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Why People Die by Suicide [Paperback]

Thomas Joiner
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 30, 2007 0674025490 978-0674025493 1

In the wake of a suicide, the most troubling questions are invariably the most difficult to answer: How could we have known? What could we have done? And always, unremittingly: Why? Written by a clinical psychologist whose own life has been touched by suicide, this book offers the clearest account ever given of why some people choose to die.

Drawing on extensive clinical and epidemiological evidence, as well as personal experience, Thomas Joiner brings a comprehensive understanding to seemingly incomprehensible behavior. Among the many people who have considered, attempted, or died by suicide, he finds three factors that mark those most at risk of death: the feeling of being a burden on loved ones; the sense of isolation; and, chillingly, the learned ability to hurt oneself. Joiner tests his theory against diverse facts taken from clinical anecdotes, history, literature, popular culture, anthropology, epidemiology, genetics, and neurobiology--facts about suicide rates among men and women; white and African-American men; anorexics, athletes, prostitutes, and physicians; members of cults, sports fans, and citizens of nations in crisis.

The result is the most coherent and persuasive explanation ever given of why and how people overcome life's strongest instinct, self-preservation. Joiner's is a work that makes sense of the bewildering array of statistics and stories surrounding suicidal behavior; at the same time, it offers insight, guidance, and essential information to clinicians, scientists, and health practitioners, and to anyone whose life has been affected by suicide.

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Editorial Reviews


In a book both personal and scientific, Thomas Joiner gives us the deepest understanding of suicide that has yet been written. He reminds us that to go on living we need to feel that we belong to someone and that we are effective. But he adds a surprising third factor--we must not break down our fear of death. Joiner offers wise guidance not only to professionals, but to those who must live on after this kind of death in the family. (Pauline Boss, author of Ambiguous Loss)

As a survivor, I find this book to be illuminating, informative, and, most of all, healing. Joiner searches for the "why" of suicide as both a scientist and a survivor himself, and his research and insights help us to make sense of the pain and confusion that led our loved ones to end their lives. (Carla Fine, author of No Time To Say Goodbye: Surviving The Suicide Of A Loved One)

Joiner provides an elegant description of what leads people to commit suicide and what professionals, families, and friends can do to prevent the crisis that this tragedy creates for everyone involved. (Aaron T. Beck, M.D., University Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania)

Joiner provides a fascinating contribution to psychological literature that is certain to join the ranks of Émile Durkheim's Suicide and Karl Menninger's Man Against Himself. Not only has Joiner established professional prominence in suicidology, but he also has a profound personal relationship with the subject: his own father died by suicide. Drawing on the pain of this experience as well as on clinical and epidemiological evidence, Joiner has managed to conduct significant research into why some people die by suicide, while others survive their attempts at self-annihilation. His persuasive thesis is that practice, mental and physical, is what separates the completers from the attempters. In particular, those who have become desensitized to physical pain are most likely to orchestrate their own deaths successfully. Joiner also identifies perceived burdensomeness, little sense of belonging, genetics, neurobiology, and mental disorders as contributors to suicidality and completion. (Lynne F. Maxwell Library Journal 2005-12-01)

Taking one's own life goes against one of our strongest urges--the instinct of self-preservation. The deterioration of this instinct, says Thomas Joiner, should be regarded as a symptom of disease...His theory, outlined in Why People Die by Suicide is that it happens when severely depressed people acquire fearlessness. How do people become fearless? Through practice and learning, he says. This explains the bouts of self-harm or failed suicide attempts that are not cries for help so much as rehearsals for a deadly finale. (Anjana Ahuja The Times 2006-01-30)

[Joiner's] theory is the most comprehensive yet put forth to explain why some people end their lives. Joiner offers a dizzying array of studies to shore up his argument, and some of the evidence he offers is quite novel for the lay reader. (Philip Connors Newsday 2006-02-05)

Mr. Joiner's book is a useful guide to suicidal behavior...Mr. Joiner draws on many scientific fields--genetics, neuroscience, psychiatry, evolutionary psychology--all of which, he thinks, have something to offer the study of suicide. The major lesson of his book is the necessity of keeping the ability to commit suicide from coinciding with the desire for death...His book is a practical study, full of up-to-the-minute research. (Thomas Meaney Wall Street Journal 2006-04-20)

It is the synergy and tension between Joiner's dual identity as suicide survivor and academic that imbues this book with both its power and a certain logical grandiosity...Joiner is to be commended for a powerful effort to integrate science and personal tragedy. In an easily digestible style, he reviews the breadth of modern suicide scholarship--biological, psychological, and social, and presents his integration clearly and forcefully. (J. Michael Bostwick Boston Globe 2006-07-12)

