3 Surprising Truths About Suicide I learned from Dr. Thomas Joiner

I was nervous the chilly December morning I emailed Dr. Thomas Joiner, an internationally-recognized suicidologist and one of the few researchers to write a comprehensive book  on the topic of murder- suicide. I briefly shared my desire to tell my suicide loss survivor story and hope to advocate for other survivors like myself. I didn’t necessarily expect a response.

He responded less than two hours later with his condolences and said, “I could make some time Wednesday afternoon.”

I’d been inspired by Dr. Thomas Joiner’s own story of how the loss of his father to suicide changed the direction of his life and led him to focus his career on studying the topic. He sees suicide as a “foe to be defeated, and importantly he’s been able to channel his grief in a professional, meaningful, and societally-beneficial manner.”

In his book, The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide, he poses questions that rang in my mind after learning of my father’s final act.

  • “Why did [they] do that?
  • What could have driven someone to such lengths?
  • Do I have that in me?”

“The answers,” he says, “may surprise, even shock. Truth regularly has this character. The power of truth and beauty, in part, is that in rapid succession, they startle us, and then they ground us.”

I was changed and comforted by Dr. Joiner’s findings. And they did ground me. The goal of Dr. Thomas Joiner’s book was “to characterize the true mindset of the perpetrator.” This is something I, as a survivor of suicide loss, sought to know, even though I knew it was something I’d never completely understand. “By understanding the perpetrator, we could find a pathway to a reconciliation of the irreconcilable,” he writes.

As I wrote in my essay his research is not undisputed and, because the act is fairly under-researched, it is somewhat controversial. He himself says, “in a field such as this, the race clearly is not finished…my goal is to introduce a contender into the race to explain murder-suicide, not call the race as finished.”

But survivors should not have to feel like a walking controversy.

Here are a few surprising truths about murder-suicide according to Dr. Thomas Joiner’s book:

  • Murder-suicides are usually rooted in the desire to take one’s own life versus another’s
  • Those who take their own life in a murder-suicide usually have more in common with those who die by suicide alone

He says, “it is an awful thought, and only partially true, but if anything, murder is incidental in murder-suicide. In a true sense, it is an afterthought to the decision to die by suicide.”

Because of how these final acts are typically reported on in our society, the murder aspect seems to overshadow the suicide aspect, sometimes entirely. Dr. Joiner’s research helped me better understand murder-suicide as an act in its entirety.

Dr. Joiner’s book shows several instances where the research on those who died by suicide in murder-suicides had much in common with those who died by suicide alone.

For example:

  • Timeframe: He found murders alone occurred more frequently on Saturdays and Sundays. By contrast, suicides and murder-suicides occurred more frequently on Mondays and Tuesdays.
  • Blood alcohol content: Alcohol is a factor in 60 percent of all crimes of blood. He found, blood alcohol content levels were more similar in those who died by suicide and murder-suicide than in perpetrators of murder alone.
  • Mental and mood disorders: He found murder-absent suicide rarely involved a mood disorder, while murder-suicide cases had substantially higher rates of depressive illness. In his research, he found 100 percent of the perpetrators experienced a mental disorder at the time of the incident.

Dr. Thomas Joiner notes there are more suicides than homicides in the U.S., though because of how the media reports on this, it may not seem the case to the average citizen. Homicides are much more reported on than suicides, as are murder-suicides. In 2012, murder-suicides accounted for two percent of all suicides in the country. “Put differently,” he says, “we lose at least four of our fellow Americans in murder-suicide incidents each and every day.”

I learned as a survivor, I am not alone. Tragically, murder-suicides are an everyday occurrence.

For this reason, I’ve chosen to share my initial experience as a survivor of murder-suicide loss through my survival memoir Breaking the Silence. It is time to reduce the stigma. Perhaps by sharing suicide survivor stories, we can learn how to prevent murder-suicide. Or at least we can help survivors feel less alone and find some peace in this most personal loss. Shame should not be the aftermath for those left behind.

If you are a survivor of murder-suicide loss, you are not alone. If you would like to connect as a fellow survivor, we can help.

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If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or inclinations, reach out immediately to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 which provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.