Could suicide be a deranged self-sacrificial act?
What do honeybees, ants and humans have in common? Thomas E. Joiner, Ph.D., a distinguished professor in the department of psychology at Florida State University, and his colleagues argued that eusocial species such as humans, honeybees and ants share a similar social organizational system designed to promote the survival of the species as a whole through the use of colony-level cooperation (i.e., cooperative and multigenerational care of the young and division of labor for cooperative defense and reproduction).
One of the main aspects of eusociality is the tendency to self-sacrifice in defense of the colony as a whole. British evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton used the term “inclusive fitness” to describe the tendency of eusocial species to engage in self-sacrificial behaviors when there is greater genetic benefit (i.e., survival of multiple copies of the individual’s genes in surviving kin) than costs of sacrificing his or her own life. Nonhuman eusocial species tend to self-sacrifice to save the lives of others within the same colony or with close genetic relatedness, said Joiner and his colleagues. For example, nest-burying ants sacrifice themselves to seal their nest against predation, while stingless bees use a “death grip” to permanently lock their jaws on intruders to protect the rest of the colony.
The researchers theorized that, similar to other eusocial species, humans also self-sacrifice for the sake of other members of the community when they are threatened or perceive their own deaths to be of a greater benefit to family members (i.e., those with highly shared genes) and other friends or loved ones (i.e., colony mates). For example, firefighters risk their lives to save people from burning buildings and police officers and military personnel voluntarily place their lives in danger to protect the lives of others. Self-sacrificial human behaviors are evident across time periods and different cultures, and are integral to our ability to succeed as a species.
Association between eusocial self-sacrifice and suicidal behavior
The tendency of eusocial species to engage in self-sacrificial behavior closely parallels the suicidal behaviors that are present in humans who may similarly believe that their death will be worth more to others than their life, argued Joiner and his colleagues. Numerous studies indicate that the risk of committing suicide or having suicidal ideation is higher when people believe that they are burdensome to others. The risk of suicide is particularly high among individuals who are unemployed, mentally ill or who have a chronic physical condition. They may view themselves as causing undue burden and believe that their own lives must be sacrificed to benefit surviving family members, loved ones and society as a whole.
Studies have also found evidence for the heightened risk of suicide among people who are facing an acute crisis, which is more likely to occur when people are depressed or diagnosed with a serious medical condition, when they develop substance abuse or a condition that produces chronic physical pain, or when they anticipate a loss or actually lose a significant relationship. In addition, patients who have a prior history of suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts, severe psychiatric comorbidity or a history of impulsive behaviors are considered to be in a chronic high-risk group for suicide, said Jan A. Fawcett, M.D.
Joiner and his colleagues suggested that there is a lot of overlap between human suicide and eusocial self-sacrifice in nonhumans, particularly in the aspects of overarousal and withdrawal that are often present during colony defense reactions. An example of eusocial self-sacrifice in nonhumans involves the social withdrawal and anxiety to relocate away from the rest of the colony to die to prevent the spread of a pathogen to others in the colony.
The researchers suggested that suicide is a prime example of derangement or a disturbance of regular mental order, as it directly opposes a fundamental biological need to self-preserve, and that mental disorders occur in a minimum of 90 percent of individuals who commit suicide.
Acute suicidal affective disturbance: A new clinical diagnosis?
Several characteristics exist among persons in the final hours and days prior to their death by suicide, including heightened arousal (e.g., agitation, insomnia), psychological and social withdrawal, consequences of withdrawal (e.g., weight loss), and a preoccupation with burdening others (e.g., their families). Joiner and his colleagues proposed that these indicators of suicide risk comprise a new mental disorder, which they called acute suicidal affective disturbance (ASAD). They argued that ASAD is a mental disorder characterized by the following symptoms:
A geometric increase in suicidal intent or planning (e.g., gathering of materials for an attempt) over the course of hours or days
Alienation, demonstrated by withdrawal, or disgust or perceptions that one is a burden
Belief that suicidal intent and alienation are intractable
Overarousal symptoms, including agitation, marked irritability, nightmares and insomnia
Fifteen to 20 percent of deaths by suicide are attributable to ASAD, estimated Joiner. Studies by Joiner and his colleagues have aimed to validate the construct of ASAD so that it may be identified as a clinical disorder in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-6). In one recent study, Joiner and his colleagues recruited 195 university students who had a history of suicide attempt(s), history of suicidal ideation, and no history of suicide attempts or suicidal ideation. The results indicated that the symptoms of ASAD were related to multiple suicide attempts and a number of risk factors.
Suicide — when people direct violence at themselves with the intent to end their lives — is a significant public health problem that takes the lives of thousands of people each year. Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States in 2013, with 41,149 Americans who committed suicide and over 494,169 people who were treated in emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite the rising rates of death by suicide in the past several decades, the tendency to take one’s own life has yet to be given its own diagnostic criteria and independently diagnosed.
Suicide is a serious problem in the United States that affects individuals, their friends and families, and society as a whole. Among people with substance abuse, mental illness and co-occurring disorders, the risk for suicide and self-harming behaviors are especially high. Joiner and his colleagues provided a framework for suicide in a social context to understand what may be triggering the rising suicidal thoughts and behavior in society. To have a greater understanding of the derangement of a valuable human characteristic (i.e., to self-sacrifice for others) can be helpful for promoting the understanding, destigmatization and eventual prevention of suicide and self-harming behaviors.
The Sovereign Health Group recognizes that people with mental illness, substance abuse and comorbid disorders have a heightened risk for suicide. During the intake process, patients are provided thorough biopsychosocial and medical assessments to determine their risk for suicidal behaviors and to treat all underlying and co-occurring disorders concurrently. Our patients receive a holistic array of behavioral health treatment services for patients with substance abuse, mental illness and co-occurring disorders. To find out more about Sovereign Health’s treatment programs, please contact our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.
About the author
Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.