The Darkness at the Bottom of the Soul

Understanding the Four Mechanisms that Drive People to Suicide

“Nothing can rightly compel a simple and brave man to a vulgar sadness. While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons, nothing can make life a burden to me.”

David Henry Thoreau, Walden[1]

At some point in our lives, we may all experience a minor depression, for example after a death in the family, or when we fail to pass an exam. To most people, a light depression is short-lived, but victims of child maltreatment can suffer negative thoughts about themselves, others and the world around them a whole life long. Without professional help, they can’t heal.

People who suffer a severe and lasting depression may attempt to soften their pain, for example by sleeping long hours in order to hide from life; with drugs or alcohol to anesthetize their pain; or by ending one’s life in order to remove the perceived source of pain altogether.[2]

Children and teenagers often cannot escape incidental maltreatment at home. Young people don’t yet possess the emotional buffers needed to mediate the effects of emotional traumas. Precisely because of that, traumatized youth often consider suicide to be the only way to escape their pain.[3]

But people who suffer from depression aren’t born with bad genes, bad drives of some other original sin. In most cases, depressed people were made depressed as a result of adverse childhood experiences, among others physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or verbal maltreatment, in many cases by their own parents.[4] The psychological problems that depressions cause don’t immediately manifest themselves in childhood, but only when children have become teenagers and adults.

Often their whole lives long, maltreated children will believe the negative self-image that was communicated to them through maltreatment.[5] Physical or emotional aggression communicated them that they are inferior human beings who don’t deserve to be loved, but punished “for their own good”.

The True Causes of Suicide

The ACE study on the long-term effects of traumatic childhood experiences found a strong relationship between the number of types of maltreatment someone had been exposed to as a child, and the chances of depression and suicide in adulthood.

The results are shocking. During their whole lives, people with an ACE score of four or more, in other words people who became a victim of four or more types of maltreatment, have a 460 percent higher chance of depression and a 1220 percent higher chance of attempted suicide. People with ACE scores of six or higher even have a 51 times higher chance to rob themselves of their life than people with who scored zero.[6] Of all people with an ACE score of seven or higher, as many as one in three attempted suicide.[7]

Child maltreatment appears to be the main source of many suicide attempts later in life: nearly three quarters of all people who ever attempted suicide were raised in a dysfunctional household.[8] Because people maltreated as children will later have savored fewer positive childhood memories to fall back on, every new setback throws them into a downward spiral of negative thoughts about themselves.

In almost al cases, it isn’t the physical pain endured in childhood that causes mental health issues or behavioral disorders, but rather the emotional pain, “the instable and unpredictable behavior of the caretaker”.[9]

Healing Depression

Because much child abuse takes place during the formative years of teenage brains, child maltreatment causes permanent damage to people’s brain development.[10] That’s why it’s so difficult to cure depression in adulthood, because healing a depression is only possible by pursuing new, positive life experiences that establish new nerve path connections that upgrade an earlier negative self-image to a positive one.

That means depressed people, in order to heal, to a large part stay dependent on the support and appreciation their social environment is willing to offer them. Thus, the single best thing depressed people can do themselves is to go looking for a healthier environment, and to learn to recognize and avoid toxic people.

The Four Mechanisms

The four mechanisms that cause depression and drive people to suicide are, firstly, the oppression of someone’s personality, individuality and feelings, along with the repression of any memory thereof; secondly, holding on to a belief in the immutability of the future and the world around us; thirdly, the false belief in one’s negative self-image; and fourthly, the impossibility to destroy oneself through other means than suicide.

The first three mechanisms form the prerequisites for a protracted depression, while the fourth mechanism determines whether such a depression will manifest itself inwardly or outwardly.

The first mechanism, the oppression and repression of one’s personality, feelings and memories, arises as a self-defense mechanism against pain, humiliation and other (emotional) maltreatment against which the receiver cannot defend himself. As a consequence of the oppression of their feelings, people fail to express their traumata, which renders healing impossible.

