967) The Search for Help: no one to turn to

Sacks wants to know how an individual makes sense of their world. He used the ethno methodological technique of conversational analysis. Using transcripts of phone calls to a suicide prevention centre, Sacks was interested in the process whereby the potential suicide came to the conclusion that they had 'no one to turn to'. Sacks suggests that the search for help is a course of action routinely pursued by the suicidal.

No one to turn to does not mean just physical absence. Appeals can be made but rejected. This gives rise to the important point that suicide is interactional - it depends on others' reaction to a potential suicide. Revenge suicides might be based on this rejection of an appeal for help. Sacks argues that potential suicides feel they have an obligation to seek help, and the right to expect it, particularly from relatives.

Sacks is, however, not really interested in explaining suicide but simply the methods people use to produce recognisable descriptions of the world - the 'cry for help' is just an example.

Stephens (1985) Suicidal Women and their Relationships with Husbands, Boyfriends and Lovers

Stephens interviewed fifty female attempted suicides, focussing on their relationship with men. She found four recurring themes:

  • Over-dependence on the male partner.
  • Infidelity.
  • Brutality and violence.
  • Denial of affection.

Stephens echoes Sacks point that suicidal acts have to be understood as interactional, the product of a relationship(s) rather than the product of individual traits. Stephens felt that all the women, as a result of their relationships, had low self-esteem, powerlessness and worthlessness.


  • (1982) Durkheim and the study of suicide,
  • (1983) Why should an overdose seem the best medicine?
  • (1988) Suicide

Taylor's work is a valuable addition to the study of suicide because:

  1. It dispels certain myths surrounding suicide;
  2. Provides detailed analysis of the suicidal act;
  3. Develops a general theoretical explanation of suicide;
  4. Rehabilitates the Durkheimian approach.

The myths that Taylor sees off are:

  1. People who talk about suicide do not kill themselves. They do, and most people who commit suicide give others warning of their intention. Whether the suicidal live or die depends on the responses of those around them.
  2. People who kill themselves are mentally ill. There is no evidence to support this idea unless the term is widened so far as to be virtually meaningless. In some cases, suicide is clearly a rational response to an unliveable situation.
  3. Even if prevented, the potential suicide will try again. Among survivors, first opportunity re-attempts are very rare. The most significant factor is the extent to which the failed suicide brings about changes in the individual's situation.
  4. Manipulative suicidal acts deserve little, if any, sympathy and concern. Such a response may increase the likelihood of another attempt.

Taylor also argues that we can make no clear distinction between 'genuine' and 'fake' suicide attempts. Few suicides are so well planned as to make death certain, and similarly few are planned to ensure survival. In the vast majority of suicidal acts, the outcome depends largely on chance. This observation, that the majority of suicides are matters of risk that involve both the desire to live and die, has important implications for theories of suicide, since traditional theories have assumed that all serious suicidal acts are aimed at death.

Consequently, there is a need for a broader concept of suicide, as any deliberate act of self damage where the individual cannot be sure of survival. This is turn calls for a different explanation of suicide.

The common sense typology of suicide is as follows:

  • Suicide: individual intends to die and does die.
  • Attempted suicide: individual intends to die, but fails.
  • Suicidal gesture: individual does not want to die and does not.
  • Accident: individual does not intend to die, but does.

These distinctions seem logical, but the distinction between genuine and fake is not nearly so clear. In many cases, it is difficult to tell the genuine from the fake, this is because there is often the possibility of death, yet in many cases death is not inevitable. It appears that individuals risk their lives. They are gambling.

Research has constantly shown that the vast majority of suicidal acts fall between the extremes of wholeheartedly seeking death and taking precautions against death. Ettlinger and Flordah (1955) made a detailed study of 500 cases. They estimated that 4% really meant to kill themselves, 7% made no serious attempt, while 89% involved risk of death with chance factors determining the outcome.

Understanding this characteristic of suicidal behaviour owes much to the work of Erwin Stengel (1958) 'Attempted Suicide'. Stengel found that the suicide process as well as being directed towards dying, was also in most cases directed towards life. He therefore referred to the suicidal act as being Janus - faced (Janus a god with two faces pointing in opposite directions).

Stengel based his argument on a number of factors:

  • In most cases of suicide a warning is given.
  • Often, whether an individual lives depends on how others respond to these clues.
  • Most suicides are undertaken in a setting where other people are likely to be present, and use a method, most often poisoning, that makes discovery, intervention and rescue, a possibility.
  • In Suicide and Attempted Suicide (1973), Stengel argues that many suicidal acts may be likened to the medieval idea of the ordeal. A dangerous test or trial. People risk their lives in order to find out if they are 'meant' to go on living.

So, to understand suicide, sociologists have to ask not just why people kill themselves, but why so many people take risks.

Taylor (1982) Durkheim and the Study of Suicide

Taylor uses a case study approach to present an essentially Durkheimian theory of suicide. Taylor suggests that suicide is the consequence of an imbalance between two factors in individuals' lives; certainty and uncertainty; and detachment and attachment to others.


Suicides are more likely in situations of complete uncertainty where an individual feels they know nothing worth knowing, or in situations of complete certainty where an individual feels they know everything worth knowing.

Uncertainty leads to the ordeal a suicide attempt is undergone as a judgement by fate. Certainty leads to a wholehearted attempt to end life.


Suicides are more likely when individuals are either psychologically immune from the opinions of others, or are unprotected from the opinions of others.

Immunity produces detachment, over-dependence produces attachment where the opinions of others make it impossible to go on living.

Taylor argues that sociologists have become trapped in largely irrelevant debates between scientific and interpretive methodologies and social and psychological approaches. The weakness of sociological approaches lie in the unreliability of the official statistics; and neglect of the variety of suicidal behaviour and the key component of risk taking. Taylor's analysis leads to the development of a structural theory, which distinguishes between four basic meanings, caused by a combination of certainty/uncertainty, and attachment/detachment:

  1. Thanatation - uncertainty and detachment. An individual feels their existence is problematic to themselves and others cannot tell the individual what they want to know.
  2. Submission - certainty and detachment. An individual feels their existence is over and others cannot persuade them from what they know.
  3. Appeal - uncertainty and attachment. An individual feels they know nothing worth knowing and others' lack of concern makes existence problematic.
  4. Sacrifice - certainty and attachment. An individual feels they know everything worth knowing and others have made it impossible to go on living.

Clearly, there is a connection to Durkheim's concepts of anomie and integration.

As Taylor writes:

'It is perhaps a little ironical that a work begun many years ago with... an ambition to disprove Durkheim's positivist study of suicide should end in agreement with many of his fundamental principles especially, that why some people kill themselves while others go on living are not separate questions, but two sides of the same problem.'