The singer from the rock group Soundgarden, Chris Cornell, passed away this past week due to a postulated suicide. High profile performers pass away every year and we take little notice but Cornell’s suicide has hit many of us deeply because he was not an angry young man with a death wish nor was he apparently exhibiting signs of being depressed or suicidal. When I heard of his passing early in the morning I was dumbstruck because of his status as a statesman of rock who had already passed through the gauntlet so many young men face just starting out in life where intense pressures to perform, achieve, and “be a man” become real and ever-present. I considered Chris Cornell to be well-adjusted for a rock star. He had a great marriage, two beautiful children (a preteen and a teen), plus an older daughter from his previous marriage. By all accounts, he was devoted to his family first and career second, which makes suicide nearly inconceivable (at least that is how I felt and still feel).
My family has also been touched by the suicide of a male member when I was a young teen when my uncle decided to end his life after learning he had cancer. That was my first experience with death and I was terribly confused about why he would choose to end his own life and leave behind so many hurt and wounded family members (a feeling that persists to this day). My father also attempted (or at least dramatically stated that was his intention) suicide when he yelled at everyone to “get out” because he was going to shoot himself. We waited outside in complete horror for the gunshot that thankfully never occurred. Ironically, he was to pass away just a few short years later in 1982 (his outburst had been several years earlier in the late-1970s when men bottled it all up until they exploded and seeking mental health care was considered a sign of weakness for a man, in fact, it still is).
While I was serving in the US Army in 1984-85 in Germany there was a time when overwork and stress were contributing factors to a period of intense feelings of hopelessness, despair, and anger. I was likely in an episode of what could have been diagnosed as major clinical depression but, again, mental health is and was a taboo subject for men and I never sought treatment (I did get better as it was mostly situational). Depression, anxiety, and battles with self-esteem, self-worth, and low self-efficacy have been near-constant companions throughout my life, much as for Chris Cornell, and at the age of 50 I very oddly feel myself entering an age of statesmanship similar to Cornell where others look to me as a realized human being with valuable experience and insights.
The reasons why a man might decide to commit suicide are many and vary from man to man but some of the underlying motivators are similar as pointed out in the article below by Jed Diamond. For highly sensitive men (and, yes, it is okay to be a man and highly sensitive) the challenges are many with regard to feelings of aloneness, being a burden and not feeling afraid to die. HSPs, as we know, are prone to depressive and anxious thinking due to more elaborate processing of experiences on many levels. Over the course of years/decades, the wearing effect may take a tremendous toll on our bodies, minds, and spirits. Sometimes it may seem impossible (or implausible) that we serve as vessels capable of containing so much emotion, feeling, and thoughts. Some of us do so only with the aid of alcohol, drugs, or other crutches or coping mechanisms, while others develop a deep spirituality or self-care practices that sustain and calm us in a sea of swirling forces threatening to pull us apart at the seams.
However we face life, the awful challenges of developing real friendships that can sustain us, feeling as if we are productive and pulling our own weight, and not subscribing to an overly hegemonic ideal of manhood as not fearing death or pain weighs on every man, indeed every person alive.
As highly sensitive men perhaps one of the purposes we may serve to the world is to embody and exemplify deeper understandings of life and what it means to be truly alive in a world that seems hell-bent on the mindless pursuit of efficiency and productivity at the cost of our humanity.
I don’t believe we can arrive at the answers through the loss of one person but we can and should begin the dialog around what it means to be deep feeling, deep thinking, and creative in mind and soul in ways that empower populations, sustain and nurture our families, and enhances our communities. We, as highly sensitive men, are imbued with a gift that may be difficult to navigate in our dualistic world but that offers the potential of a broader definition of real humanness than would otherwise be possible without us.
Stand up and be counted sensitive men! Stand up and be who and what you are with no apologies to anyone. Embrace and embody your true strengths of character for a world desperately in need of compassionate leadership. Your strengths of empathy, creativity, and sensitivity far outweigh their weaknesses of single-mindedness, superficiality, and lack of emotional depth. Your strength is your heart, your creative soul, and your fortitude in the face of untold days that could have claimed you anywhere along the way.
