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Buffalo State Expert: Using Notes to Understand Suicide

Buffalo State Expert: Using Notes to Understand Suicide

Posted: April 24, 2017

Taronish Irani, senior counselor and licensed psychologist at the Counseling Center, enjoys hearing life experiences. “I get to know people that way,” she said, “and everyone’s story is unique.”

Thanks to her love of stories, Irani joined a team studying deaths by suicide that occurred in Montgomery County or surrounding counties in Ohio from 2000 to 2009. Of the 1,280 victims, 174 left notes. Irani contributed to the resulting book, Explaining Suicide: Patterns, Motivations, and What Notes Reveal.

“In my profession, of course, I’m looking always at prevention and intervention,” said Irani. “We hoped the notes could shed some light on understanding the motivation, means, and response that shape suicide today. We also wanted to give meaning and comfort to the people who lost someone to suicide and offer ways to prevent it.”

The notes revealed something that often is not referred to in research about completed suicides. The frequency of certain topics varied. More than 50 percent of the notes included love for others. Other apologized, asked for forgiveness for their acts, or included discussion of blame. Escape from pain and leaving instructions were also common in notes.

“It was difficult to read the notes,” said Dr. Irani. “We could see how hard it was for the writers, how much pain and suffering people go through. The notes helped look for motivations and patterns as to why people complete suicide.”

The reason people opted for suicide was, in most cases, to escape from painful life circumstances—physical, psychological, legal, financial, and/or multiple issues. Sometimes people wanted to escape from financial hardship; one person wrote, “I cannot afford to live my life anymore.” In some cases, an interaction with the legal systems such as debt case, a custody battle, or even a DUI summons was the last straw leading to the suicide.

While the reasons for suicide completion were complex, the research team determined that escape was the primary motivation for 70 percent of the deaths. Another 23 percent were related to interpersonal relationships. The most typical pattern was unrequited or lost love. The second group was motivated by a relationship with intimate partners involved in emotional or physical abuse. A small proportion of the sample completed suicide due to grief, failure, guilt, alienation, and altruism. (The book details the methodology employed in analyzing the entire database, including the note-writers and the notes themselves.)

While the entire sample reflected a small, non-representative subset of Americans, the findings were “largely complementary and corroborative” within the context of evidence from other studies in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Oceania, according to the book’s introduction. Most of the 'completers' were Caucasian; a majority lived alone. More men completed suicide, but women left more of the notes. The average age was 45, but ages ranged from 11 to 94.

The book looks at suicide through psychological, historical, and social science lenses. “Sociological and psychological factors matter, such as having a support system or creating a sense of community and sense of purpose in life, as well as building overall resiliency. This is just the beginning for me.”

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