BEING DEAD BUT YET ALIVE. The psychological secrets of suicide – Britt Mann * A Very Human Ending: How Suicide Haunts Our Species – Jesse Bering.

There’s a tipping point where the agony of living becomes worse than the pain of dying. Many of us would rather go to our graves keeping up appearances than reveal we’re secretly coming undone. We are the only species on earth that deliberately ends its own life. Depression is a secret tomb that no one sees but you, being dead but yet alive.

Statistically we’re far more likely to perish intentionally by our own hand than to die of causes that are more obviously outside of our control. In fact, historically, suicide has accounted for more deaths than all wars and homicides combined.

“Never kill yourself while you are suicidal.” Edwin Shneidman, suicideologist

The suicidal mind is cognitively distorted, and unreliable when it comes to intelligent decision making. As such, waiting out a dark night of the soul, especially if you’re a teenager, a demographic more likely to kill themselves impulsively, can yield a brighter tomorrow.
Even if the act of killing oneself could be considered rational, the “tremendous urge” to do so rarely lasts longer than 24 hours.

Understanding suicidal urges, from a scientific perspective, can keep many people alive, at least in the short term. My hope is that knowing how it all works will help us to short-circuit the powerful impetus to die when things look calamitous.

It’s that everyday person dealing with suicidal thoughts, the suicidal person in all of us, who is the main subject of this book.

American writer and research psychologist Jesse Bering was considering taking his own life before he was offered a job in New Zealand.

Bering found himself fantasising about a tree near his house in upstate New York, which had a particular bough “crooked as an elbow” that seemed a perfect place from which to hang himself.
So goes the opening anecdote in his latest book, A Very Human Ending: How Suicide Haunts Our Species.

In New Zealand, his desire to die has subsided, but the spectre of suicide still emits a “low hum” in his life. His new book explores why people decide to kill themselves, born from a need to understand his own psyche, and prompt those on the edge to think twice before stepping off.

“The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, and unfortunately that’s the case with suicidal thinking and especially suicide attempts. The likelihood of me being in that state again is pretty high… I think of the book as this is me having a conversation with my future self, to talk me out of this.”

The suicidal mind is cognitively distorted, and unreliable when it comes to intelligent decision making. As such, waiting out a dark night of the soul, especially if you’re a teenager, a demographic more likely to kill themselves impulsively, can yield a brighter tomorrow.
Even if the act of killing oneself could be considered rational, the “tremendous urge” to do so rarely lasts longer than 24 hours.

A Very Human Ending: How Suicide Haunts Our Species

Jesse Bering

‘This book touches on some deep questions relevant to us all… A fascinating, thoughtful, unflinching meditation on one of the most intriguing and curious aspects of the human condition.‘ Dr Frank Tallis

Why do people want to kill themselves? Despite the prevalence of suicide in the developed world, it’s a question most of us fail to ask. On hearing news of a suicide we are devastated, but overwhelmingly we feel disbelief.

In A Very Human Ending, research psychologist Jesse Bering lifts the lid on this taboo subject, examining the suicidal mindset from the inside out to reveal the subtle tricks the mind can play when we’re easy emotional prey. In raising challenging questions Bering tests our contradictory superstitions about the act itself.

Combining cutting-edge research with investigative journalism and first-person testimony, Bering also addresses the history of suicide and its evolutionary inheritance to offer a personal, accessible, yet scientifically sound examination of why we are the only species on earth that deliberately ends its own life.

This penetrating analysis aims to demystify a subject that knows no cultural or demographic boundaries.