This world needs men who will stay around and teach the children, support and grow others to their full potential, and pass on what we have learned about getting through life as complex beings riding the knife-edge of sanity/insanity, riding the emotional waves rather than being swallowed in the undertow, and leading societies that have long ago lost their way in favor of crass, materialistic idols of gold and silver. Sensitive men, the challenge for you (and me) is to lead through a quiet strength of character that others feel no fear of because it is open, inviting, warm and human. That, my friends, is worth staying alive for…
~Tracy Cooper, PhD
Jed Diamond, P.h.D, looks at suicide in men from both an individual and societal vantage point and gives ways to prevent it from happening.
Recently I received a review copy of the book, Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success by Thomas Joiner, Ph.D. I was happy to offer a review. Dr. Joiner is one of the world’s leading experts on suicide and has published two previous books, Myths about Suicide (Harvard University Press 2010) and Why People Die by Suicide (Harvard University Press 2005).
Dr. Joiner and I share a professional interest in suicide prevention. Suicide is a major world-wide epidemic taking the lives of over 1,000,000 people a year, according to the World Health Organization. Estimates suggest that 10 to 20 times more individuals attempt suicide.
Self-harm now takes more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined.
Our personal lives have also been touched by suicide. My mid-life father tried to commit suicide when I was 5 years old. Although he lived, our lives were never the same. I grew up wondering what happened to my father and was terrified that the same thing would happen to me. My life-long interest in men’s health grew from my desire to help men, and the women and children who love them, to understand what causes men to give up on life and what we can do to keep them engaged.
Dr. Joiner’s father, also named Thomas, killed himself when Dr. Joiner was in his third year of graduate school. Although the senior Thomas was depressed, he didn’t seem like a suicide risk. As reported by Tony Dokoupil in a recent article, The Suicide Epidemic, “the 56-year old Joiner was gregarious, the kind of guy who was forever talking and laughing and bending people his way. He wasn’t a brittle person with bad genes and big problems. Thomas Joiner Sr. was a successful businessman, a former Marine, tough even by Southern standards.” As it turned out, these “manly” traits may have contributed to his demise.
Joiner remembers the day his father disappeared. “Dad had left an unmade bed in a spare room, and an empty spot where his van usually went. By nightfall he hadn’t been heard from, and the following morning my mother called me at school. The police had found the van. It was parked in an office lot about a mile from the house, the engine cold. Inside, in the back, the police found my father dead, covered in blood. He had been stabbed through the heart.”
The investigators found slash marks on his father’s wrists and a note on a yellow sticky pad by the driver’s seat. “Is this the answer?” it read, in his father’s shaky scrawl. They ruled it a suicide, death by “puncture wound,” an impossibly grisly way to go, which made it all the more difficult for Joiner to understand.
Suicide is a Primarily Male Problem
In his latest book, Lonely at the Top, Joiner asks, “which cause of death stands out as affecting men far more than women? Given their privileged financial and society status, perhaps it has something to do with the dark side of wealth and power such as the cardiac or stroke-related consequences of influential but stressful jobs, or a taste for expensive but unhealthy foods?”
“No,” he says, “It’s suicide.” Approximately 30,000 people commit suicide each year in the U.S. and 80% were men. Overall, males kill themselves at rates that are 4 times higher than females. But in certain age groups men are even more vulnerable. The suicide rate for those ages 20-24 is 5.4 times higher for males than for females of the same age.
In the older age groups suicide is even more a “male problem.” After retirement, the suicide rate skyrockets for men, but not for women. Between the ages of 65-74 the rate is 6.3 times higher for males. Between the ages of 75-84, the suicide rate is 7 times higher. And for those over 85, it is nearly 18 times higher for men than it is for women.
