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Trying To Understand Murder And Suicide

Dec 6, 2012



This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we are going to go on a trip via a new play: "Pullman Porter Blues." The production tells the story of three generations of African-American porters, a job that was both revered and reviled for reasons the play makes clear. We'll speak with playwright Cheryl West and one of the stars of the play later in this hour.

But first, we want to talk about a story that people inside and outside of sports are still talking about and trying to understand. Last week, the Kansas City Chief's Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend and the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, and then later drove to the team's practice facility, where he took his own life.

We want to emphasize here that we understand that two people lost their lives in this tragedy, but we are going to focus today on Jovan Belcher's decision to take his own life, in part because suicide is actually much more common in this country than homicide, but ironically far less discussed and perhaps understood.

So we've called upon Thomas Joiner. He is a professor of psychology at Florida State University. He has studied suicide thoroughly. He's the author of "Myths about Suicide," and he joins us now from member station WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida.

Professor Joiner, thank you for speaking with us.

THOMAS JOINER: Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: And in the spirit of full disclosure, I do think it's important to mention that both you and I have been touched by this issue ourselves in our own lives and in our own families. So with that being said, the Centers for Disease Control say that in 2010, the last year for which we have numbers, suicide was actually the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States.

And do you share my perception that, in fact, it is much less discussed as a cause of death than most others?

JOINER: Yes, I do share that. I mean, I think we're making progress on this front. People are understanding that this is a major killer, that this year in the U.S., for instance, we'll lose, you know, approximately 40,000 of our fellow Americans to death by suicide. So people are starting to come around to the fact that it's a major public health menace, but we've got a long ways to go. People aren't as compassionate and as sympathetic as they are, you know, for example, when someone dies suddenly by heart disease or stroke, for instance.

MARTIN: What's the number one myth that you think people have about suicide?

JOINER: You know, one that immediately springs to mind has to do with cowardice, the idea that taking your life is cowardly or weak. When you think about it even for a moment, that logic starts to break down. It's actually an incredibly fearsome and daunting thing to do. We're just not wired for it.

You know, therefore, to die by suicide means you have to stare death in the face. It's really hard to do, and it really has nothing to do with cowardice or weakness. You can see this most clearly in people who have very, very strong desires to die. Sometimes they even enact a plan to die, and yet in the last moments, they can't enact suicide because it's simply too difficult and too daunting.

MARTIN: The first question I think most people would ask when they hear of a situation involving suicide - whether it's in their own lives or a family member or a celebrity like Jovan Belcher - is why.

JOINER: Well, there are theories about why. And, in fact, a major preoccupation of my own work here at FSU in Tallahassee is to develop a theory as to why. Our theory is that it's a three-factor phenomenon. If people have in their minds the idea that they're a burden on others - in other words, that their deaths will be worth more than their lives - number one.

Number two, if they feel like they're hopelessly alienated from others, just cut off and lonely. If they feel those two things, our theory suggests that that will produce the desire for suicide. But as I alluded to a moment ago, desire's not sufficient. You've got to also have developed a certain fearlessness of physical ordeal. And that's the third factor.

When those three factors co-occur in the same individual, that's where you see these catastrophes.

MARTIN: Is that, in part, why - and the statistics bare this out over a number of years - that women are more likely to attempt suicide, but that men are more likely to actually succeed?

JOINER: That's our view. When you measure this fearlessness idea - and we have ways to do that - when you measure it, it is much more, you know, common in men than it is in women, and it just tracks the death rate, the gender ratio, in suicide, which is four to one in the U.S. It's a considerable difference. For every one woman who dies by suicide, four men do.

MARTIN: Is it common for someone who commits suicide to also take someone else's life, too? Again, we don't want to ignore the fact that Jovan Belcher took someone else's life in advance of taking his own, and I'm just interested in how the two of those acts intersect. What do we know about that?

JOINER: Very little. It's a woefully under-researched phenomenon. I myself am trying to change that in my own work, and I do have some thoughts about it. But for starters, you know, every day in the United States, we lose about a hundred of our fellow Americans to death by suicide. And that fact alone is worth pausing over and pondering, that today alone in this one country, there's going to be a hundred people who take their lives.

Of those 100, on average, two of those - two out of the hundred - involve murder-suicide incidents. So, in a sense, it's quite rare. But on the other hand, it's frequent enough that it occurs pretty much every day in this country. So that gives you some sense of the rarity, but also that it's a common, daily occurrence that we really need to understand a lot more about.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Professor Thomas Joiner. We're talking about some of the common misunderstandings about suicide. We're talking about this, as you might imagine, in the wake of the Kansas City Chiefs' professional football player Jovan Belcher's decision to shoot and kill his - first his girlfriend, then himself last week.