And so far forth death’s terror doth affright,

He makes away himself, and hates the light

To make an end of fear and grief of heart,

He voluntarily dies to ease his smart.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)

Given the sensitive nature of the material in this book, I have not used any real names (unless otherwise stated), and I have changed physical descriptions, locations, and other features to ensure that no one is identifiable and their story is protected. This is because this is not a book about the individuals I have described, but about what we can learn from them and how they shape our lives.


the call to oblivion

“Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.” Virginia Woolf, “The Death of the Moth” (1942)

Just behind my former home in upstate New York, in a small, dense pocket of woods, stood an imposing lichen-covered oak tree built by a century of sun and dampness and frost, its hardened veins crisscrossing on the forest floor. It was just one of many such specimens in this copse of dappled shadows, birds, and well-worn deer tracks, but this particular tree held out a single giant limb crooked as an elbow, a branch so deliberately poised that whenever I’d stroll past it while out with the dogs on our morning walks, it beckoned me.

It was the perfect place, I thought, to hang myself.

I’d had fleeting suicidal feelings since my late teenage years. But now I was being haunted day and night by what was, in fact, a not altogether displeasing image of my corpse spinning ever so slowly from a rope tied around this creaking, pain-relieving branch. It’s an absurd thought, that I could have observed my own dead body as if I’d casually stumbled upon it. And what good would my death serve if it meant having to view it through the eyes of the very same head that I so desperately wanted to escape from in the first place?

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but fixate on this hypothetical scene of the lifeless, pirouetting dummy, this discarded sad sack whose long-suffering owner had been liberated from a world in which he didn’t truly belong.

Globally, a million people a year kill themselves, and many times that number try to do so. That’s probably a hugely conservative estimate, too; for reasons such as stigma and prohibitive insurance claims, suicides and attempts are notoriously underreported when it comes to the official statistics. Roughly, though, these figures translate to the fact that someone takes their own life every forty seconds. Between now and the time you finish reading the next paragraph, someone, somewhere, will decide that death is a more welcoming prospect than breathing another breath in this world and will permanently remove themselves from the population.

The specific issues leading any given person to become suicidal are as different, of course, as their DNA -involving chains of events that one expert calls “dizzying in their variety”, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t common currents pushing one toward this fatal act. We’re going to get a handle on those elusive themes in this book and, ultimately, begin to make sense of what remains one of the greatest riddles of all time: Why would an otherwise healthy person, someone even in the prime of their life, “go against nature” by hastening their death? After all, on the surface, suicide wouldn’t appear to be a very smart Darwinian tactic, given that being alive would seem to be the first order of business when it comes to survival of the fittest.

But like most scientific questions, it turns out it’s a little more complicated than that.

We won’t be dealing here with “doctor-assisted suicide” or medical euthanasia, what Derek Humphrey in Final Exit regarded as “not suicide [but] selfdeliverance, thoughtful, accelerated death to avoid further suffering from a physical disease.” I consider such merciful instances of death almost always to be ethical and humane. Instead, we’ll be focusing in the present book on those self-killings precipitated by fleeting or ongoing mental distress, namely, those that aren’t the obvious result of physical pain or infirmity.

Our primary analysis will center on the suicides of otherwise normal folks battling periodic depression or who suddenly find themselves in unexpected and overwhelming social circumstances. Plenty of suicides are linked to major psychiatric conditions (in which the person has a tenuous grasp of reality, such as in schizophrenia), but plenty aren’t. And it’s that everyday person dealing with suicidal thoughts, the suicidal person in all of us, who is the main subject of this book.

Benjamin Franklin famously quipped that “nine men in ten are would-be suicides.” Maybe so, but some of us will lapse into this state more readily. It’s now believed that around 43 percent of the variability in suicidal behavior among the general population can be explained by genetics, while the remaining 57 percent is attributable to environmental factors. When people who have a genetic predisposition for suicidality find themselves assaulted by a barrage of challenging life events, they are particularly vulnerable.

The catchall mental illness explanation only takes us so far. The vast majority of those who die by suicide, with some estimates as high as 90 percent, have underlying psychiatric conditions, especially mood disorders such as depressive illness and bipolar disorder. (I have frequently battled the former, coupled with social anxiety.) But it’s also true that not everyone with depression is suicidal, nor, believe it or not, is everyone who commits suicide depressed. According to one estimate, around 5 percent of depressed people will die by suicide, but about half a percent of the nondepressed population will end up taking their own lives too.

