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I have received a few questions about highly sensitive people and suicide and felt I should respond. I know it is an intense topic, but important. I suppose this post is also timely in that the majority of suicides actually occur in the spring.
I do not have any research on this subject. Only some impressions from my experience. You will certainly have your own insights as well.
I apologize for using the staid third person in the first half. I am hoping that none of that part has ever applied to second person you. But it does happen, I know very well. HSPs, like anyone else, can feel like killing themselves. And, as I discuss below, they are profoundly affected by another’s suicide.
HSPs and Contemplating Suicide
First, let’s tackle the negative side of the issue. I think HSPs, when depressed, could be more likely to think about suicide because they feel everything more deeply, including depression, with its sense of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair. Plus, with their depth of processing, their minds naturally go to all the consequences of what they are depressed about or of simply being so depressed. One consequence might be, wrongly of course, that they just should not be on this planet anymore. They are too useless, weak, etcetera.
Or they may think they are causing others so much trouble that those dearest to them would be better off without them. Again, that is SO wrong. They can deeply harm those around them by their action.
But, continuing to process their ideas, they may even make plans, which is considered the most dangerous sign of suicide except for actual attempts. (Especially if anyone talks about plans, it is time to get them help. There are many other signs and resources on the internet, including national hotlines. Most countries have them. But this post is not specifically about suicide prevention.)
What else can we infer about HSPs?
Suicide is high among gifted students, who are usually highly sensitive according to those who study the gifted. It is believed that the main reason is that gifted students are perfectionists, and feel others also expect perfection from them, so that one low grade or fumbled presentation can send them over the edge. Although not all HSPs are gifted, one can imagine all HSPs have trouble with perfectionism at times, meaning thinking they failed or failed others.
Another risk factor for the gifted can be being unpopular or even bullied because they are different. HSPs can also feel different and sometimes are bullied because of it.
Above all, HSPs can get into a mood of hating the consequences of their sensitivity. I have listened sympathetically when they tell me they are sick of feeling different, “weird,” and that they are missing out because they cannot engage in life in the same way others do. They are tired of struggling to earn a living while having to take sensitivity into account, or being so easily devastated by criticism from those important to them, who then see them as too touchy, criticizing them more. Many of us are trying to empower and help HSPs to be proud of their sensitivity (e.g. Jacquelyn Strickland and the makers of and many contributors to the movie Sensitive: The Untold Story). But sometimes a long history of being deeply misunderstood, and perhaps other traumas and genetics as well, take their toll.
On the positive side, my hunch is that HSPs actually have a lower suicide rate compared to the other 80% of the population. That same depth of processing, so instinctive to them, means they are less impulsive. They are more likely to be unsure, to wait and consider things again at a later time, when they will probably see their life from a different viewpoint. Also, their threats may be less likely to turn into a plan that they feel they must carry through, but be more metaphoric, the culmination of depth of processing and strong emotions. Thinking “I feel so bad I want to kill myself” is a way to express just how bad one feels, and we do know HSPs can be overwhelmed by any emotion, joy as well, and follow it out to its emotional conclusion.
Second, I think highly sensitive people are more aware of how terrible the effects of a suicide would be on the people around them. Certainly if you remind HSPs of that, they tend to wake up to how much harm it would do. After all, they have all those mirror neurons, all that empathy, so they can appreciate how others would feel.
The Effect on HSPs Left Behind
Suicide truly does have an awesomely bad effect on those left behind, and surely it will on HSPs in particular. If you lose someone close to you through suicide, there is terrible shock. Then deep bereavement. But also not understanding, and HSPs feel a deep need to understand. Why did this person not see the preciousness of the gift of life itself, and all the splendor to be enjoyed when the ego gets out of the way? And why did this beloved person leave you behind, not considering how much you cared. You may feel abandoned, betrayed, rejected, and even angry. Perhaps more likely, as any HSP you may worry that you could have helped. You may feel you were the best person to have prevented this or even the only person who could have. If only this person had told you. Or worse, perhaps there was a hint, but you missed it. Your empathy seems to have failed. Whether you could have known or not, you may feel more acutely than others this guilty failure.
When I was in graduate school, as a class activity I was paired with another student to discuss our dreams. The next time I came to class I learned he had killed himself. With the acute hindsight of an HSP, I felt I should have seen from his dream that this was coming. Should I have told others? But the dream could have meant anything. I headed for a trusted faculty member for justifiable reassurance, but I certainly felt that potential for guilt.
In short, the suicide of others deeply affects us. There are many helpful websites for bereavement when the death was suicide. Do use them if this ever occurs to you.
Suicide as an Accident
Research finds that most people thought or spoke about suicide beforehand or made prior attempts. But they must still be ambivalent. They are still thinking it over, until they act and succeed. However, except when people plan suicide in order to escape dementia or a terminal illness, when the suicide actually happens, it is my hunch that it is much more like an accident when that ambivalence becomes finality. I think it is especially often an accident among young people, who have very little experience with managing those times when they feel down. They see suicide as an escape, solution, or statement to those who have failed them, not realizing that they will not be around to appreciate the results. So we lose these lives that have so much promise.
It especially hurts that young HSPs may feel the need to kill themselves, and I wish I could address all the high school and college counselors in the world, to tell them how much they could help with just a little teaching about HS. They could screen the freshman at orientation with the HSP Scale, then just show the movie to the HSPs, or hand out the book.
Back to what do I mean by “accident.” You might call it the perfect storm. The mind, body, and spirit all sink. The mind may struggle with towering waves of shame and worthlessness from a horrible betrayal, rejection, devastating criticism of their work, a major defeat or failure, and further shame that one cannot control the reaction. The mind is sinking under these monster waves.
The body has often not slept or received good food or exercise, so there is a dramatic dip in physical wellbeing, especially the brain’s neurotransmitters. When these drop off, we always get depressed, but if they drop off too much, the depression is so huge that almost anyone would think of suicide. Then add drugs or alcohol, whether used before or after the idea of suicide has come to mind. These dramatically increase the risks because the mind is so unclear. The act itself feels unreal. The ship takes on more water and tilts.
Spiritually, we all have doubts about our path, but when the doubts win, all meaning can seem lost, and therefore our ultimate support. The main mast snaps. The ship sinks.
I find this idea of suicide being an accident is sometimes helpful to those left behind, especially the parents of a teenager. It’s hard to deal with someone we love dying in an accident, but at least they did not deliberately (and stupidly, as we may feel it) die through killing themselves. Maybe it can be a comforting idea, just because anyone can sense that it has some truth to it. Most people, most of the time, very definitely want to live. (Consider the patient who is suicidal but will not take antidepressants because they may be bad for one’s health.) When they stop wanting to live, it’s strange. How could that happen? An accident.
My hunch is that many HSPs have thought of suicide from time to time (I did when I was younger), and many more have been devastated by the suicide of another. Since you (and I) are still here, you know that things change. “No feeling is final.” I love that quote from Rilke. (For the entire poem, see the end of this post.) As we increasingly understand the value of our sensitivity along with its increased emotional intensity, I suspect we will be the least likely people to commit suicide, and the most able to understand and help when others lean that way.
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