You might be surprised to learn that, for some people, pervasive suicidal thoughts and actions can have addictive qualities.
Many of us hear the word addiction and think of substance abuse, or perhaps compulsive behaviors like spending, gambling or hoarding. But you might be surprised to learn that, for some people, pervasive suicidal thoughts and actions can also have addictive qualities.
In other words, some people experience a relief — whether pleasurable or simply a break from psychological pain — when contemplating suicide. Individuals may even engage in suicidal thoughts or behaviors as a form of self-medication or dissociation, much in the same way people turn to addictive substances or behaviors to disconnect or numb psychological pain.
Reliving previous suicide attempts, experiencing a trance-like state while imagining death, creating a ritual out of preparing for an attempt or thinking of suicide as a “plan B,” can be oddly comforting for people who see these thoughts as providing some sense of control.
The Addictive Draw of Death
In a study published in 1998 in the journal Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, Kenneth Tullis, MD, wrote that some of the 50 patients he’d worked with continued to be suicidal “after working through aggressive tendencies, years of treatment and recovery from addictions, therapy for childhood sexual abuse and stabilization of mood disorders.” In time, Dr. Tullis suspected something else was happening: His patients were “‘hooked’ on suicidal fantasies and behaviors.
The following factors among his patients supported the connection between suicidal thoughts and “addictive tendencies:”
- They demonstrated a preoccupation with suicide, sometimes researching the topic in depth. This fixation began in childhood (ages 7 to 14).
- Their mood changed and arousal levels became high when they engaged in suicidal thoughts. Patients reported a calming sensation, a “rush” or “high” similar to the effects of drugs or alcohol.
- They developed a tolerance to the effects of suicidal thoughts over time.
- They engaged in compulsive rituals and behaviors, including secretly collecting and hoarding paraphernalia for suicide.
- They made multiple suicide attempts. Most people in the study had tried at least three times and described a powerful shift in mood just before the attempt, often ranking the feeling above the high from drugs and sex. Many conceded they weren’t facing depression when they made the attempt.
- Most patients described a trance-like state leading up to and during each suicide attempt. This state included a sense of “tunnel vision,” altered sense of time and space and feeling as if they were on “automatic pilot.”
Most patients described a break in their trance after the attempt, describing it like a “crash,” with a painful return to reality. They also felt ashamed to face caregivers.
There are many reasons suicide might seem like an attractive option for some people. Those prone to these thoughts — including people who might have a genetic predisposition to them — might see death as a solution when they feel overwhelmed by chronic depression, debilitating physical illness or injury, trauma, abuse, addiction or family chaos.
Suicide Anonymous Offers Support
Tullis, along with 15 other people who’d survived suicide attempts, founded Suicide Anonymous (SA) in 1996 in Memphis, Tennessee. The program was modeled after other 12-step meetings. SA focuses on creating a safe environment for participants to express their suicidal thoughts without the fear of being reported. The group also works to prevent suicides, develop strategies to support attendees and break the cycle of suicidal preoccupation and behavior. Members meet in person in Tennessee, Colorado and New Jersey, as well as by Skype and telephone.
Because talk of suicide remains taboo, awareness of the group is growing slowly. But SA discussions are frank, referencing “bottom-line behaviors,” such as fantasizing about suicide or stockpiling means of acting on these fantasies. The group encourages members to reach out for support instead.
If you are entertaining thoughts of suicide the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is there for you.
This article originally ran on Addiction.com – reprinted by permission.
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