As for my own recurring compulsion to end my life, which flares up like a sore tooth at the whims of bad fortune, subsides for a while, yet always threatens to throb again, the types of problems that trigger these dangerous desires change over time. Edwin Shneidman, the famous suicidologist, yes, that’s an actual occupation, had an apt term for this acute, intolerable feeling that makes people want to die: “psychache,” he called it. It’s like what Winona Ryder’s character in the film Girl, Interrupted said after throwing back a fistful of aspirin in a botched suicide attempt-she just wanted “to make the shit stop.” And like a toothache, which can be set off by any number of packaged treats at our fingertips, psychache can be caused by an almost unlimited number of things in our modern world.

What made me suicidal as a teenager, the everlooming prospect of being outed as gay in an intolerant small midwestern town, isn’t what pushes those despairing buttons in me now. I’ve been out of the closet for twenty years and with my partner, Juan, for over a decade. I do sometimes still wince at the memory of my adolescent fear regarding my sexual orientation, but the constant worry and anxiety about being forced prematurely out of the closet are gone now.

Still, other seemingly unsolvable problems continue to crop up as a matter of course.


Psychache is a term first used by pioneer suicidologist Edwin Shneidman to refer to psychological pain that has become unbearable. The pain is deeper and more vicious than depression, although depression may be present as well.

What drew me to those woods behind my house not so long ago was my unemployment. I was sorely unprepared for it. Not long before, I’d enjoyed a fairly high status in the academic world. Frankly, I was spoiled. And lucky. That part I didn’t realize until much later. I’d gotten my first faculty position at the University of Arkansas straight out of grad school. Then, at the age of thirty, I moved to Northern Ireland, where I ran my own research center for several years at the Queen’s University Belfast.

Somewhere along the way, though, my scholarly ambitions began to wear thin.

It was a classic case of career burnout. By the time I was thirty-five, I’d already done most of what I’d set out to do: I was publishing in the best journals, speaking at conferences all over the world, scoring big grants, and writing about my research (in religion and psychology) for popular outlets. If I were smart, I’d have kept my nose to the grindstone. Instead, I grew restless. “Now what?” I asked myself.

The prospect of doing slight iterations of the same studies over and over became a nightmare, the academic’s equivalent of being stuck in a never-ending time loop. Besides, although controversial issues like religion are never definitively settled, I’d already answered my main research question, at least to my own satisfaction. (Question: “What are the odds that religious ideas are a product of the human mind?” Answer: “Pretty darn high.”)

With my professorial aspirations languishing, I began devoting more and more time to writing popular science essays for outfits such as Scientific American, Slate, Playboy, and a few others. My shtick was covering the salacious science beat. If you’d ever wondered about the relationship between gorilla fur, crab lice, and human pubic hair, about the mysterious psychopharmacological properties of semen, or why our species’ peculiar penis is shaped like it is, l was your man. In fact, I wrote that very book: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

The next book I was to write had an even more squirm-inducing title: Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. Ever wonder why amputees turn on some folks, others can’t keep from having an orgasm when an attractive passerby lapses into a sneezing fit, or why women are generally kinkier than men? Again, I was your clickable go-to source.

Now, perhaps I should have thought more about how, in a conservative and unforgiving academic world, such subject matter would link my name inexorably with unspeakable things. Sure, my articles got page clicks. My books made you blush at Barnes & Noble. But these titles aren’t exactly ones that university deans and provosts like to boast about to donors. Once you go public with the story of how you masturbated as a teenager to a wax statue of an anatomically correct Neanderthal (I swear it made sense in context), there is no going back. You can pretty much forget about ever getting inducted into the Royal Society. “Oh good riddance,” I thought. Being finally free to write in a manner that suited me, and with my very own soapbox to say the things I’d long wanted to say about society’s souI-crushing hypocrisy, was incredibly appealing.

