The Sociology of Suicide Notes

From the newsletter that accompanies BBC4 Radio’s Thinking Allowed program, hosted by the ebullient Laurie Taylor:

Whenever the subject of suicide or attempted suicide comes up in conversation I can be relied upon to describe a piece of research on suicide notes that was published some years ago (even though I’ve tried, I can’t find the exact reference any more).

What the researcher had done was collect a large selection of suicide notes written by two classes of people: those who had successfully ended their own life and those who had failed for one reason or another to kill themselves (attempted suicides).

He then submitted these two sets of notes to a computer analysis in the hope that this might throw up some interesting differences in style or subject matter.

As I remember he found clear evidence that the notes written by the ‘attempted suicides’, by people who had not taken quite enough pills, or not sealed the door sufficiently well to prevent noxious gases or fumes escaping, were heavily philosophical in tone. The writers spoke at length of life no longer being worth living, of the meaningless of existence, of the impossibility of optimism.

These were in stark contrast to the suicide notes written by those who had succeeded in killing themselves. These notes tended to be much shorter and much more practical than those provided by attempted suicides. One for example simply said “You’ll find the car keys on top of the sideboard and the will in the top desk drawer.”

There are thousands of other research papers on the subject of suicide. Indeed, it could be argued that sociology first asserted itself as a distinctive subject back in 1897 when Emile Durkheim first tried to formulate a structural and cultural account of its incidence which did not rely upon any psychological understanding of individual desires and motives.