You know, I just used the word decision. Do you agree with the use of that word?

JOINER: I think that - I mean, in a sense, I definitely do, if you're referring to the decision to die.


JOINER: I do think that's part of it. But I would rush to add that I, at least, think that 100 percent of these deaths are spurred, in one way or another, by mental disorders. By that, I don't necessarily mean florid, extremely obvious mental disorders. They can be ones that aren't, you know, moderate depression, for instance. People can keep that internal and private and not really, you know, reveal it to others, and yet be suffering quite a bit.

So when you include those kinds of conditions, my view is that 100 percent are spurred by mental disorders, and mental disorders certainly cloud decision-making and cloud judgment. So that definitely has to be factored in.

MARTIN: The Kansas City Chief's head coach Romeo Crennel, who witnessed Jovan's death, he was asked at a press conference on Monday whether he'd seen anything to suggest that Belcher had been in such distress that would cause this. And this is what he had to say.


COACH ROMEO CRENNEL: Now you're trying to make me a psychologist, and I'm not a psychologist. I don't know what made him snap. I was surprised, you know, so I can't answer that question.

MARTIN: You know, that leads to another question that I have: Are there warning signs that people could pick up if they were attentive to them?

JOINER: Frequently there are, but crucially, not always. So the ones that are the most common are - well, first of all, the very obvious one is where people are just talking about how they desire death, or how they're planning their suicides. That may seem painfully obvious, but it gets neglected time and time again that that's an important warning sign.

Some other ones are sleeplessness. Insomnia is really actually an ominous warning sign, especially when it's accompanied by talking of death. Another one is social withdrawal, where someone who used to be more or less engaged with friends, family, so forth, just all of a sudden markedly withdraws socially. But it's important to add that there are some deaths by suicide, and Mr. Belcher's may have been one such death, where, really, none of these were apparent. And the death simply does come out of the blue, where no one really could have seen it coming.

The death of another NFL player, Junior Seau, was like this, as well, all though Mr. Seau did, I think, exhibit one of the warning signs in the days before his death, namely insomnia. But, besides that, no one could see it coming. His state of mind seemed to be good. His mood seemed to be as it usually was, which was pretty upbeat.

MARTIN: But the other point I have to make is - is it, in part, the nature of people's interactions with other people? Is it - you wouldn't necessarily know if they were experiencing those things? I mean, the fact is, in Belcher's case, he had a new baby in the house and, you know, people with a new baby in the house don't sleep a lot.

JOINER: Exactly. I mean, that's part of the definite complexity here is that there are times where you just won't know either because the person won't reveal it, they're keeping it secret or private, you know, or because the warning sign, like insomnia, can be attributed to something else.

So there's no doubt it's complex. It's not an easy read. I mean, actually, sometimes it is. There are cases where it's just real obvious that something's going badly wrong and this is a dangerous crisis and that happens and, when that happens, people should react. But there are other times when these deaths really do come out of the blue and no one could really see them coming.

MARTIN: But, if you do see some of the warning signs that you have just shared with us, let's say you are a colleague, you're a neighbor, you're a family member. What should you do?

JOINER: I think one of the best resources of all is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you just call 1-800-273-TALK, you'll get on the phone with someone who can help. They know. They've been through this before. They know the local resources. They know what to do, so if you're worried about yourself or if you're worried about a friend or family or colleague, that's a great place to start right there and they have a terrific website, as well. If you just Google 1-800-273-TALK, that website will pop right up. It's really, really high quality information.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, mentioning again that, you know, I'm sorry for your loss and also for mine. It's not a secret here that, you know, I lost my brother to suicide two years ago and I know that you lost your father.

JOINER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What would be helpful to say to someone who is experiencing this? I mean, I know that, you know, people want to be helpful, but oftentimes, people say things that are painful, not because they're being mean, but because they really don't know what to say. Do you have a recommendation here?

JOINER: I do. And I think getting in the mindset that this is a sudden death, just like if somebody died from a stroke or from a heart attack. It's the same thing as far as the bereaved are concerned. They've suddenly lost, in a very devastating way, a loved one and so just good-hearted caring sympathy and compassion.

You know, if we can get our society in a mindset where we're thinking about these conditions much like we do cancer and heart disease and stroke, then everybody will be better off. I think we'll be better positioned to prevent these deaths in the first place and will be better positioned to be compassionate to those who are bereaved by suicide.

MARTIN: Thomas Joiner is a professor of psychology at Florida State University. He's the author of the book "Myths about Suicide." He's with us from Tallahassee.

Professor Joiner, thank you for joining us.

JOINER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.