There was also the money. I wasn’t getting rich, but I’d earned large enough advances with my book deals to quit my academic job, book a one-way ticket from Belfast back to the U.S., and put a deposit down on an idyllic little cottage next to a babbling brook just outside of Ithaca. Back then, the dark patch of forest behind the house didn’t seem so sinister; it was just a great place to walk our two border terriers, Gulliver and Uma, our rambunctious Irish imports. The whole domestic setting seemed the perfect little place to build the perfect little writing life, a fairy tale built on the foundations of other people’s “deviant” sexualities.

You can probably see where this is heading. Juan, the more practical of us, raised his eyebrows early on over such an impulsive and drastic career move. By that I mean he was resolutely set against it. “What are you going to do after you finish the book?” he’d ask, sensing doom on the horizon.

“Write another book I guess. Maybe do freelance. I can always go back to teaching, right? C’mon, don’t be such a pessimist!”

“I don’t know,” Juan would say worriedly. But he also realized how unhappy I was in Northern Ireland, so he went along, grudgingly, with my loosely laid plans.

I wouldn’t say my fall from grace was spectacular. But it was close. If nothing else, it was deeply embarrassing. It’s hard to talk about it even now that I’m, literally, out of the woods.

That’s the thing. Much of what makes people suicidal is hard to talk about. Shame plays a major role. Even suicide notes, as we’ll learn, don’t always key us in to the real reason someone opts out of existence. (Forgive the glib euphemisms; there are only so many times one can write the word “suicide” without expecting readers’ eyes to glaze over.) If I’ll be asking others in this book to be honest about their feelings, though, it would be unfair for me to hide the reasons for my own self-loathing and sense of irredeemable failure during this dark period.

It’s often at our very lowest that we cling most desperately to our points of pride, as though we’re trying to convince not only others, but also ourselves, that we still have value.

Once, long ago, when I was about twenty, I met an old man of about ninety who carried around with him an ancient yellowed letter everywhere he went. People called him “the Judge.”

“I want to show you something, young man,” he said to me after a dinner party, reaching a shaky hand into his vest pocket to retrieve the letter. “See that?” he asked, beaming. A twisted arthritic finger was pointing to a typewritten line from the Prohibition era. As I tried to make sense of the words on the page, he studied my gaze under his watery pink lids to be sure it was really sinking in. “It’s a commendation from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the governor of New York back then. Says here, see, says right here I was the youngest Supreme Court Justice in the state. Twenty. Eight. Years. Old.” With each punctuated word, he gave the paper a firm tap. “Whaddaya think of that?”

“That’s incredibly impressive,” I said.

And it was. In fact, I remember being envious of him. Not because of his accomplished legal career, but because, as I so often have been in my life, I was suicidal at the time; and unlike me, he hadn’t long to go before slipping gently off into that good night.

One of the cruelest tricks played on the genuinely suicidal mind is that time slows to a crawl. When each new dawn welcomes what feels like an eternity of mental anguish, the yawning expanse between youth and old age might as well be interminable Hell itself.

But the point is that when we’re thrown against our wishes into a liminal state, that reluctant space between activity and senescence, employed and unemployed, married and single, closeted and out, citizen and prisoner, wife and widow, healthy person and patient, wealthy and broke, celebrity and has-been, and so on, it’s natural to take refuge in the glorified past of our previous selves. And to try to remind others of this eclipsed identity as well.

Alas, it’s a lost cause. Deep down, we know there’s no going back. Our identities have changed permanently in the minds of others. In the real world (the one whose axis doesn’t turn on cheap clichés and self-help canons about other people’s opinions of us not mattering), we’re inextricably woven into the fabric of society.

For better or worse, our well-being is hugely dependent on what others think we are.

