What is Suicide?

What is Suicide?

Taken from Quebec suicide Prevention Handbook  File: Suicide

The reality is that suicide is an assault. In the Italian writer Dante’s classic work The Inferno, written in 1321, he gives readers a tour of hell. He puts suicides in his seventh circle of hell. He calls them “the violent against themselves.” They are on the same level as “the violent against their neighbors” and “tyrants.” Dante had a point: Suicide is violence turned on oneself, causing death.

But death is usually not the main goal. The sufferer’s goal is simply to end his or her own suffering. Through a process of elimination, devoid of all hope, the only choice seemingly left is suicide. Talk of suicide is an alarm signal. It is a cry for help.


Any intervention effort has to be based on listening to that cry.

Above all, an intervener has to be there. Nothing is more important than showing a willingness to listen. That is the best kind of help one can offer. The cry will be different depending on the sufferer. But any suicide is reversible right up until the final moment.

The sufferer in this state is afflicted with tunnel vision. Death seems the only way out. The intervener must present other options.

The intervener is there to listen and to convince the sufferer that their overwhelming feelings of anguish can be extinguished without extinguishing life itself.


How Widespread is the Problem?

The province of Quebec, population 8 million, boasts the highest suicide rate in North America and among the highest in the world. Every day, an average of between 3 and 4 Quebecers take their own lives. Rates among teens are at epidemic proportions. Every year in Quebec sees 10,000 attempted suicides by those under 19 years of age. That represents 1 in 50 youths of this province trying to end their own lives. Moreover, each year 40,000 youths have suicidal thoughts. Which means that in any class of 25 high school students, on average, 2 of those vibrant, dynamic young people have contemplated suicide over the previous 12-month period.

Why suicides are higher in some places than in others is a mystery. There are poorer, more economically unequal places than Quebec with much lower suicide rates.

But statistics never tell the full story. It’s always dangerous to base conclusions simply on raw data. Are these numbers accurate? The actual problem could be much worse. Suicide is an iceberg, its bulk invisible below the surface of the reflective, glassy water of our fears and social taboos. Even coroners are traditionally reluctant to rule a death a suicide without hard proof.


Prior generations were even less prone to talk about a variety of social ills, including suicide, than we are today. So it is impossible to say with any accuracy whether the situation has really got better or worse.

One  observation the  prevention   community has made is that today’s youth are less likely to disguise what they are about to do, or what they have done, than were people of their parents’ or grandparents’ generation.

More people signal their intent beforehand; more suicides leave notes now than ever before. Some recent studies show that 7 out of 10 suicides have openly talked about their plans ahead of time; others signal their intent somehow, so that in the end 8 out of 10 suicides have tried to telegraph their intentions to those around them before attempting the final, drastic act.


An attempted suicide in youth leaves scars on the survivor. It can cause permanent psychological and even physical damage.

The youth will carry these scars for the rest of his or her life. An attempted suicide is never an isolated event. It pulls inside its vortex many emotional victims: parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, friends, teachers, fellow students, workmates…

Stemming the suicide epidemic doesn’t just mean stopping suicides; it means nipping attempted suicides in the bud.

But how can this be done if no one wants to talk about it? How can we break the Omerta, the wall of silence, in a society where the whole subject is stigmatized?


Demystifying Suicide


Even in an Internet universe with no secrets, suicide is still a touchy subject. Within the intervention community, we’ve learned that it’s important to talk about it with humility, conscious of our own strengths and weaknesses as prevention counselors.

We all see the world through our own filters. Biases can get in the way of perceiving things as they really are. When dealing with a potentially suicidal person, openness of spirit is important.

There are many myths about what is, essentially, a horrible, brutal act. A myth offers the advantage of being a simple explanation for a complex set of phenomena. When someone close to you tells you they’re contemplating taking that final exit, one can always fall back on these myths.

It’s important not to jump to conclusions when intervening. Succumbing to easy stereotypes is worse than useless.


Quebec Suicide Prevention Handbook, Raymond Viger and Colin McGregor (2014), Éditions TNT.


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