Understanding suicide

The question 'Why did they take their life?' is complex and unfortunately may never be fully resolved. The most honest answer is that we don't fully understand it.


At a glance
  • The factors associated with suicide are varied and complex.
  • Predicting who will take their life is extremely difficult, even for experienced professionals.
  • There are several common characteristics of suicide, including a sense of unbearable psychological pain, a sense of isolation from others, lack of belonging, feeling trapped and hopeless and a burden on others and the perception that death is the only solution when the individual is temporarily not able to think clearly due to being blinded by overwhelming pain and suffering.
  • Excruciating negative emotions – including shame, guilt, anger, fear and sadness – frequently serve as the foundation for self-destructive behaviour. These emotions may arise from any number of sources.

The factors associated with suicide are varied and may include:
  • mental health conditions
  • current acute stresses, social pressures and loss
  • long-term problems associated with early abuse or trauma
  • chronic pain
  • physical disability.

Some people have a mental health condition, although signs of the condition may not have seemed evident before the suicide. The most common condition associated with suicide is depression. Others include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcohol and other substance use, eating disorders and severe personality problems. Despite the association of these mental health conditions with suicide, there are many, many people who experience these conditions who do not think about killing themselves.

There also is increasing evidence that those who suicide may have an imbalance in their brain chemicals, usually associated with mental health condition. Overall, predicting who will take their life is extremely difficult, even for experienced professionals.

Edwin Shneidman, a clinical psychologist from the United States and a leading authority on suicide before his death in 2009, described ten characteristics that he thought were commonly associated with suicide. Shneidman's list may help us to understand many of those who suicide.

Crisis support

If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000. Other services include:

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