Why I Study Suicide

As a psychotherapist, I specialize in helping people who think about suicide or harm themselves. I also do research on the subject of suicide. Here are some of my reasons why. (For more of my story, see my essay in the New York Times, “A Suicide Therapist’s Secret Past.”)

Sometimes a professor asks me, sometimes a student, sometimes a stranger at a dinner party.  Almost always, the question has a certain tone, as though disbelief and judgment are louder than the mere words being spoken:  “What made you want to study suicide?”

This is what I usually tell people:  As a crisis counselor and then as a clinical social worker at suicide hotlines and psychiatric emergency rooms, I worked with hundreds of people who thought about or attempted suicide.  During that time, I learned immensely about the troubles facing suicidal people, and I want to understand how best to help them.

It sounds reasonable, and it keeps the conversation going without any tears.  And it’s true, my professional experiences definitely shaped my research interests in studying suicide.  But there is more to it than that.

Too Young to Die

What first gave birth to my questions about suicide occurred long ago, when I was 15.  I went to high school in Houston in the 1980s, during the same time that six teens in six months died by suicide in Plano, a suburb of Dallas. Plano was 250 miles away, but we still heard about it.  It was all over the news.

Then we began hearing about teen-agers in a suburb of Houston killing themselves.  Then, a friend of the younger brother of my best friend – a 13-year-old in junior high – died by suicide.  It was getting closer, and closer.

And then it got too close.  On Easter Sunday of my sophomore year in high school, a boy in my grade named Daniel killed himself outside his family’s kitchen window.  I did not know him, but it showed me that suicide could happen to anyone, anywhere.

Five days after Daniel’s death, another boy in my class died.  He killed himself after a party.  He was my friend, a boy named Cipe.  When he left the party, he hugged me tightly and said in a tone that only later struck me as plaintive, “Goodbye, Stacey.  Take good care of yourself.”  Everybody loved Cipe, boys and girls alike. He seemed to have everything going for him.  Two hours later, he was dead.

Looking at the Sky

In the days and weeks that followed Cipe’s death, suicide haunted, even tempted, other teenagers in my school. One day as I left the gym locker room, I saw two girls arguing by the sinks. Then I heard glass break. I ran back inside to find that one of the girls had broken a window and was cutting her wrist with a shard of glass as the other girl struggled to take the glass away.

Another time, at a party a couple weekends after Cipe’s death, a boy told a friend he was going to kill himself, and he locked himself in the bathroom. On the other side of the door, we pleaded with him not to do anything to himself. An hour later, he came out, unharmed physically but deeply hurting emotionally.

To the question that everybody asks – Why study suicide? – these events shape my answer. In researching people who struggle with, even succumb to, suicidal thoughts, I am trying to learn why so many people like my friend Cipe reject the sky, why so many people like the girl in the locker room hurt themselves, why so many people like the boy in the bathroom are chased by suicidal thoughts.

Hope Amid Tragedy

My reasons sound painful and depressing, but they actually arise from passion and hope.  I am passionate that many people who end their lives have fallen for a trick of the brain that makes them perceive things wrongly.  Emotional pain can do that.  What’s bad in a suffering person’s life can seem everlasting, and what’s good can become invisible. 

Depression and other problems that inspire suicide kill twice.  Before killing their victim, they first must kill their victim’s hope.

It certainly can seem like there is no hope in some situations.  Awful things happen to people, in their world and inside their head.  But I have worked with people who desperately wanted to die and then were horrified by such thoughts only months or even days later, buoyed by antidepressants, psychotherapy, perspective, recovery, or some other salve.  In fact, the vast majority of people who survive a suicide attempt live many more years and eventually die by causes other than suicide.

So, strange as it sounds, studying suicide gives me hope.  Research leads us to treatments, prevention programs, and health policies that can save lives.  With continued study of suicide, I have hope we can understand better why people cut short their lives, and I have hope that we can help stop the unnecessary deaths.

© 2013 Stacey Freedenthal. All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com. All photos on this page courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net except for the photo of stormy clouds, which was purchased from Fotolia.com.