Panelist Dr. Joiner on the Biggest Myths of Suicide

Posted on April 29, 2016 by Ashley Womble

We are pleased to host Dr. Joiner, the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, as a panelist for the 2016 Fountain House Symposium and Luncheon. He has authored or edited seventeen books, including Why People Die by Suicide, published in 2005 by Harvard University Press, and Myths About Suicide, published in 2010, also with Harvard University Press. The book Lonely at the Top was published by Palgrave MacMillan in October, 2011, and the book The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. Largely in connection with Why People Die by Suicide, he has made numerous radio, print, and television appearances, including write-ups in The Wall Street Journal and The Times of London, a radio interview on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” and two appearances on the “Dr. Phil” show. He runs a part-time clinical and consulting practice specializing in suicidal behavior, including legal consultation on suits involving death by suicide.

We asked him to discuss the newest data on suicide deaths, why mental illness is a risk factor, and the biggest myths of suicide.

FH: Last week the CDC released a report that shows that the rate of suicide deaths has increased 26% since 1999, and is now at a 30-year high. What do you make of these findings?

TJ: I’m distressed by this report. That’s a very substantial increase in the face of so many prevention efforts that are underway. I do think it is important to keep in mind that we don’t know what would have happened with those efforts.

FH: What was the motivation behind your book, Why People Die By Suicide?

TJ: Part of the motivation was personal. Death by suicide runs in my family. I wanted to introduce a new way of thinking about suicide.

My goal was to introduce this new way of thinking about suicide prevention is  a way that was provocative, but spurring in progress in research. It has pushed the field to realize that having thoughts about suicide is one thing and acting on those thoughts is another. The risk profiles of those people may be different.

FH: Having a serious mental illness is a risk factor for suicide. Can you explain that?

From the conceptual perspective, we think of people with suicidal states of mind as those who believe they are a burden to others.

Mental illnesses are extremely important because they contribute to those feeling of alienation or being a burden.

FH: You’ve written an entire book about myths surrounding suicide. What do you think is the biggest one? 

TJ: There are two myths that stand out. One is that suicide is a selfish act. I have emotional sympathy for that because feels selfish to the bereaved. It feels that way, but that doesn’t mean that the person who killed him or herself was feeling selfish at the time. 

The other big myth is that people who kill themselves are cowards. In order to die you have to have a certain fearlessness. If you really ponder that, it contradicts that feeling or cowardness.

FH: What do you think is next for the field of mental health and suicide prevention?

TJ: I like to take inspiration and solace from what has happened over the past 100 years in the field of cancer. Back then, cancer was misunderstood and deeply stigmatized. It took a grassroots efforts of influential family members and eventually the government to turn the tide. The progress in the field of cancer has been stunning. That’s the direction I’d like to see with mental illness.

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