Why Do We Commit Suicide?

Learn how to identify the warning signs and help those in need before they harm themselves.
Every 16 minutes, someone in America commits suicide. (Photo: Getty Images)
Sep 6, 2011· 3 MIN READ
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Suicide is not a uniquely human behavior. Just ask Ric O’Barry, the dolphin trainer-turned-activst who claims he witnessed one of his own dolphins make the decision to stop breathing and sink to the bottom of the tank 40 years ago.

“The suicide was what turned me around,” O’Barry told TIME. “The [animal entertainment] industry doesn’t want people to think dolphins are capable of suicide, but these are self-aware creatures with a brain larger than a human brain. If life becomes so unbearable, they just don’t take the next breath. It’s suicide.”

Thomas Joiner, a Florida State University psychologist, agrees.

“Across nature there seems to be the same kind of calculation,” said Joiner. “Is my death worth more than my life? Suicides of all kinds involve this calculation, from bacteria and insects to conventional suicide deaths and even suicide terrorists.”

Most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives.

It is, however, perhaps a uniquely human trait to fatally miscalculate our own circumstances in life. As Jesse Bering of Scientific American notes, “most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives,” making the treatment of suicidal patients all the more difficult.

Suicide rates are higher in nations with higher standards of living than in less prosperous nations; higher in US states with a better quality of life; higher in societies that endorse individual freedoms; higher in areas with better weather; . . . and they’re higher among college students that have better grades and parents with higher expectations.

Why? According to Bering, being poor doesn’t necessarily put you at risk of committing suicide, but being rich and losing everything does. It’s the fall from grace that sends us spiraling, and when coupled with a sense of personal responsibility and lack of inhibition, it’s a potent mix that could send the vulnerable into a suicidal state.


So how do we identify the warning signs? Not surprisingly, the most likely victim is the one with a previous suicide attempt. But even if someone hasn’t already considered taking their own life, there are a few other telltale signs that they might be at risk of doing so in the future.

According to the National Insitute of Mental Health, some of the symptoms include:

  • Depression and other mental disorders
  • Substance-abuse disorder (often in combination with other mental disorders)
  • Family history of mental disorder, substance abuse, or suicide
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
  • Firearms in the home, the method used in more than half of suicides
  • Incarceration
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, such as family members, peers, or media figures.

Taken alone, many of these symptoms may not seem to justify ending one’s life. But in combination, they set the stage for a potentially life-threatening situation.

“Physical or sexual abuse as a child, combat exposure, and domestic abuse can also ‘prep’ the individual for the physical pain associated with suicidal behavior,” says Bering.

“In addition, heritable variants of impulsivity, fearlessness and greater physical pain tolerance may help to explain why suicidality often runs in families.”


Suicide affects just about every population on the planet, regardless of age, race, gender or culture. There are, however, trends worth noting, some of them surprising.

According to SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education):

  • There are three female suicide attempts for each male attempt in the United States.
  • Despite this, there are four male suicides for every female suicide.
  • 73% of suicides tested positive for at least one substance (alcohol, cocaine, heroin or marijuana).
  • Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-old Americans. (CDC)
  • Over half of all suicides occur in adult men, ages 25-65.
  • Native Americans and non-Hispanic whites are most likely to commit suicide — 14.3 victims per 100,000 and 13.5 victims per 100,000, respectively.
  • African-Americans and Hispanics are least likely to commit suicide — 5.1 victims per 100,000 and 6.0 victims per 100,000, respectively.

Why the discrepancy between men and women? One theory is that women are more likely to ingest poisons than men, leading to situations where they can still be saved by medical treatment. In countries where hospitals aren’t readily available, treatment often arrives too late, resulting in more female suicides than males.


Unfortunately, there is no easy way to predict if a suicide is going to happen. But if you suspect that a friend or loved one is considering taking their own life, here are three ways to help protect them from themselves:


Simply put, the most important thing you can do. A recent survey by the Choose Life organization found that 46 percent of people would not even ask someone who was showing suicidal tendencies if they wanted assistance—and this despite the fact that 44 percent of them believed the gesture would be appreciated. Don’t leave the task of saving to someone else. Take the lead and offer your company.


As soon as you can, take your friend to a doctor or emergency room so that they can treated by a professional. If that isn’t possible, take advantage of the resources available 24/7 for people suffering through a suicidal crisis. Talking to someone in a crisis situation is not only important, it can mean the difference between life and death.

National Suicide Prevention 24 Hr Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255)


If you’re unable to get them into a safe environment, the best course of action may be to make their environment as safe as possible. Remove all firearms and potential tools for suicide, including unsupervised use of medications. Of course, there may be a limit to what you can do in this situation, but it’s never a bad thing to make the task as difficult as possible.