Over four times more men than
women die by suicide, but women make more
suicide attempts. One possible explanation for this pattern
is that when men attempt suicide, they tend to use more violent
methods, such as shooting themselves, whereas women have
a greater tendency to take poison or overdoses of medication,
which lets them survive if they do not ingest enough.
Suicidal people are often terribly ambivalent: they want both
to live and to die. The methods they choose to attempt suicide
sometimes also reflect the degree of this ambivalence.
About 30 to 40% of people
who take their own lives have attempted suicide previously.
The risk that someone will succeed in killing themselves
is more than 100 times higher than normal during the year
following a suicide attempt.
“There is only one philosophical
problem that is truly serious, and that is suicide.” Thus
wrote Albert Camus in the opening lines of “The Myth of
Sisyphus”, the 1942 essay that made him famous. This idea,
which underlies the entire essay, draws attention to the fact
that human beings are the only animals who can consciously decide
to end their own lives.
Historically, suicide had long been condemned by both secular and
religious authorities, until the psychiatric theories that were
advanced on this subject in the 19th century. The impressive number
of hypotheses that have been offered about suicide since that time
bears witness to the complexity of this phenomenon, which is very
often associated with depression.
In addition to philosophers and psychiatrists, the sociologists
who have studied suicide have drawn attention to social integration as
an essential variable for understanding this phenomenon. In their
view, the more sense of belonging you feel, the less likely you
are to commit suicide. In other words, the wider your social network,
the greater your chances of finding someone to listen to you if
you have serious problems, and the less likely you are to resort
example, in the late 19th century, the French sociologist Émile
Durkheim found that the rate of suicide among bachelors was higher
than among widowers and much higher than among married men. In
other words, being integrated into a family group seemed to reduce
the risks of suicide.
Many studies have subsequently supported
the idea that a higher incidence of suicide often accompanies the
disintegration of communities and the resulting isolation of individuals.
This social disintegration is often caused by rapid social changes
that render traditional standards of behaviour obsolete without
providing any new ones that individuals can clearly identify.
But suicide is a phenomenon
that involves many variables, in particular individual
biological factors. When Durkheim himself tried to establish
a typology of suicides, he discovered that social relationships
that place excessive social pressures on individuals can also lead
them to commit suicide. Thus, Durkheim classified suicide due to
insufficient social integration (for example, by an elderly person
living alone) as egoistic suicide and suicide
due to deterioration in a person's links with his or her social
network (for example, as the result of divorce or job loss) as anomic suicide.
His two other categories were altruistic suicide
(of which the Japanese kamikaze pilots during the Second World
War and the suicide bombers in today's Middle East are examples),
and fatalistic suicide (for example, a student
who kills himself after failing a crucial exam).
Some societies place excessive value on certain kinds of performance
or maintain veritable cultures
of fear. They may thereby contribute to the suicide of some
individuals who want to conform to these societal values too much
or who, on the contrary, refuse to do so. These people then see
suicide as a way out, a means of flight from
whatever is causing them to despair and to experience feelings
that they cannot tolerate.
The idea of ending one's
own life raises even more significant ethical questions when
other people are directly involved. This is the whole issue
of assisted death or euthanasia,
from the Greek eu (good) and thanatos (death),
in which third parties, usually physicians, provide someone
with a “good death” (meaning one that is easy
but premature) in order to shorten their suffering.
Someone can also ask a physician to deliberately provide him
or her with the means of committing suicide. This situation
is referred to as assisted suicide.
In assisted suicide, the patient retains control over his or
her own life, because the physician's participation remains
indirect. But this practice is the subject of fierce debate
throughout the world, because it raises fundamental questions
about human freedom and dignity.