Facebook Twitter

What is suicide?

"When people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. ‘This is my last experiment,’ wrote a young chemist in his suicide note. ‘If there is any eternal torment worse than mine I’ll have to be shown."
— Kay Redfield Jamison (Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide)

The basic definition of suicide is that it is self-inflicted death with intent to die. However, over the years this definition had morphed and changed based on theories and research. Ultimately, as someone whose life has been touched by suicide, it's most important that we find a definition (or even a combining several definitions) that we feel describes our experience best.

Another definition comes from the Centers for Disease Control (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/ss/ss6010.pdf?source=govdelivery):

Suicide is defined as a death resulting from the use of force against oneself when a preponderance of the evidence indicates that the use of force was intentional.

These references provide more information about the definition of suicide:

Farberow, N.L. (1980). Indirect self-destructive behavior: Classification and characteristics. In
N.L. Farberow (Ed.), The many faces of suicide: Indirect self-destructive behavior (pp. 15-
27). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Shneidman, E.S. (1985). Definition of suicide. New York: Wiley-Interscience. Chapter B, "The
words," pp. 6-22.

Shneidman, E.S., & Farberow, N.L. (1970). Attempted and committed suicides. In E.S.
Shneidman, N.L. Farberow, & R.E. Litman (Eds.), The psychology of suicide (pp. 199-225).
New York: Science House.

De Leo, D., Burgis, S., Bertolote, J.M., Kerkhof, A.J.F.M., & Bille-Brahe, U. (2006). Definitions
of suicidal behavior: Lessons learned from the WHO/EURO Multicentre Study. Crisis, 27, 4-

Silverman, M. M., Berman, A. L., Sanddal, N. D., O’Carroll, P. W., & Joiner, T. E., Jr. (2007).
Rebuilding the Tower of Babel: A revised nomenclature for the study of suicide and suicidal
behaviors Part 2: Suicide-related ideations, communications, and behavior. Suicide and Life-
Threatening Behavior, 37, 264-277.

Suicide Language


The study of suicide, known as suicidology, originated in the 1940s with Edwin Shneidman, Ph.D., and three Los Angeles, California, colleagues: Norman Farberow, Ph.D.; Robert Litman, M.D.; and Mickey Heilig, MSW. The work that these four men began is what almost every piece of the three pillars of the field are built on: prevention, intervention, and postvention.

Watch a video here where two of field’s co-founders, Norman Faberow and Mickey Heilig, discuss where they believe the field should head in the future. Filmed in 2009.



Prevention is everything that comes before even thoughts of suicide (also known as suicide ideation). This includes education, to teach people the warning signs to look for and what resources are available if they are worried about someone they care about.


Intervention is what Living Works Education (a suicide prevention training organization based in Canada– www.livingworks.net) calls “suicide first aid or “suicide CPR.” It is identifying someone who is thinking about suicide or who might have a plan to attempt suicide and getting them help.


Postvention, a term coined by Shneidman, is what comes after the attempt or the loss– it is helping the people who are left behind find hope again. And as Shneidman said, postvention after suicide is prevention for the next generation (Shneidman, 1972)). By helping the bereaved through their losses, we support their efforts to find life-sustaining hope again.

Shneidman, E. (1972). Forward. In A. C. Cain (Ed.), Survivors of suicide. Oxford: Charles C. Thomas.

Self-Injurious Behavior

There are many ways that a person can hurt one’s self. In past years, cutting was seen as one of the more typical methods a person used, however, people burn themselves, bang against walls, and use other ways trying to hurt themselves. These behaviors also were seen as warning signs of suicide although recently are described as ways to cope with pain. However, any sign of a person hurting him or herself always should be taken seriously. Someone using self-injurious behavior to cope with pain is not healthy and needs help learning better coping skills.

Suicide Ideation

Often called “thoughts of suicide,” suicide ideation is when someone is thinking about suicide. It doesn’t always mean that someone will attempt to end one’s life but no thoughts of suicide should be ignored; all thoughts of suicide should be taken seriously.


05/04/2017 at 8:08 AM
The only reason suicide is/was legal is because the majority of people are so terrified of death that they cannot even allow another human the choice of ending her or his life. Religions have compounded the fear of death by brainwashing humans into believing that they will go to an incredibly torturous place upon death.
04/25/2014 at 5:21 PM
Sidney Ganzler
Hello to Norm Farberow and Mickey Heilig. I am well, and living in Chico CA, about 80 miles north of Sacramento. I'm working on a measurement scale for autism. It would be great to hear/see from you. Regards, Sid Ganzler
Leave a Comment
All fields are required
Allowed Tags: <b>, <i>, <br>