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister, whom we’ll meet again later on, argues that idealistic life conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they create unreasonable standards for personal happiness. When things get a bit messy, people who have led mostly privileged lives, those seen by society as having it made, have a harder time coping with failures. “A reverse of fortune, as society is constituted,” wrote the eighteenth-century thinker Madame de Staél, “produces a most acute unhappiness, which multiplies itself in a thousand different ways. The most cruel of all, however, is the loss of the rank we occupied in the world. Imagination has as much to do with the past, as with the future, and we form with our possessions an alliance, whose rupture is most grievous.”

Like the Judge, I was dangerously proud of my earlier status. The precipitous drop between my past and my present job footing was discombobulating. I wouldn’t have admitted it then, or even known I was guilty of such a cognitive crime, but I also harbored an unspoken sense of entitlement. Now, I felt like Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall by Albert Camus. In the face of a series of unsettling events, the successful Parisian defense attorney watches as his career, and his entire sense of meaning, goes up in smoke. Only when sifting through the ashes are his biases made clear. “As a result of being showered with blessings,” Clamence observes of his worldview till then,

“I felt, I hesitate to admit, marked out. Personally marked out, among all, for that long uninterrupted success. I refused to attribute that success to my own merits and could not believe that the conjunction in a single person of such different and such extreme virtues was the result of chance alone. This is why in my happy life I felt somehow that that happiness was authorized by some higher decree. When I add that l had no religion you can see even better how extraordinary that conviction was.”

Similarly, what I had long failed to fully appreciate were the many subtle and incalculable forces behind my earlier success, forces that had always been beyond my control. I felt somehow, what is the word, charmed is too strong, more like fatalistic. The reality was that I was like everyone else, simply held upright by the brittle bones of chance. And now, they threatened to give way. I’d worked hard, sure, but again, I’d been lucky. Back when I’d earned my doctoral degree, the economy wasn’t so gloomy and there were actually opportunities. I was also doing research on a hot new topic, my PhD dissertation was on children’s reasoning about the afterlife, and I was eager to make a name for myself in a burgeoning field. Now, eleven years later, having turned my back on the academy, fresh out of book ideas, along with a name pretty much synonymous with penises and pervs, it was a very different story. Career burnout? Please. That’s a luxury for the employed.

I just needed a steady paycheck.

The rational part of my brain assured me that my present dilemma was not the end of the world. Still, the little that remained of my book advance was drying up quickly, and my freelance writing gigs, feverishly busy as they kept me, didn’t pay enough to live on. Juan, who’d been earning his master’s degree in library science, was forced to take on a minimum-wage cashier job at the grocery store. He never said “I told you so.” He didn’t have to.

I knew going in that the grass wouldn’t necessarily be greener on the other side of a staid career, but never did I think it could be scorched earth. That perfect little cottage? It came with a mortgage. We didn’t have kids, but we did have two bright-eyed terriers and a cat named Tommy to feed and care for. Student loans. Taxes. Fuel. Credit cards. Electricity. Did I mention I was an uninsured Type I diabetic on an insulin pump? My blinkered pursuit of freedom to write at any cost was starting to have potentially fatal consequences.

Doing what you love for a living is great. But you know what’s even more fun? Food.

The irrational part of my brain couldn’t see how this state of affairs, which I’d stupidly, selfishly put us into, could possibly turn out well. Things were only going to get worse. Cue visions of foreclosure, confused, sadfaced, whimpering pets torn asunder and kenneled (or worse), loving family members, stretched to the limit already themselves, arguing with each other behind closed doors over how to handle the “situation with Jesse.” Everyone, including me, would be better off without me; I just needed to get the animals placed in a loving home and Juan to start a fresh, unimpeded life back in Santa Fe, where he’d been living when we first met.

“You’re such a loser,” I’d scold myself. “You had it made. Now look at you.”

Asshole though this internal voice could be, it did make some good points. What if that was the rational part of my brain, I began to wonder, and the more optimistic side, the one telling me it was all going to be okay, was delusional? After all, in the fast-moving world of science, I was now a dinosaur. I hadn’t taught or done research for years. I’d also burned a lot of bridges due to my, er, penchant for sensationalism. An air of Schadenfreude, which I’m sure I’d rightfully earned from some of my critics, would soon be palpable.

