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Like addiction, suicide is a form of escape. Given my suicide research background and my current focus on addiction, I thought it would be appropriate to share my perspective on their similarities.
Suicidal thoughts can lead to addiction, and addiction can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts. Beyond their co-occurrence in this downward spiral, both operate similarly as a form of escape.
Suicide is an escape from deep emotional pain, in addition to an escape from the self and the world. It often occurs when one feels hopelessly socially isolated or feels like a burden on others.
Let’s unpack what this means and how suicide and addiction operate in similar ways.
What Causes Suicide?
Before considering escapism and addiction, let’s summarize the major theories of suicide, in simple terms, from the individual to the social level.
Starting with the most individual level, Edwin Shneidman states suicide is the result of “Psychache.” He defines this as extreme emotional pain.
Roy Baumeister adds to this theory, stating that the emotional pain is produced by constant painful thoughts regarding one’s self. In his article, Suicide as Escape From Self, he shares how these thoughts often involve the sense of oneself as a failure, an impostor, or not living up to an imagined standard.
Thomas Joiner builds on both of these theories in his Interpersonal Theory of Suicide. He states that the pain and thoughts result from the lack of belonging, combined with feeling like a burden and hopelessness regarding the prospects of this ever changing.
These theories can be mapped onto the societal level, considering Émile Durkheim’s sociological theory of suicide. At this level, suicide is often the result of an unregulated, individualistic society where people lose a sense of purpose and no longer feel a sense of community.
The risk of suicide is produced on various levels. Each case’s details will vary, but these theories highlight a general way of thinking about suicide, beyond some of the myth about it.
Let’s now consider how suicide and addiction are a form of escape.
Escaping Emotional Pain
As I share in my article on the root causes of addiction, trauma, and the pain of unmet needs, often fuels addiction. Substances or addictive behaviors serve as a way to cope with these challenges in the short-term, leading to increased difficulties in the long-term.
Addictions and suicide are both ways to escape from emotional pain. They are both short-term solutions with long-term consequences, affecting many others beyond the individual.
Like Baumeister’s description in Suicide as Escape From Self, people often use substances or addictive behaviors to cope with aversive thoughts such as, “I am not enough, I don’t deserve any better, and I am a failure.”
Like Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, persons with an addiction often feel isolated, as described in my article on the impact of isolation on addiction. They also begin to feel increasingly burdensome, beginning to believe others may be better off without them.
These similarities can also be observed on a societal level, as highlighted by the sociological theory of suicide. Community degradation can lead to economic despair, family disintegration, and increased rates of addiction.
Although addiction and suicide frequently occur together, they both independently function through similar processes.
A War In Your Head
In the case of both addiction and suicide, the individual experiences an intense mental struggle. They want a better way forward while also wanting to escape the pain. This battle is characterized in my article highlighting Stephanie’s experience, here:
“It was the biggest mind war I ever went through. You know what you’re doing is hurting you but can’t stop. It’s like watching a bad movie you are the star of.”
Suicide works the same way. A person often stays in a state of uncertainty of whether they will follow through with it, right until it’s too late to turn back. Fortunately, Kevin Hines lived to share his experience. After surviving a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, he shares:
“I thought it was too late, I said to myself, ‘What have I done, I don’t want to die ‘”
Although he got a second chance, many others likely had the same thoughts while suspended mid-air, who did not survive.
This tragic reality highlights how suicide, like addiction, is not the person’s preferred path. No one wakes up one day and decides they want to become addicted to heroin. It is a gradual process, fraught with internal battles and mixed desires.
As highlighted by Kevin, a person thinking about suicide does not want to die. They want to escape the pain. Addictions are ways to escape the problem temporarily, but result in more pain in the long-term.
The link between addiction and suicide can be best highlighted in opioid addiction, particularly among Fentanyl users. In my experience working in a residential withdrawal context, persons using Fentanyl are generally well aware of the overdose risk, likely knowing several others who have overdosed. Speaking to these individuals, I often gathered there was a constant state of suicidal contemplation. Although they didn’t want to die, part of them hoped for it so that the pain would go away.
Playing Russian roulette with Fentanyl seemed to be a way to dull the pain while remaining open to the potential for a fatal outcome. This tragic situation has been recently highlighted by professional commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine:
“…data suggest that the true proportion of suicides among opioid-overdose deaths is somewhere between 20% and 30%, but it could be even higher.”
With the absence of a note, opioid overdose suicides are challenging to study, since the motive cannot be known. Also, as highlighted by the Golden Gate Bridge example, a person’s motives are often highly ambiguous, changing moment to moment as the war in their head continues.
Both suicide and addiction function through similar processes. They are attempts to escape from emotional pain caused by underlying troubling thoughts, unmet needs, or a sense of being hopelessly isolated and a burden on others. This process operates on an emotional level, a cognitive level, an interpersonal level, and a societal level.
If you want to learn more about the subjective experiences of individuals thinking about suicide, I’ve written an in-depth article here: Inside the Mind of a Suicidal Person
To learn more about my sociological perspective on suicide, see my article here: How is Suicide a Social Problem?
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to someone you trust or seek help from a qualified professional.
If you are in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (in the US) or seek out your local Crisis Centre and speak to someone who can help.
At greater risks are those who consume the endless news cycle of despair – increasing further isolation, anxiety and feelings of futility due to the pandemic compounded by personal addictions, etc. This becomes a vicious cycle of hopelessness and a “no-way-out” scenario. I believe this is where Higher Power becomes essential to “let go and let God do the work” – often times easier said than done. However, there are those who did find a way out as illustrated in Victor Frankl’s iconic book and from your article “The Importance of Having Direction in Life” and quoting:
“Although one’s role may change, one’s values can be eternal. The prominent psychologist, Victor Frankl, highlights this in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, where he tells his story of surviving several concentration camps. He states:“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Ultimately it is our choice and being accountable to one’s life as to how one not only survives, but thrives. Thanks for an important article for this month of Suicide Prevention Awareness. There is hope and there is help.
Thank you, Richard! I like the connection between this article, Frank’s work, and my article on having direction in life. Thanks for your continued interest in my writing over the years.
I agree with this, I hope you don’t mind, I shared.
Thanks! No problem!