The repression of the memory of their trauma blocks later awareness of the true causes of one’s pain. Therefore, these people will unjustly believe there’s something wrong with themselves, as if they were born like that, or as if they are naturally evil and deserve their fate.

The second mechanism, holding on to a belief in the immutability of the world around us, keeps people prisoners of a social environment from which they don’t believe they can escape. Today’s misery will be tomorrow’s misery, they think, but for as long as people continue to believe that life “is the way it is” they surely won’t attempt to liberate themselves from an unpleasant situation.

This persistent belief in the immutability of all things really is the result of a broken will. These people fail to show initiative, because in everything they do, they passively await another person’s permission.

The third mechanism, the (learned) false belief in a negative self-image, is the consequence of negative messages that our caretakers once communicated to us. They communicated these messages through physical violence, but especially through emotional and verbal aggression. People with a negative self-image unconsciously learn not only to live up to the low expectations they hold of themselves, but also to conform to the low expectations others hold of them. As a result, they hang on to social ties with toxic people who hurt them for much longer than necessary, rather than breaking these ties.

The first three mechanisms shut people in. Such a traumatized person no longer has the ability to heal a depression out of his own will. These depressed people believe they were born evil, that they deserve a poor treatment, that everything is their fault and that nothing in the world will ever move heaven or earth in their benefit.

In order to drive a depressed person to suicide, the fourth mechanism yet has to be activated: blocking access to anesthetics such as for example alcohol, drugs or sleep. Without such means, the only remaining path out of a severe depression is suicide, or, in extreme cases, an act of destruction against others.

Breaking a Depression

In summary, people who suffer from severe depression, and those who consider attempting suicide, can learn to break their depression by taking the following advice to heart:

  • Your depression is not your fault, but the fault of your environment, most likely the environment you were brought up in.
  • By allowing yourself to process the past, rather than repressing it, you can gain renewed awareness of the true causes of your pain.
  • You can heal a negative self-image once you learn that it is a lie. You weren’t born with negative beliefs about yourself. Instead, you were conditioned to believe thus.
  • Let go of a deterministic view of the world around you. The future will change for the better; promise yourself that you will still be there when it does.
  • While you may not be able to stop certain people from treating you badly, you can learn to recognize and avoid such toxic people.
  • A change of social environment—for example, travel or volunteering—will help you collect the positive life experiences that are so crucial to overcoming a depression.
  • You deserve to be loved for who you are, not for what you achieved in life.

Still, if everything fails, know that in the light of insurmountable setback you can still change your assumptions and beliefs about yourself, and your attitude towards life.

[1]David Henry Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 2009), 171.

[2]Shanta R. Dube et al., “Childhood Abuse, Household Dysfunction, and the Risk of Attempted Suicide Throughout the Life Span: Findings From the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,” Journal of the American Medical Association 286, no. 24 (2001): 3089.

[3]Ibid., 3094.

[4]Daniel P. Chapman et al., “Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Risk of Depressive Disorders in Adulthood,” Journal of Affective Disorders 82 (2004): 218.

[5]Anne-Laura Van Harmelen, “Childhood Emotional Maltreatment: Impact on Cognition and the Brian” (Universiteit Leiden, 2013), 11.

[6]Vincent J. Felitti, “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead,” 2002, 6.

[7]Dube et al., “Childhood Abuse, Household Dysfunction, and the Risk of Attempted Suicide Throughout the Life Span: Findings From the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,” 3089.

[8]Wayne K. Sheldrake, “The Elegant Solution: Omission and Parallel Narrative in the Creative Nonfiction of Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild,’” 2004, 37.

[9]Berit Grøholt, Hilchen Sommerschild, and Garløv. Ida, Lærebok I Barnepsykiatri (Universitetsforlaget, 2008), 348.

[10]Dube et al., “Childhood Abuse, Household Dysfunction, and the Risk of Attempted Suicide Throughout the Life Span: Findings From the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study,” 3095.

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