Overall, I felt like persona non grata among all the proper citizens surrounding me, all those deeply rooted trees that so obviously belonged to this world. Even the weeds had their place. But me? I didn’t belong. I was, in point of fact, simultaneously over-and under-qualified for everything I could think of, saddled with an obscure advanced degree and absolutely no practical skills. And of course I might as well be a registered sex offender with the titles of my books and articles (among the ones I was working on at the time, “The Masturbatory Habits of Priests” and “Erotic Vomiting”). I envied the mailman, the store clerk, the landscaper anyone with a clear purpose.

Meanwhile, the stark contrast between my private and public life only exacerbated my despondency. From a distance, it would appear that my star was rising. I was giving talks at the Sydney Opera House, being interviewed regularly by NPR and the BBC, and getting profiled in the Guardian and the New York Times. Morgan Freeman featured my earlier work on religion for his show Through the Wormhole. Meanwhile, over in the UK, the British illusionist Derren Brown did the same on his televised specials. My blog at Scientific American was nominated for a Webby Award. Dan Savage, the famous sex advice columnist, tapped me to be his substitute columnist when he went away on vacation for a week. I even did the late-night talk show circuit. Chelsea Handler brazenly asked me, on national television, if I’d have anal sex with her. (I said yes, by the way, but I was just being polite.) A big Hollywood producer acquired the film option rights to one of my Slate articles.

With such exciting things happening in my life, how could I possibly complain, let alone be suicidal? After all, most writers would kill (no pun intended) to attract the sort of publicity I was getting.

“Oh, boo-hoo,” I told myself. “You’ve sure got it rough. Let’s ask one of those new Syrian refugees how they feel about your dire straits, shall we? How about that nice old woman up the road vomiting her guts out from chemo?” A close friend from my childhood had just had a stroke and was posting inspirational status updates on his Twitter account as he learned how to walk again, #trulyblessed. What right did I have to be so unhappy?

This kind of internal self-flagellation, like reading a never-ending scroll of excoriating social media comments projected onto my mind’s eye, only made being me more insufferable. I ambled along for months this way, miserable, smiling like an idiot and popping Prozac, hoping the constant gray drizzle in my brain would lift before the dam finally flooded and I got washed up into the trees behind the house.

No one knew it. At least, not the full extent of it.

From the outside looking in, even to the few close friends I had, things were going swimmingly. “When are you going to be on TV again?” they’d ask. “Where to next on your book tour?” Or “Hey, um, interesting article on the history of autofellatio.”

All was illusion. The truth is these experiences offered little in the way of remuneration. The press didn’t pay. The public speaking didn’t amount to much. And the film still hasn’t been made.

My outward successes only made me feel like an impostor. Less than a week after I appeared as a guest on Conan, I was racking my head trying to think of someone, anyone, who could get me a gun to blow it off. Yet look hard as you might at a recording of that interview from October 16, 2013, and you won’t see a trace of my crippling worry and despair. What does a suicidal person look like? Me, in that Conan interview.

Here’s the trouble. We’re not all ragingly mad, violently unstable, or even obviously depressed. Sometimes, a suicide seems like it comes out of nowhere. But that’s only because so many of us would rather go to our graves keeping up appearances than reveal we’re secretly coming undone.

In response to an article in Scientific American in which I’d shared my personal experiences as a suicidal gay teenager (while keeping my current mental health issues carefully under wraps), one woman wrote to me about the torturous divide between her own public persona and private inner life. “It’s difficult to admit that at age 34,” she explained, with a young daughter, a graduate degree in history, divorced, and remarried to my high school love, that I’m Googling suicide. But what the world doesn’t see is years of fertility issues, childhood rape, post-traumatic stress disorder, a failing marriage, a custody battle, nonexistent career, mounds of debt, and a general hatred of myself. Depression is a secret tomb that no one sees but you, being dead but yet alive.

