Why should the human animal be prone to suicide? The question itself reveals the kind of loneliness in which we find ourselves. We presume a unique otherness–cognitively engaged, self-aware, self-examined. By definition, it would seem, only the animal with a “self” can kill itself. Animals can be pressed to a kind of system failure, in which certain stresses (captivity, for example) lead to death. I once tried to feed an abandoned duckling, a mallard; in futility, it leaped in its cardboard box until it died. It would be hard to imagine, however, that its intentions (or “instincts”) were anything other than to escape. Cut off from the consciousnesses of other species, we cannot know if or when the deer has the urge to dash in front of the semi, or when the rat, in despair, takes its poison with purpose. For the most part, non-human, animal models for suicidality, are just that … non-human models. It is for this reason that researchers like Preti and Malkesman look for the traits in animal behavior that are known to be associated with human suicide risks, including: anxiety, impulsivity, and helplessness. Apparently, one can pester a mouse until it mostly gives up on life. Some switch eventually flips and the poor beast simply submits to predation. But the helpless mouse is helpless, not zelfmoord.
On the other hand, we are animals and there is no reason to suppose that our own system failures differ from those of other species. It is the reflection, this face in the mirror, our human narcissism which pushes us to assume that our creaturely break downs are in fact some kind of rational deliberation about the value of another minute of life. In contrast, philosophical suicidality is silly. Thinking about the more troubling questions of existence, even when the answers are dire, ranks among the pleasures of life. Even so, Socrates serves (on one side of the coin) as a fine case study of the suicidality of self-examination. After all, to examine one’s life is, ultimately, to weigh whether or not it’s worth living. For most of us, I suspect that a competing animal urge toward self-preservation (completely outside of any rational machinations), protects us from philosophical foolishness. But for others, a completely different noise burns through the mind. The pain itself (even if we might know its source and, therefore, its limits) rages and smolders in the brain stem. In as much as it is “natural” to jump off of a hot stove, likewise, a human, an animal, in pain will seek ways to escape. But when we humans leap or pull the trigger, even then something in us, that blasted narrator, observes: you’re about to jump; you’re about to do yourself in. The chatter itself is tiresome.
Having written this, having reworked it, once again, through my mind, and obviously with some motivation, I suppose knowing is itself a bit of a buffer. We survive, but, like any animal, among the wounded.
Malkesman O, Pine DS, Tragon T, Austin DR, Henter ID, Chen G, Manji HK. Animal models of suicide-trait-related behaviors. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2009 Apr;30(4):165-73. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2788815.
Preti A. Do animals commit suicide? Does it matter? Crisis. 2011 Jan 1;32(1):1-4. PubMed PMID: 21371964.