The Florida State University psych professor, who grew up here and endured the suicide of his father not far from their Atlanta home, asserts that suicide is not simply an act but a process. Joiner describes how a person works up to suicide by overcoming the fear of death and the instinct for self-preservation. In accessible, somber prose, he also explains the conditions under which a person becomes suicidal. (Lawrence Wright Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Many researchers and clinicians have tried to explain why people commit suicide. The majority of studies that have been conducted to date have examined correlates and risk factors for suicidal behavior. However, many of these risk factors are found throughout the general population, and the vast majority of people do not engage in suicidal behavior. Dr. Joiner's theory is one of the first that integrates many of these risk factors into an explanatory model. His model makes sense both intuitively and empirically. What makes Dr. Joiner's theory particularly credible is the research that he and his students have done to support his model. Additionally, he is able to use his theory to explain such diverse behaviors as the suicide attacks on 9/11 and Kurt Cobain's suicide. What makes this book particularly interesting is that it begins with a prologue detailing Dr. Joiner's personal account of loss by suicide...This book is a must-read for clinicians and researchers who are involved with suicidal patients. Dr. Joiner's model highlights the acute risk factors for serious suicidal behavior thus providing tangible targets for assessment and treatment. Additionally this volume is an excellent resource for family members who have lost a loved one to suicide...Based upon the book's combination of sound scientific research with thoughtful personal reflections and examples it is given a strong recommendation. (Elizabeth L. Jeglic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Book Reviews)

The change in the way I now look at my dad's death comes because of [this] compelling book. (Steve Martin The Times 2007-06-08)


In a book both personal and scientific, Thomas Joiner gives us the deepest understanding of suicide that has yet been written. He reminds us that to go on living we need to feel that we belong to someone and that we are effective. But he adds a surprising third factor--we must not break down our fear of death. Joiner offers wise guidance not only to professionals, but to those who must live on after this kind of death in the family. (Pauline Boss, author of Ambiguous Loss) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (October 30, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674025490
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674025493
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,112 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

THOMAS JOINER grew up in Georgia, went to college at Princeton, and received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He is The Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. Dr. Joiner's work is on the psychology, neurobiology, and treatment of suicidal behavior and related conditions. Author of over 485 peer-reviewed publications, Dr. Joiner was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Residency Fellowship. He was elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and received the Young Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the Shakow Award for Early Career Achievement from the Division of Clinical Psychology of the American Psychological Association, the Shneidman Award for excellence in suicide research from the American Association of Suicidology, and the Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions from the American Psychological Association, as well as research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Department of Defense, and various foundations. He directs the DoD-funded Military Suicide Research Consortium (msrc.fsu.edu).

Dr. Joiner is on the Board of Advisors for the magazine Men's Health. He is editor of the American Psychological Association's Clinician's Research Digest, editor of the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, and he has authored or edited seventeen books, including Why People Die By Suicide, published in 2005 by Harvard University Press, Myths About Suicide (Harvard, 2010), and The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide (Oxford University Press, March 2014). Largely in connection with Why People Die By Suicide, he has made numerous radio, print, and television appearances, including write-ups in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Health, and The Times of London, and two appearances on the Dr. Phil Show.

Dr. Joiner is clinically active - he is a licensed clinical psychologist in Florida. He is Director of FSU's University Psychology Clinic. Dr. Joiner provides four-hour workshops on suicidal behavior and mood disorders to nurses, social workers, psychologists and allied health professionals across the U.S. He runs a consulting practice specializing in suicidal behavior, including legal consultation on suits involving death by suicide.

He lives in Tallahassee, Florida with his wife and two sons.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
59 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensitive, scientific and helpful August 16, 2006
Thomas Joiner is one of the leading scientific experts on suicide. This is certainly reflected in his excellent review of major theories and evidence---but what strikes me throughout the book is how compassionate, how human and how personal his own story is. He begins the book by noting that his father died by suicide. Throughout his discussions of the research on suicide--which Joiner handles with great skill-- he comes back to remind us that suicide is about someone's parent, brother, sister, child or friend. Suicide has been a topic of research interest since Durkheim advanced his theory of "altruistic" suicide and anomie. Indeed, Joiner's review of the research appears to support this classic theory. Individuals more likely to kill themselves are either feeling like a burden to others (thus, the "altruistic" model) or that they are so detached that they do not "belong". These are certainly issues that we must all keep in mind with an ageing population---of people who may feel that they are a burden. Joiner urges us to recognize that this "perception" is almost always a distortion--- but it may feel real to the suicidal person. Moreover,Joiner clearly shows that suicidal risk is increased as the individual repeats self-injury--- cutting, bruising, dangerous activities, even tatooing. As the individual becomes more accustomed to being in control of his or her pain, suicide becomes the next step on a slippery slope. Of course, other models stress the importance of hopelessness, depression or substance abuse as predictors--and, although Joiner argues these are secondary to belongingness and burden--- those of us (as therapists) working with suicidal people need to attend to all of the precursors. Read more ›
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
By Lily S
My boyfriend committed suicide four months ago. I have been tormented by almost every single bad human emotions you can think of. I have purchased almost every single books here on amazon regarding suicide. Obviously, I am desperately in need of finding answers to comfort me, to help me cope with the incredible loss.
This book is amazing. It answered almost all my questions.
If you are a suicide survivor who lost a loved one to suicide, I highly recommend this book. It will comfort you and perhaps you can finally let go of the unnecessary guilt.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sheds Light on the Subject of Suicide September 4, 2010
The author of Why People Die by Suicide has both a personal and professional passion for the topic. Thomas Joiner is a professor of psychology at Florida State University, and is the son of a man who committed suicide. He uses his scientific training to develop a theory to determine why people die by suicide.