She’s far from alone. There are more people walking around this way, “dead but yet alive,” than anyone realizes.

In my case, being open about my persistent suicidal thoughts at a time when readers’ perception of me as a good, clearheaded thinker meant the difference between a respectable middle age and moving into my elderly father’s basement and living off cans of Spaghettios. It just wasn’t something I was willing to do at the time. Who’d buy a book by an author with a mood disorder, a has-been academic, and a self-confessed sensationalist who can’t stop thinking about killing himself, and take him seriously as an authoritative voice of reason?

I don’t blame anyone for missing the signs. What signs? Anyway, regrettably, I’ve done the same. The man who’d designed my website, a sweet, introverted IT guy also struggling to find a job, overdosed while lying on his couch around this time. His landlord found him three days later with his two cats standing on his chest, meowing. I was unnerved to realize that despite our mutual email pleasantries, we’d both in fact wanted to die.

We’re more intuitive than we give ourselves credit for, but people aren’t mind readers. We come to trust appearances; we forget that others are self-contained universes just like us, and the deep rifts forming at the edges go unnoticed, until another unreachable cosmos “suddenly” collapses. In the semiautobiographical The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa describes being surprised upon learning that a young shop assistant at the tobacco store had killed himself. “Poor lad,” writes Pessoa, “so he existed too!”

“We had all forgotten that, all of us; we who knew him only about as well as those who didn’t know him at all …. But what is certain is that he had a soul, enough soul to kill himself. Passions? Worries? Of course. But for me, and for the rest of humanity, all that remains is the memory of a foolish smile above a grubby woollen jacket that didn’t fit properly at the shoulders. That is all that remains to me of someone who felt deeply enough to kill himself, because, after all[,] there’s no other reason to kill oneself.”

These dark feelings are inherently social in nature. In the vast majority of cases, people kill themselves because of other people. Social problems, especially, a hypervigilant concern with what others think or will think of us if only they knew what we perceive to be some unpalatable truth, stoke a deadly fire.

Fortunately, suicide isn’t inevitable. As for me, it’s funny how things turned out. (And I mean “funny” in the way a lunatic giggles into his hand, because this entire wayward career experience must have knocked about five years off my life.) Just as things looked most grim, I was offered a job in one of the most beautiful places on the planet: the verdant wild bottom of the South Island in New Zealand. In July 2014 Juan, Gulliver, Uma, Tommy, and I, the whole hairy, harried family, packed up all of our earthly possessions, drove across country in a rented van, and flew from Los Angeles to Dunedin, where I’d been hired as the writing coordinator in a new Science Communication department at the University of Otago.

Ironically, I wouldn’t have been much of a candidate had I not devoted a few solid nail-biting years to freelancing. I’ll never disentangle myself from my reputation as a purveyor of pervy knowledge, but the Kiwis took my frank approach to sex with good humor.

Outside our small home on the Otago Peninsula, I’m serenaded by tuis and bellbirds; just up the road, penguins waddle from the shores of an endless ocean each dusk to nest in cliff-side dens, octopuses bobble at the harbor’s edge, while dolphins frolic and giant albatrosses the size of small aircraft soar overhead. At night the Milky Way is so dense and bright against the inky black sky, I can almost reach up and stir it, and every once in a while, the aurora australis, otherwise known as the southern lights, puts on a spectacular multicolored display. The dogs are thriving. The cat is purring. Juan has a great new job.

I therefore whisper this to you as though the cortical gods might conspire against me still: I’m currently “happy” with life.

I use that word happy with trepidation. It defines not a permanent state of being but slippery moments of non-worry. All we can do, really, is try to maximize the occurrence of such anxiety-free moments throughout the course of our lives; a worrisome mind is a place where suicide’s natural breeding ground, depression, spreads like black mold.

