Suicidal behaviour

Rory C. O’Connor and Noel P. Sheehy look at the cognitive style that can lead people to self-harm or take their own lives.
The suicide rate increased steadily throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s. Recent statistics suggest that it is stabilising (McClure, 2000), but it is estimated that between eight and 14 people per 100,000 kill themselves each year. In actual terms, suicide is no longer an unusual kind of death. There are a variety of views on suicidal behaviour. Some, like Albert Camus, argue that judging whether life is or is not worth living is the only true philosophical question. Others view suicide as the outcome of a disturbed mind caused by biological processes that can only be explained using psychiatric concepts and labels. Such an approach might be caricatured as the ‘Bad Apple’ explanation of suicide: If only the bad apples (the suicidal) could be distinguished from the ‘good apples’; by identifying the telltale worm that leads to suicide, they could be given appropriate therapy at an early stage. Still others see suicide as the result of society’s impact on the individual. This approach is less concerned with identifying bad apples, instead focusing on the effects of rotten barrels – social factors. So how have we come to understand suicide? What has psychology contributed to our understanding of this complex problem? These are questions that are asked time and again; unfortunately answers remain elusive.

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