Dr. Joiner explores what reasons people may have to deliberately die, an act that goes against the universal instinct to preserve life. The most accepted view of suicide from those who study it suggests that suicide is hate or aggression turned inward. Another theory states that "psychache" (general psychological and emotional pain that reaches intolerable intensity) leads one to suicide. Even laypersons know that this is not enough of an answer to the question, Why? Elements such as genetics must be included. Joiner examines the concepts of "perceived burdensomeness" and "failed sense of belongingness." He also considers the possibility that those who die by suicide work up to the act. As a suicidologist, Joiner hopes to provide an understanding of death by suicide.

This book is recommended for those who want an understanding of suicide from a clinical point of view. Although Joiner shares his personal journey as a survivor of his father's suicide, the style of the book is academic. If intellectual stimulation on the subject is what you are seeking, then the book is well worth reading.
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41 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Book on the Subject I Have Seen January 25, 2006
By Garrett
This book is just an excellent combination of personal and academic. It is very well written. It has got substance and depth to it. It breaks some new ground.

Family and friends of people who have died by suicide, who know the emotional wreckage it leaves behind, who know that suicide is a sum producer of much more pain that it solves, are more not less likely to do it themselves. Why?

Partly, "people desire death when two fundamental needs are frustrated to the point of extinction; namely, the need to belong with and connect to others, and the need to feel effective with or to influence others." Well, for survivors, the second part of this has been pretty well challenged. The first part gets challenged too: the topic is still somewhat taboo, despite that everyone knows that talking about it is important, there is real difficulty to it. Connection, on the issue, takes work.

The ideas and the feelings expressed in this book come across as real and true and well grounded. I thank Thomas Joiner for writing it.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why People Die By Suicide - Thomas Joiner May 14, 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A friend of mine committed suicide in February, 2011. I was the last person to see, talk, and comfort her. I was
astounded and paralyzed by this occurence. I immediately
researched grief and suicide in Amazon. I bought and read
five books within a week of the death. The Joiner book
alerted me to the latest scientific insights re suicide.
I bought multiple copies of this book and distributed them
to my friends, relatives, and my writing group members.
I plan to send copies to each of the decedent's various
schools with a note asking them to publicize, not the death,
but the mechanics of the danger as discussed by Dr. Joiner.
Thanks for having such shelf depth on this sad topic.

Ed Thompson
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Suicide
Have felt the desire for suicide and wanted to understand more about it. Found that others have some of the same thoughts and feelings. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Judith Smith
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative
I am doing some research on this subject. This book takes a difficult subject and makes it understandable. It is not a do it yourself manual.
Published 6 months ago by SMFC
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely helpful; Two points for further discussion
Although I have read many books on death, this was the first one on suicide. I thought that the book provides a very clear and helpful "theory" of suicide, referring to a number... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Nobo Komagata
5.0 out of 5 stars Why People Die by Suicide
This book is very detailed but there is a use for it in order to have a better understanding of why people attempt and commit suicide.
Published 12 months ago by pamela tejeda
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent clinical analysis
This book is excellent in helping one to understand what the possible motivations are that lead to folks committing suicide. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Marc Rebs
5.0 out of 5 stars Persuasive theory and sympathetic to suicide survivors
The reason for my rating is twofold. First, the author's theory -- three conditions for suicide (low belongingness, perceived burdensomeness, and fearlessness for lethal action) --... Read more
Published 12 months ago by T. Hasima
5.0 out of 5 stars Very helpful.
I have just gotten around to reading this book. My brother died of suicide. This book has offed me some ideas on what contributes to a suicide's actions.
Published 15 months ago by Susan A. Burgess
5.0 out of 5 stars Why People Die By Suicide
Excellent explanination of why people die by suicide. Dispels some old myths about the why of this tragic behavior, but reduces the feeling of guilt of those who are left behind... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Doris Forde
4.0 out of 5 stars Somber but educational
Unlike some of the other reviewers (who are excellent), I did not lose anyone close to suicide. But I've heard people talk about losing someone close and they remain perplexed as... Read more
Published 16 months ago by The OC
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read
I found this book to be personal and clinical at the same time. It treated a difficult topic with care and consideration.
Published 16 months ago by Katy J.
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