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Explaining Suicide: Patterns, Motivations, and What Notes Reveal

By: , Posted on: May 26, 2017

explaining suicide

The suicide rate is at its highest level in nearly 30 years. Suicide notes have long been thought to be valuable resources for understanding suicide motivation, but up to now the small sample sizes available have made in-depth analysis challenging.

It is difficult to make sense of suicide, and researchers have documented risk factors and theorized about motivations. They have developed increasingly complex taxonomies and typologies for clinicians and organizations that focus on intervention and prevention. However, when reviewing the literature on suicide, we found that there were some areas of agreement about risk factors, but little agreement about motivation.

Through access to a unique dataset of over 1,200 people whose deaths were designated as suicides by the Southwestern Ohio coroner’s office from 2000–2009, we had access to their suicide notes, and it became our desire to learn what these case files and notes could tell us about what motivated people to kill themselves.  Our book Explaining Suicide: Patterns, Motivations, and What Notes Reveal identifies top motivations for suicide, how these differ between note writers and non-note writers, and what this can tell us about better suicide prevention.

The book describes the findings of our research comparing suicide note writers to the larger group of people who had committed suicide within the same time frame but who had not left suicide notes. A mixed-methods approach involving both qualitative and quantitative data allowed us to delineate categories through data-driven analyses and determine which motivations were substantiated by research. We developed a unique model explaining motivations for suicide using level of chaos in an individual’s life and intent to die as anchors. This book is organized around these motivations and how identification of both risk and resilience factors can lead to more successful prevention and intervention.

Understanding motivation is an essential element of both intervention and prevention. As it turned out, though, once we had analyzed our data, we realized motivation did not tell the whole story. A demographic story existed as well. Overwhelmingly, the people who kill themselves in the United States today are white men. This was true of our sample and is true nationally. It’s also true of European countries and nations in Oceania where the population is predominantly white. We wanted to understand not only what circumstances might have motivated people to kill themselves, but also what other factors—historical, environmental or cultural—might have contributed. We also wondered what could be done to simplify people at risk and getting the right help for them. The white men who make up the largest number of suicides are often not attempters, but prevention efforts are largely aimed at those who attempt suicide. We strived to envision a national agenda for suicide prevention that could bring all who are at risk under a protective umbrella.

Additionally, this book includes a chapter unlike any other publication on the intersection of legal issues and suicide. Through this research a clearer picture of individuals completing suicide can be obtained, thus enhancing identification, understanding, prevention, and intervention.

Our examination of suicide ranges in time from historical material beginning around 1600 to the present day. Laws and taboos concerning suicide as well as medical and therapeutic treatments and the theories underlying current understanding of motivation were reviewed. A total of 1,280 cases were analyzed for motivation, mental illness, and other patterns or trends that emerged. We also wanted to turn the question of suicide on its head and examine what we might do to create communities focused on living. Knowing the precipitating events, patterns and motivations can enhance the prevention efforts of anyone who comes into contact with a person who is potentially suicidal. We discuss blue zones, which are areas of longevity, and what those who took their lives said they needed (social support and a reason for living). We then propose a national agenda and some innovative changes that can be made to suicide prevention, as well as a simpler typology for determining whether someone needs an intervention.

No other book in the field has taken our exact approach. Many books discuss motivation theories, and histories of suicide exist as well. Also, some sociological studies of suicide take place into account. However, this book is unique in that we used a psychological, historical, and social science lens to understand our cases and the broader questions about suicide.

explaining suicide patterns motivations and what notes reveal

The above includes excerpts from the Preface for Explaining Suicide: Patterns, Motivations, and What Notes Revealby Cheryl L. Meyer, Taronish H. Irani, Katherine A. Hermes, and Betty Yung who passed away while the book was in the beginning stages.

The book is available in its entirety online via ScienceDirect. You can also purchase a print or e-copy via the Elsevier Store here.  Apply discount code STC317 and receive up to 30% off the list price and free shipping,

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