Personally, I’m all too conscious of the fact that had things gone this way or that but by a hairbreadth, my own story might just as well have ended years ago at the end of a rope on a tree that grows 8,000 miles away. Whether I’d have gone through with it is hard to say. I don’t enjoy pain, but I certainly wanted to die, and there’s a tipping point where the agony of living becomes worse than the pain of dying. It would be naive of me to assume that just because I called the universe’s bluff back then, my suicidal feelings have been banished for good.

As I write this, I’m forty-two years of age, and so there’s likely plenty of time for those dark impulses to return. Perhaps they’re merely lying in wait for the next unmitigated crisis and will come back with a vengeance. Also, according to some of the science we’ll be examining, I possess almost a full complement of traits that make certain types of people more prone to suicide than others. Impulsive. Check. Perfectionist. Check. Sensitive. Shame-prone. Mooddisordered. Sexual minority. Self-blaming. Check.

Check. Check. Check. Check.

We’re used to safeguarding ourselves against external threats and preparing for unexpected emergencies. We diligently strap on our seat belts every time we get in a car. We look our doors before bed. Some of us even carry weapons in case we’re attacked by a stranger. Ironic, then, that statistically we’re far more likely to perish intentionally by our own hand than to die of causes that are more obviously outside of our control. In fact, historically, suicide has accounted for more deaths than all wars and homicides combined.

When I get suicidal again, not if, but when, I want to be armed with an up-to-date scientific understanding that allows me to critically analyze my own doomsday thoughts or, at the very least, to be an informed consumer of my own oblivion. I want you to have that same advantage. That’s largely why I have written this book to reveal the psychological secrets of suicide, the tricks our minds play on us when we’re easy emotional prey. It’s also about leaving our own preconceptions aside and instead considering the many different experiences of those who’ve found themselves affected somehow, whether that means getting into the headspaces of people who killed themselves or are actively suicidal, those bereaved by the suicide death of a loved one, researchers who must quarantine their own emotions to study suicide objectively, or those on the grueling front lines of prevention campaigns.

Finally, we’ll be exploring some challenging, but fundamental, questions about how we wrestle with the ethical questions surrounding suicide, and how our intellect is often at odds with our emotions when it comes to weighing the “rationality” of other people’s fatal decisions.

Unlike most books on the subject, this one doesn’t necessarily aim to prevent all suicides. My own position, for lack of a better word, is nuanced. In fact, I tend to agree with the Austrian scholar Josef Popper-Lynkeus, who remarked in his book The Right to Live and the Duty to Die (1878) that, for him, “the knowledge of always being free to determine when or whether to give up one’s life inspires me with the feeling of a new power and gives me a composure comparable to the consciousness of the soldier on the battlefield.”

The trouble is, being emotionally fraught with despair can also distort human decision making in ways that undermine a person’s ability to decide intelligently “when or whether” to act. Because despite our firm conviction that there’s absolutely no escape from that seemingly unsolvable, hopeless situation we may currently find ourselves in, we’re often, as I was, dead wrong in retrospect.

“Never kill yourself while you are suicidal” was one of Shneidman’s favorite maxims. Intellectualizing a personal problem is a well-known defense mechanism, and it’s basically what I’ll be doing in this book. Some might see this coldly scientific approach as a sort of evasion tactic for avoiding unpleasant emotions. Yet with suicide, I’m convinced that understanding suicidal urges, from a scientific perspective, can keep many people alive, at least in the short term. My hope is that knowing how it all works will help us to short-circuit the powerful impetus to die when things look calamitous. I want people to be able to recognize when they’re under suicide’s hypnotic spell and to wait it out long enough for that spell to wear off. Acute episodes of suicidal ideation rarely last longer than twenty-four hours.

Education may not always lead to prevention, but it certainly makes for good preparation. And for those of you trying to understand how someone you loved or cared about could have done such an inexplicable thing as to take their own life, my hope is that you’ll benefit, too, from this examination of the self-destructive mind and how we, as a society, think about suicide.



A very human ending. How Suicide Haunts Our Species

by Jesse Bering

get it at


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