Opinion | Trying to Understand What Drives People to Suicide

To the Editor:

Re “Happiness Won’t Save You,” by Jennifer Senior (Sunday Review, Nov. 29):

Thank you so much for devoting space to Ms. Senior’s portrait of the unhappiness and suicide of Phil Brickman. It may save some lives.

Phil Brickman was the closest I had to an adult mentor in college. In the unenviable role of my adviser in psychology, he was all the article captured — brilliant, funny, insightful, demanding and tender.

Our nonacademic conversations imparted wisdom about family, love and career. Some of his observations and axioms stay with me over four decades later, often passed on to friends and clients. Our discussions on the importance of commitment to that greater than oneself were a keystone to my entire professional and public life. How I wish I could tell him that.

The importance of such an article during the holidays in such an aberrant year, with millions unemployed, scared, alienated or isolated (or, worse, seeking solace and the mirage of human interaction in the hostile desert of social media), can’t be overstated.

Advice to survivors understandably urges refraining from self-blame. But a solution-oriented perfectionist like Phil would have asked: What can we do in the now so that we need not confront those demons later? All of us likely know someone who is struggling with not just depression, but despair. Why not say now the kind or comforting thing we might later regret never having said?

What if a profile of Phil Brickman as in depth as Ms. Senior’s had appeared in his lifetime? Might it have made the incremental difference in his happiness to tip the scales against his fatal leap from that tower in Ann Arbor? How fascinating it would be to discuss that with Phil himself.

Let us hope that Ms. Senior’s study will cause a ripple effect of reflection on the people we know, what work really matters and how we treat others. Life is hard. We can all be easier on one another. Perhaps this holiday season, between exhaling after indulgence and writing checks to charity, we can all take time for a note or nod to others in our life for whom even a small shout-out might be a lifesaver.

Jeff Smith
Evanston, Ill.

To the Editor:

Jennifer Senior’s comprehensive essay on the difficulty of knowing whether — and when — people will kill themselves, as well as on the aftermath for those left behind, echoes my own experience.

I am now 85. Five members of my family — starting with my 33-year-old mother (when I was 6) — have killed themselves. My lifelong depression, due in part to the genes I was given and in part to the trauma of my mother’s death, has not ended in suicide, and therein lies the strange mystery of such matters.

Psychiatrists query me: “Do you ever think of killing yourself?” I answer “yes,” causing them to go into “alert mode.” My depression and constant physical pain would tend in that direction, but I do not intend to die by suicide. I do not want to do to my children and grandchildren what was done to me. I do not want to leave them bereft and assuming guilt, asking: What could I have done to prevent that suicide?

I know now that we can do little or nothing: that suicide is a decision made, often at the spur of the moment, to end unbearable physical or emotional pain. And it is almost impossible to know when such an act will occur.

Why did my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my uncle and my brother take their own lives, and why have I not done so? I can answer for each of them: bipolar disorder, terminal cancer, deep depression, bipolar disorder and clinical depression.

For myself: talk therapy and antidepressants, a wonderful wife and children, creative work — all have helped to keep me alive. But that could be said of some of my family members who did kill themselves. As I said, it is now, and will continue to be, a mystery.

I hope I can keep my promise not to follow suit.

Christopher Lukas
Sparkill, N.Y.
The writer is the author of “Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival.”

To the Editor:

Suicide is something that will always be with us, no matter how much we attempt to prevent it, because there will always be individuals, driven by a variety of circumstances and illnesses, mental and physical, who find living intolerable.

In my experience as a psychiatrist it isn’t always a matter of severe bipolar depression or threatening life situations but rather a sense of the lack of meaning in continuing to exist. This can result in the type of suicide that I would call a telescoping of the end of life that results from a feeling of why wait for death and spend decades suffering or feeling hopeless and disconnected from anything meaningful now or in the future.

The story of Philip Brickman’s tragic life and suicide becomes in Jennifer Senior’s article an excursion into the struggle he made not so much to find happiness but to avoid despair. The mixture of his character, his feeling himself a failure despite considerable success, the implication of severe depression, all of which she brings to life so vividly, is a reminder of how difficult it is to understand suicide and how often even psychiatrists fail to be able to prevent it.

Henry J. Friedman
Cambridge, Mass.
The writer is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

To the Editor:

I am bipolar. I suffer from severe depression. I have been suicidal more than once. I also have a doctorate in sociology.

Scientists can hypothesize, analyze and speculate ad infinitum. They can search for underlying causes and significant relationships. They can conduct their surveys and run their statistics.

None of them explain the pain. The unrelenting pain. The pain that blots out rational thought, rejects benign alternatives.

They don’t explain the need to be free of pain, for which suicide seems the only true relief.

Barbara T. Osgood
Fairfax, Va.

To the Editor:

What a rich, meaningful and poignant article. What Philip Brickman was after was meaning, which I think is closely related to happiness. And the struggle for meaning is as fraught as the one for happiness. These are quintessentially elusive phenomena. Perhaps the answer lies in experiencing life rather than evaluating it. Judgment is at the root of disappointment, and therefore unhappiness.

Avinash Lele
Princeton, N.J.

To the Editor:

For the last several months, I have been interviewing survivors of near-fatal suicide attempts. Those who would have died if not for chance — somebody came home early and found them — or medical intervention. Through these interviews, we can answer the questions that we so desperately wish we could ask those who did not survive: Why? When did you decide? How did it feel?

My brave participants describe many of the problems Philip Brickman faced: mental illness, self-criticism, fractured relationships, hopelessness, loneliness, pain, trauma. But unlike Mr. Brickman, they can also tell us how they felt the moment they jumped (or used another method). The answer I hear the most often? “Peace.”

Kirsty A. Clark
New Haven, Conn.
The writer is a postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Public Health.

To the Editor:

My father committed suicide after a long and successful career as a doctor. His mother had attempted suicide, but he saved her. His aunt and nephew weren’t so lucky.

“Happiness Won’t Save You” barely mentions the strong correlation between suicide and family history. As the critic A. Alvarez attests, the causes of suicide are “contradictory, labyrinthine and mostly out of sight,” but there is more and more scientific evidence that suicide and depression are hereditarily linked.

Mary Pleshette Willis
New York

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

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