The Bridge: Dr. Joiner

Suicide Prevention

Dr. Thomas Joiner is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University. Eighteen years ago, his father committed suicide.

 

Dr. Phil says to Dr. Joiner, "This really moved you to try to figure out how somebody with such a great and productive mind could get in such a dark place as to end their life."

"My dad's death makes me feel honor-bound to not only understand it, but to exact some revenge for it. Something or somebody stole my dad away from me," he says. "I had a lot of the same pain that [Dr. Phil's previous guests] John and Erika expressed, and that pain was strong for a while, but it did lessen. After it did, I poured my professional energies into trying to combat this international killer."

"You've made some headway," Dr. Phil points out and explains that Dr. Joiner has found that people considering suicide share three common traits. The first is the feeling of being a burden to others and feeling that taking their own life is less of a burden than living.

[AD]"The idea that the mental calculation that, ‘My death will be worth more than my life.' If you truly believe that, you can see how that would facilitate suicidal behavior, and we've shown in multiple studies that it does indeed do that," Dr. Joiner says. "Crucially, the person is mistaken in that perception, but the trick is that they don't know that they're mistaken in that perception."

 

"Isn't it true that most suicidal situations and dilemmas that push people over the edge are transient? That if they had just stuck it out, they tend to get better," Dr. Phil asks.

"Absolutely," Dr. Joiner says. "There are good effective treatments that work for the conditions that underlie suicidal behavior."

Another common trait to look for is someone expressing feelings of loneliness or social disconnection. "If you look through the scientific literature on suicidal behavior, arguably the single most powerful risk factor of all is loneliness; a feeling of alienation from others," he explains.

The third trait Dr. Joiner discusses is fearlessness regarding pain, injury and death. "I think it's a common misunderstanding to think of people who have died by suicide as cowardly or weak. That's just not accurate," he says. "To do something as fearsome and as daunting as death by suicide, you do require a kind of fearlessness in order to carry through."

"How is that best spotted by a loved one?" Dr. Phil asks.

"One is the reckless behavior," he says.

"The high-risk behaviors without regard for their personal safety," Dr. Phil adds.

[AD]Another sign is someone who is searching for access to means of self-harm. "Someone who is looking for guns or knives or poisons, etc ... That's a behavior that's usually stopped by this innate fear that we have. When somebody's overcome that fear, so that they're approaching suicide to that degree, that's a dangerous situation," Dr. Joiner says.

 

John, Dr. Phil's previous guest whose daughter, Casey, committed suicide, says she displayed two traits Dr. Joiner mentioned. "One was I think she had a thought in her head of, ‘Mom and Dad would be better off without me' and number two, ‘Nobody will miss me when I die,'" he says.

"The tragedy is that those are mistaken perceptions, and they just weren't true, but the double tragedy is that Casey did not know that," Dr. Joiner says.

Dr. Phil gives advice to anyone who may be considering suicide. "Suicidal crises are almost always temporary," he says, adding that oftentimes people won't remember the details of why they were so upset a short while after the incident. "Problems are seldom as great as they appear at first glance," he says.

"We found in our research that suicide rates go way down at times of national crisis," Dr. Joiner says. "We think it's because the national crisis puts everything in perspective. It puts personal problems into a larger perspective."

"Reasons for living can help sustain a person in pain as well," Dr. Phil says. "It's important that you do talk to yourself or others about what role you play in this world and what contribution you do make. And most importantly, Doctor, isn't it important to not get isolated, to talk to people about this?"

"We're very, very social creatures, and we just have a basic fundamental need to connect and to belong, and to deny that need or to thwart it or not nurture it, usually leads to some sort of negative outcome," Dr. Joiner says.

[AD]Dr. Phil says another sign to watch out for is when people start giving away all of their prized possessions.

"When people are doing things like that, it's not a show. They're not just talking. It's a dangerous warning sign, and people need to act on it," Dr. Joiner says.

"The key is getting the person some help," Dr. Phil says.

Dr. Joiner agrees. "It's a problem that needs to be worked through throughout the whole process," he says. "We're talking about months and years of connecting to vulnerable people and making sure that they have the care they need and deserve."