Edwin S. Shneidman (1918- 2009) is considered to be the father of contemporary suicidology. While working at the LA Veterans Administration in 1949, he was asked to write condolence letters to widows of two victims by suicide. He researched the two cases at the LA County Coroner’s Office and there was led to a vault of suicide notes. He never looked back and became a pioneer.
His passion in life to understand suicide was only equalled by his love of Melville’s Moby Dick (1853). Moby Dick itself is an extraordinary study in suicide.
Shneidman makes 3 interesting clarifications on suicide:
- The first is that the acute suicidal crisis (or period of high and dangerous lethality) is an interval of relatively short duration – to be counted in hours or days, not usually in months or years. An individual is at a peak of self-destructiveness for a brief time and is either helped, cools off, or is dead. Although one can live for years at a chronically elevated self-destructive level, one cannot have a loaded gun to one’s head for too long before either bullet or emotion is discharged.
- The second concept is ambivalence. The paradigm of suicide is not the simplistic one of wanting to or not wanting to. The prototypical psychological picture of a person on the brink of suicide is one who wants to and does not want to. He makes plans for self-destruction and at the same time entertains fantasies of rescue and intervention. The dualities of the mind’s flow constitute a cardinal feature of man’s inner life. One can no longer ask in simple Aristotelian way, “Make up your mind.” To such a question a sophisticated respondent ought to say: “But that is precisely the point. I am at least of two, perhaps several minds on this subject.”
- Most suicidal events are dyadic events, that is, two-person events. Actually this aspect of suicide has two phases: the first during the prevention of suicide when one must deal with the “significant other,” and the second in the aftermath in the case of a [completed] suicide in which one must deal with the survivor-victim. Although it is obvious that the suicidal drama takes place within an individual’s head, it is also true that most suicidal tensions are between two people keenly known to each other: spouse and spouse, parent and child, lover and lover.
He believed that suicide is preventable.
“We might say that if we have learned anything from our decade of work on this topic, we have learned that, happily, most individuals who are acutely suicidal are so for only a relatively short period, and that, even during the time they are suicidal, they are extremely ambivalent about living and dying. If the techniques for identifying these individuals before rash acts are taken can be disseminated, and if there are agencies, like the Suicide Prevention Center, in the community that can throw resources in on the side of life and give the individual some temporary sanctuary, then after a short time most individuals can go on, voluntarily and willingly, to live useful lives. We know that it is feasible to prevent suicide.”
It’s good to know that experts think so too. I feel a little less crazy. 🙂