suicide [Lat., = self-killing], the deliberate taking of one's own life. Suicide may be compulsory, prescribed by custom or enjoined by the authorities, usually as an alternative to death at the hands of others, or it may be committed for personal motives. Depending on the time and place, it may be regarded as a heroic deed or condemned by religious and civil authorities.
Compulsory suicide may be performed out of loyalty to a dead master or spouse. Examples of this are suttee in India and the similar behavior expected of the dead emperor's favorite courtiers in ancient China. Such practices, now largely extinct, undoubtedly derived from the ancient and widespread custom of immolating servants and wives on the grave of a chief or noble (see funeral customs). Self-murder may also be enjoined for the welfare of the group; among pre-industrial peoples, the elderly who could no longer contribute to their own subsistence are an example. Finally, suicide may be offered to a favored few as an alternative to execution, as among the feudal Japanese gentry (see hara-kiri), the Greeks (see Socrates), the Roman nobility, and high-ranking military officers, such as Erwin Rommel, accused of treason. In traditional Japanese society, in certain situations suicide was seen as the appropriate moral course of action for a man who otherwise faced the loss of his honor. Self-killing may be practiced by peoples lacking a codified law of punishment; the Trobriand Islanders hurled themselves ceremonially from the tops of palm trees after a serious public loss of face. In these situations, the line between social pressure and personal motivation begins to blur.
In less traditional societies the causes of suicide are more difficult to establish. The problem has been approached from two different angles: the sociological, which stresses social pressures and the importance of social integration, and the psychoanalytic, which centers on the driving force of guilt and anxiety and the inverting of aggressive impulses. Recent studies have done much to dispel some of the myths surrounding suicide, such as the beliefs that suicidal tendencies are inherited, that suicidal tendencies cannot be reversed, and that persons who announce their intention to commit suicide will not carry out the threat.
Self-killing is expressly condemned by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and attempts are punishable by law in certain countries. Suicide was a felony in 11th-century England because the self-murderer was considered to have broken the bond of fealty, and the suicide's property was forfeited to the king. Suicides were interred on public highways with a stake driven through the heart; this practice was observed as late as 1823. In 1961, Great Britain abolished criminal penalties for attempting to commit suicide. Very few U.S. states still list suicide as a crime, but most states have laws against helping someone to commit suicide. A right-to-die movement has supported the principle of doctor-assisted suicide in certain cases (see euthanasia).
In the United States, suicide is the ninth leading cause of death. About twice as many women attempt suicide as men, but out of roughly 31,000 successful suicides in 1996, about four fifths were by men. A striking characteristic, which has concerned and baffled public health workers, has been the increase in suicides in the age group 10 to 14 years. In the period from 1980 to 1995, suicides in this age group rose from 139 to 330 per 100,000 individuals. Worldwide, suicide rates have been notably high in Russia, Hungary, and Finland.
See E. Durkheim, Suicide (1897, tr. 1951); R. Cavan, Suicide (1928, repr. 1965); E. Stengel, Suicide and Attempted Suicide (1965); J. Douglas, The Social Meanings of Suicide (1967); E. Shneidman, ed., Essays in Self-Destruction (1967); M. L. Farber, The Theory of Suicide (1968); E. A. Grollman, Suicide (1970); A. Alvarez, The Savage God (1972); J. Choron, Suicide (1972); D. Lester, Why People Kill Themselves (1972); G. Colt, The Enigma of Suicide (1991); P. Singer, Rethinking Life and Death (1994); H. Hendin, Suicide in America (new and enl. ed. 1995); K. R. Jamison, Night Falls Fast (1999).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.