A New Understanding of Why People Die by Suicide
Joiner is 47 now, and a chaired professor at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. He’s made it his life’s work to understand why people kill themselves and what we can do to prevent them from taking their lives. He hopes to honor his father, by combating what killed him and by making his death a stepping stone to better treatment. “Because,” as he says, “no one should have to die alone in a mess in a hotel bathroom, in the back of a van, or on a park bench, thinking incorrectly that the world will be better off without them.”
Dr. Joiner has proposed a new theory of why people commit suicide which he believes is more accurate than previous formulations offered by writers like Edwin Schneidman, Ph.D. and Aaron Beck, MD. According to Schneidman’s model, the key motivator which drives people to suicide is psychological pain. In Beck’s understanding, the key motivator is the development of a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Dr. Joiner suggests that these are correct understandings but are also too vague to be useful for predictive purposes and not capable of offering a complete motivational picture.
Joiner proposes that there are three key motivational aspects which contribute to suicide. These are: 1) a sense of not belonging, of being alone, 2) a sense of not contributing, of being a burden 3) a capability for suicide, not being afraid to die. All three of these motivations or preconditions must be in place before someone will attempt suicide.
Although women, too, can take their own lives when they suffer at the intersection of “feeling alone, feeling a burden, and not being afraid to die,” this is clearly a more male phenomenon. Throughout our lives males take more risks and invite injury more often. We are taught that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” and “no pain, no gain.”
We often invest so much of our lives in our work, when we lose our jobs or retire we feel worthless, unable to contribute. It’s a short step to feeling we are a burden on those we love. We also put less effort into developing and maintaining friendships so we can come to feel more and more alone.
Preventing Suicide In Men
I’ve found that Joiner’s model, what he calls the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, can be very helpful in understanding suicide risk in men. The three overlapping circles help alert us to the kinds of questions we might ask ourselves if we want to prevent suicide. Joiner and his colleagues have developed a questionnaire that addresses these issues. Here are a few of the items they assess:
These days, I feel disconnected from other people.
These days, I rarely interact with people who care about me.
These days, I don’t feel I belong.
These days, I often feel like an outsider in social gatherings.
These days the people in my life would be better off if I were gone.
These days the people in my life would be happier without me.
These days I think I have failed the people in my life.
These days I feel like a burden on the people in my life.
Capacity for Suicide:
Things that scare most people do not scare me.
The sight of my own blood does not bother me.
I can tolerate a lot more pain than most people.
I am not at all afraid to die.
Like most people, I’ve had thoughts of suicide at numerous times in my life, but the one time I felt at high risk of actually killing myself was when all three sectors overlapped. I was lucky that my wife was smart enough to remove the guy from the house until I saw a therapist and got into treatment for my depression and my suicide risk subsided.
Some people believe that if a person is going to kill themselves, there’s nothing one can do. If you try to stop them, they’ll just bide their time and do it later. However, we now know that suicidal intention is transient. If we can get support to get through those times when we feel disconnected, a burden to others, and having the means and mind-set to actually kill ourselves, we can begin to develop the social supports to turn things around.
I suspect the difference between James Joiner’s dad and my dad wasn’t their level of “thwarted belongingness” or “perceived burdensomeness” but my father’s lower capacity for suicide. Disrupt one of the risk circles and we buy ourselves more time to heal. Making a connection can be as simple as a smile. I read the report of a man who left a note as he walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. It said, “If one person smiles at me, I won’t kill myself.” The note was found after he had plunged to his death. We can all reach out, in our own way, and touch someone who may feel disconnected, disrespected, and useless.
We can also let in the love when we are feeling down. I remind myself, and my clients, to take heed of the lines from the Eagles song Desperado. “You better let somebody love you, you better let somebody love you, you better let somebody love you…before it’s too late.”
If you’re dealing with feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide, help is available. 800-273-TALK (8255) is on-call 24/7 if you need to talk, or reach out to a friend or health professional in your life.
Tracy Cooper, PhD is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career, and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person. Dr. Cooper provides consulting services on a one on one basis to HSPs in career crisis or transition and to high sensation seeking highly sensitive people on general topics. He also appeared in the documentary Sensitive-The Untold Story. His website may be found at drtracycooper.com.