Why “Happy” People Die By Suicide

What is the difference between thoughts of death and suicidal thoughts? Why do people have them? In this article, Chris Lee PMHNP-BC discusses suicide and why it may occur in people who are not depressed.

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44,965 Americans die by suicide every year.

MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA - A lot of people ask me about “suicidal thoughts” and depression lately. They want to know if their disturbing thoughts are normal or not. Here are some answers.

Thoughts of death are common. An example would be wondering if death would be easier than life, or imagining how friends and family would react when they hear. We ask questions like, “will it hurt?” 

We might think about bullets and what it would feel like to get shot, who would we text first, and what we would say. A lot of people are scared of death and sometimes wonder which way would be most gentle way to die.

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Thoughts of death are common and healthy. Your brain is made to imagine these distressing scenarios to help you survive. It wants you to understand darkness so that you will go and seek light. It is the brain's natural way of teaching us how to protect ourselves and to keep our body safe, alive, and well. 

When a person no longer has hunger for food, they eventually die. When a person no longer has hunger for life, they also die. These are two examples where something is in the brain is NOT normal. Rather than telling the person to seek survival rather than death, it is telling them to do the exact opposite, which is to seek death rather than survival.

"Suicidal thoughts" are very specific. It’s easiest to describe suicidal thoughts as the planning of a murder — In this case, the victim is one's self. These thoughts contain violence and a plan. If a person has these, it is a medical emergency due to the imminent risk of harm or death.

 

Not every depressed person has suicidal thoughts, and not every person who dies by suicide is depressed.

 

Suicide can happen due to financial loss, history of substance use, criminal conviction, diagnosis of a terminal illness, and even for religious reasons. 

Research has shown that suicidal people are actually not depressed and are very motivated at the time of suicide. Their desperation to find comfort and relief through death may be very authentic to them. In the same way that most people are motivated to be happy and to reach their goals, suicidal patients are also motivated. Sadly, the direction of their motivation is what causes a suicide attempt to be successful.

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Depressed patients are not the only population at risk for suicide. People with bipolar, schizophrenia, GLBTs, veterans, trauma victims, incarcerated persons, substance users, older people, very wealthy people, and terminally ill patients are several other populations where suicide rates run high. One thing they all share in common is the risk of isolation, real or perceived, from the rest of society.

However, isolation does not mean a person was dealt a lesser hand in life than another. In 2016, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that Caucasian males accounted for 7 out of 10 deaths by suicide in America. Can privilege be a contributing factor to isolation? Is there any insurmountable pressure that the rest of the population does not experience?

How can people who were dealt an upper hand in life -- with fame, fortune, talent, or power -- become isolated? 

The term "death by suicide" is used by mental health experts because it reduces the blame placed upon the victim who died.

 

My thoughts on the recent celebrity deaths by suicide of Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, Avicii, and Chester Benningfield — These people became famous because they were stood out from other people who were doing the same thing. They were different. Not only were they outliers in society, but they each became very famous and very wealthy in a short period of time.

They achieved their goals beyond what any average person can dream of, and perhaps they felt disappointed to find that their dreams had come true but happiness was not there.

I believe they were all stuck in a very isolated place — financially, professionally, and socially. Their ability to build huge empires and impact so many people indicates that they all started out as highly motivated individuals, but may have experienced a complete loss of control as everybody in their life took a piece of the pie. Standing out is what them special, but the outside can be a very lonely place.

 

Chris Lee, MS, ARNP, PMHNP-BC, is a psychiatric nurse practitioner based in Miami Beach, Florida.

 

** Visit https://afsp.org/ to learn more and find ways to fight stigma and combat suicide. 

**If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Chris Lee