Ask an Expert

Featuring Vice President of the EBF and Professor of Social Work, Daniel Liechty


Becker and Suicide

Daniel Liechty

Daniel Liechty

Hi Dan, how would Becker explain suicide?

First, it’s important to recognize that suicide is not all one thing.

For example, when a Buddhist monk publicly self immolates to protest the American policy in Vietnam that is a suicide closely connected to “meaning in life” issues – in these cases, one’s own suicide affirms the symbolic meaning that is larger than one’s own life.

A similar example would be the “suicide” of soldiers jumping off of boats during a land invasion directly into the line of machine gun fire. We are so accustomed to seeing this as “heroic” that it hardly even registers to us that this is really a form of suicide – in fact, it is the suicidal element that makes it heroic.

There are also very large differences between cultures in how suicide (as well as murder and other life-taking acts) is viewed. Many cultures view suicide as a very legitimate means to restore “honor” in given circumstances. This would be a clear example of affirming symbolic meaning as massively superior to “mere existence,” merely surviving.

Another example that is a case apart in our culture, is suicide at the end of life as a way of avoiding/escaping significant pain, perceived indignity, and maybe also escaping incurring very high expenses that are on the horizon as a result of one’s physical condition. Increasingly, we are becoming friendly to the idea that in such cases suicide, hastening death by one’s own actions, is a rational choice of integrity and value. Certainly we make distinctions between such a choice if made by a 13 year old and a 96 year old. Most of us do not see this as “all one thing” at all, but we do increasingly accept that there are things more important and valuable, things to be preserved, than just sucking down one more breath.

Suicide in our culture, at least, is closely connected to drug and alcohol abuse and the easy access to guns. Teenagers especially appear to have some areas of their brain highly developed, while other areas are not well developed. So, a teen might feel love or longing very deeply, and in the loss  of that love object not yet have a strongly rational element of their mind to tell them that the pain they feel is temporary and they will, in fact, love again (and by the time they are 40 or 50 have a hard time even remembering the full name of that “one and only” of their life!) Add to that mixed substances that further dull impulse control, and easy access to “ending it all” (along, no doubt, with fantasies of “I’ll PROVE my love” and all of the varieties of Romeo/Juliette narratives in the culture) and it is small wonder that the teen years are when suicide rates skyrocket. (The other uptick in the suicide rate is in men during the first three years of retirement, the grounds for which I think are obvious.)

During the time I worked in an inpatient mental hospital back in the late 80s and early 90s, I also saw patients, young adults, who seemed to have a “drive” toward suicide. They could be interacting, laughing, playing ping pong, yet were constantly scanning their environment for some way to hurt themselves up to and including suicide. Almost every one of these had been through horrible, terrible things in their backgrounds (the stuff of nightmares and horror films) and had suffered through deep and prolonged depression. Ironically (it seemed to me anyway) it was not during the time when they were in deepest deep depression that there was a great suicide risk, but rather in the first days during which the depression was lifting. I would hesitate to draw glib conclusions about these young people on the basis of Becker or TMT, but there did appear to be a connection in many cases between a push toward suicide and a kind of “scream of the self” against “life” as they had known it.

I also saw a kind of “suicide” in cases like extreme anorexia, in which at least the conscious or stated desire was not suicide itself, yet the young person would persist in actions that they intellectually understood would without doubt lead to their own death. Again, glib conclusions based on Becker or TMT is not helpful – it might be more helpful in understanding the reactions of others toward such persons, maybe.

In a number of the cases I had close contact with, there also seemed to be something that “clicked” in their brain/thought processes, that just seemed to reverse the life drive – almost like beached whales, who after we “save” them and drag them back out to open waters, immediately turn and beach themselves again, over and over. I’ve seen something very close to that in some people – and I’ve seen it then reverse again, almost like something “clicked,” and that some person who had been drawn to suicide like water running downhill, suddenly loses that urge, has instead the urge again to live, and really can’t explain or even comprehend what had been motivating them during that time when they seemed driven by a death force rather than a life force.

In short, I don’t think there is any quick and easy “Becker/TMT view” of suicide, as suicide is a very complicated and varied phenomenon, highly subject to cultural definitions and deeply buried in biological/evolutionary factors that we have only scratched the surface as yet in understanding. On the other hand, I certainly don’t see that the fact that some people commit suicide as a deciding issue against the death anxiety thesis. We need to learn a lot more about both before being able to make more educated generalizations.