The most common question I get asked is "why?". It's typically early in the conversation, soon after "what do you do for work?".
Telling people I'm a psychologist is generally considered good fodder for dinner party conversations. They often respond by saying, "you're probably reading my...". "...your mind? Yes, I am" I quickly add. But explaining that my work focuses on suicide prevention can go a few different ways.
Some people feel awkward at the mention of suicide. They aren't quite sure what to say and so say nothing... and then scramble to move the conversation on to a 'safer' topic. Others respond by sharing stories of their own struggles or those of someone close to them.
But explaining that my work focuses on suicide prevention can go a few different ways.
But the most common reaction to telling people that I work in suicide prevention is for them to ask, "Why? Why do people kill themselves?". This is a really good question.
Trying to understand what has led to a person feeling so hopeless demonstrates an empathy and compassion that is the hallmark of an emotionally mature society. It shows an understanding that suicidality is a symptom of other problems.
Importantly, examining the specific factors that contribute to people feeling suicidal directly informs what we might do to prevent them from reaching such a crisis point. And so I welcome the "whys?". The best answer I can give comes from a man named Thomas Joiner from Atlanta, Georgia in America. When he was 25-year old, he didn't get the chance to say goodbye to his dad. Ever since then, he has dedicated his life to trying to answer "why?".
He started by trying to understand why a person even begins to think about suicide. Joiner points to two main contributing factors - first, having a sense that they are a burden on the people around them and society in general; and second, a lack of meaningful, reciprocal, loving relationships, or as he puts it, a lack of "belonging". Of course, people can feel that they are a burden or that they don't belong even when surrounded by loving family and friends. When struggling, a person's perception might not reflect their reality.
If someone experiences these two factors - being a burden and feeling like they don't belong - and feels hopeless about things improving, Joiner believes it is then that they are likely to consider suicide.
Thankfully, not all people who have thoughts of suicide act on these thoughts. In fact, 13.3% of Australian adults have had serious thoughts of suicide at some point, with far less (3.3%) going on to make a suicide attempt.
Joiner suggests that there is something unique about those whose suicidal thoughts translate to actual suicidal behaviours - they have developed a capacity to harm themselves, which he describes as a combination of increased pain tolerance and a fearlessness about their own death.
While the factors that lead to suicidal thoughts - feeling you're a burden on others and a lack of belonging - can fluctuate quite dramatically in response to life circumstances, fearlessness about one's own death tends not to recede. This aspect of suicidality accumulates over time with repeated exposure to physical pain, to dangerous situations, and to death itself.
Returning to the people who ask me "why?", I suspect they might wish they hadn't.
But more often than not, Joiner's explanation tends to resonate with people.
We can all relate to times when we've felt valued and worthwhile (the inverse of feeling like a burden). And many of us are lucky enough to know what it feels like to have a place where we feel welcome, and have people we know love us no matter what. But even for those who have enjoyed such connection, it's not so hard to imagine the deeply painful loneliness of not having that sense of belonging... anywhere, or with anyone. These experiences are fundamentally human.
While Joiner's attempt to articulate what leads an individual to feel suicidal is incredibly helpful, it's important for us all to ask "why?". We should all reflect on why people within our communities are feeling that they're of no value, that they're a burden. We must ask ourselves why people in our families, our workplaces, and our neighbourhoods feel they don't belong.
During this period of shutdown, many people have spoken about what it's like to feel isolated from our friends and family, and from society in general. As restrictions lift and our lives return to normal, let's use what we've learnt from this experience and make the next 'normal' better for everyone.
If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. Go to www.suicidepreventioncollaborative.org.au/need-help for a list of both online and phone supports. Or you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.
Alex Hains is the regional manager of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative