My radical theory of the nature of suicide

Simply, suicide is so we won’t be a burden on the rest of the tribe. Here’s the theory:

Humans are altruistic; at least for our loved ones- family and friends- we will go to great lengths to support them, even to the extent of feeding, caring for and defending loved ones who are a net burden on the rest of their people. Why do we do this? Because human survival is group based: a band of hominids who were purely selfish individuals would not survive as well as a band that all stuck up for each other. In the long run, altruism pays (at least within limits). And that means we’ve been selected for altruism, to the extent that we’ll care for loved ones even if they will never be able to contribute to the group survival ever again. And we have very deep programming against “scuttling” people.

But at the same time, the truly useless ARE a burden, and they can hurt the groups’ chances of making it through rough times. So the optimum solution? Social creatures who are altruistic AND who will self-destruct if they feel that there is no point in their continued existence; sparing their loved ones both the burden of caring for them and the temptation to adopt “inhuman” tactics such as killing the useless.

What feelings lead people to commit suicide? Worthlessness, hopelessness, chronic pain or illness, depression (NOT mere sadness). All of which could be triggers for some sort of unconcious self-evaluation that triggers suicidal behavior if some “self-destruct score” exceeds a certain internal value.

So are people “supposed” to commit suicide? No; they’re supposed to help each other and that means eliminating the reasons WHY people might want to commit suicide: Friendlessness, social alienation, sickness, lack of worth.

I suppose a test of this hypothesis would be if any solitary, non-social creatures ever commit deliberate suicide.

I just don’t believe that every suicide in human history has been because they feel they don’t contribute to group survival anymore.

For example, The Korean Man would killed himself in defiance of the WTO, the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire to protest the S. Vietname government, and many other people have killed themselves for seemingly more complex reasons. If I could sum all these up, it would be heroism; “I’ll die so others don’t have to”, not “I’ll kill myself so my kin don’t have to kill me”. Unless, you are able to penetrate their psyche more deeply than I can.

People do occasionally commit suicide as a conscious moral choice, but that isn’t what I meant. I was thinking more in blunt terms of natural selection. If you have a species of social creatures, who have to have a high degree of altruism towards other group members for the whole group to survive, then there also has to be a mechanism to limit altruism from being practiced to a counter-productive extent. And that mechanism may be individuals self-terminating when they are in a condition where they probably would be a net burden to the group as a whole. It’s not even a “sub-conscious” choice in the Freudian sense; it’s more of a Darwinian selective effect. People who commit suicide usually do so for reasons that would seem purely selfish: “because I’m so miserable and I can’t stand it anymore”. But why do such feelings exist, and lead to suicidal behavior? Because a group of people where genes for such behavior were prevalent would survive better in the long run. The most successful group strategy is (nearly) unconditional altruism, coupled with individuals who won’t actually make too heavy a demand on that altruism.

Your theory not completely wrong, just mostly. The rebuttals to this would require a full textbook but I will try to keep it simple.

You ignored the role in mental illness (the major cause of suicide in suicide) in your theory. 60% of the people that commit suicide in the U.S. have a major mood disorder such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or dysthymia. This is an area where your theory is wrong but not completely wrong. People that have major depression usually do feel worthless to themselves, friends, and family and this can be why they finally decide to commit suicide. However, it is usually the major depression that precedes the feeling of worthlessness and being a burden to others. While life circumunstances can trigger a depressive episode, they aren’t usually the sole cause of it. Major depression is a disease that has a strong biological component. This is one reason that suicidal tendencies are inherited.. There are also some biological markers such as a seretonin imbalance in the brain that are predictive of both depression and suicide.

On the other side, we can probably all think of people that really are a true burden to their friends and families yet do not commit suicide. In fact, most people that are a burden will not commit suicide.

One factor that would seem to support part of you theory is that suicide rates go up with age.. However, one of the largest predictive factors for suicide in the elderly is a lack of family and friends, not being a burden on them.

I agree. So we should let people commit suicides.

Not to sound anti-research, but the psychiatric community as such considers the feelings that approach suicide as abnormal (if chronic) or something to be assuaged (if not chronic) in the first place. When it is precisely that which we are questioning, i.e., is there any reason for suicide in general besides definitional illness, we’re jumping the gun to head right into mood disorders.

Interesting. I’ll check these out. At first glance, twice of nothing is still nothing. A 4% trend is worth paying attention to, but offhand it doesn’t seem to be a startling revelation that depressed people have a slightly higher risk of killing themselves. Plus, the way the data is presented, the simpler conclusion is that treatment for depression is a factor more than depression itself (note how the statistic increases with increasing care! :p).

No, you are making the same mistake that people who are not familiar with clinical mood disorders always make. I stayed away from citing rates of all depression for precisely for that reason. 90% of all people that commit suicide have mild, moderate, or major depression. Every time someone brings up depression on this board, people mistake it for sadness or melencholia. I didn’t want to turn this into a debate about the nature and cause of depression so I only cited the suicide statistics for people with people with major depression . Major depression is the most severe form of depression and must be treated with medication, electroshock therapy, or both. Read about the symptoms, treatments, and causes of major depression to find more on this topic.

For a more personal account, I am Bipolar Type I (the more severe form of manic-depression). I am treated now but in the last year, I have attempted attempted suicide twice. The first time, I was in a major depressive episode and I just decided that I wanted to kill myself within the hour so I took an overdose of Valium and alcohol. I woke up in the emergency room and wondered why I even tried it at all. It was simply a result of depressive psychosis.

Fast forward several months. I went to see my brother in Baton Rouge and I was more manic than I had ever been. It was obvious to everyone. Even strangers commented on it. I won’t go into the symptoms of mania here but I will say that it is off the charts of energy and normal behavior. My brother is a police officer and he went out for the night. I was watching Pulp Fiction when one of the death scenes came on. I decided that second that killing myself right then would be the most thrilling way to conclude an intense brain-high like the one that I was riding. I literally ran upstairs grabbed his police pistol, put it in my mouth, and tried to pull the trigger. The bastard had a trigger lock on it! I looked frantically through his drawers and closet to find it. I couldn’t find it and after a few minutes I came partially to my senses, got bored, and went back to watch the movie. Please keep in mind that I wasn’t thinking about suicide at all even 5 minutes before that. Both attempts were the result of psychosis caused by the episode iteself.

People with Bipolar Disorder are more than nine times more likely than the general population to commit suicide.. Bipolar is chronic but treatable with medication for the lifetime of the patient. Logically, bipolar illness cannot be primarily caused by life events because the patient cycles to both extremes of mood, often rapidly and with no discernible cause.

Interesting, but not a radical new idea, unfort. I’ve seen this discussed on the evolutionary psychology board at Yahoo (one of the biggest forums with famous scientists weighing in).

Which is my point. One of the symptoms, of course, is recurring suicidal thoughts.

Yes, I have a close family member with this.

Sorry, I misunderstood you. Yes, major depressive causes recurring suicidal thoughts. However, my point was that this doen’t support the OP’s theory because it is a mental illness that has little relevance to life circumstances. The person affected may feel usless and like a burden but that often does not correlate with reality.