Can suicide be a philosophical death caused by existential depression?

  • 452 suicides were reported in Singapore in 2020 – the highest since 2012. While mental health and depression is often a cause of it, there might be a lesser-known conflated and correlated motivation: an existential depression and crisis.
  • In Albert Camus’ famous 1942 philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, he boldly states straight off the bat: ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide – judging whether life is or is not worth living.’ He asserts the search for meaning in life is ‘absurd’ since there isn’t.
  • In the first-part feature of a ‘World Suicide Prevention Day’ series commemorated on 10 September annually, TheHomeGround Asia delves into the question of how suicide could be a philosophical death too.
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (Photo source: Izzet Young)
The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (Photo source: Izzet Young)

(CONTENT WARNING: The article contains descriptions of suicide.)

Sisyphus, a mad and arrogant Greek king, was a malevolent trickster in Greek mythology. He lured travellers into his city just to kill them. When Zeus, the god of thunder and sky, sent Thanatos, who was Death, to chain Sisyphus, he was imprisoned instead.

For defeating death twice, tyrannical Greek king Sisyphus was punished by Zeus to eternally push a boulder up a hill. But each time he reached the top, the rock would roll down again. (Photo source: pv magazine USA)

It took three attempts before Sisyphus was finally banished to Hades and punished for eternity. He had to push a boulder up a hill but each time he reached the top, the rock would roll down again and Sisyphus would have to start the whole process repeatedly. 

Such an endless and laborious endeavour is ridden with meaninglessness, making it absurd for Sisyphus to find hope and purpose in his situation. 

The Philosophy of the Absurd and its ties with suicide ideation and cause

Agreeing, French philosopher Albert Camus, in the philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, unequivocally proclaimed that life has no meaning, and that it is absurd to seek for it.  

That forms the crux of the Philosophy of the Absurd

Camus wrote: “It is absurd to continually seek meaning in life when there is none, and it is absurd to hope for some form of continued existence after death given that the latter results in our extinction.”

So essentially, ‘under what conditions is suicide warranted’ and ‘what does it mean to ask whether life is worth living?’An awareness of this could lead to a feeling of hopelessness and fatalism, where suicide ideation sets in.

(Photo source: Articles Hubspot)

Speaking with TheHomeGround Asia, Dr Ilaria Cataldo, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Trento, Italy, says suicide ideation is “usually referred to as thinking about, considering, or planning suicide, [as defined by] the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”. 

And it is “possible” that a cause of such ideation is “often [reported as] feelings of loss, rejection, worthlessness, or deprivation before [the decision is made to end] their lives”. 

But there is so much more than that, Dr Cataldo continues. 

When facing the drastic decision to end one’s life, the reasons could be so individual that generalising or reducing the mechanisms that triggered such a decision could sound indelicate.” 

She elaborates that “the topic is complex, as it enroots deeply in the individual dimension and in the constellation of peculiarities that define a person, involving the personal path and choices”.

As such, Dr Cataldo says there can be an “ideation-to-action gap”. 

“Recent developments in suicide theory underline the distinction between suicidal thoughts and suicidal attempts,” she says. “Not all people who have suicidal thoughts happen to act suicidal. Conversely, not all of those who attempted or committed suicide had initial ideation.” 

Hopelessness, emotional pain, loss of social connectedness, shame, guilt and impulsivity can lead to suicide ideation. (Photo source: Discover magazine)

And the origins and basis of the initial thinking start from an internalisation of “hopelessness, emotional pain, loss of social connectedness, shame, guilt, impulsivity, and the capability [and means] to commit suicide”. 

“Many elements could determine a subsequent suicidal behaviour, some of which are not necessarily associated with psychiatric disorders,” she says. 

That was how Raymond (not his real name) felt when it drove him to attempt suicide. “Some feelings that I had were guilt, [depression] and [anxiety]. Thoughts that came to mind were ‘what did I do to deserve this’, ‘why am I being treated like this’, ‘I can’t do this anymore’,” said the 23-year-old working in the service sector.  

Dr Cataldo gives examples from well-known historical figures who were of similar minds.

In the note Vincent Van Gogh left to his brother, ‘The sadness will last forever’, it is impossible not to catch a deep feeling of hopelessness. (Photo source: Architectural Digest)

In the note Vincent Van Gogh left to his brother, ‘The sadness will last forever’, it is impossible not to catch a deep feeling of hopelessness, which, according to some theories in psychology, is one of the risks that may drive a person towards suicidal thoughts and behaviours,” she says. 

The “recurring sensation of desperation and helplessness” or the fear of it is another force of suicide ideation, and these were “present in other well-known suicidal notes, from Virginia Woolf’s to Kurt Kobain’s,” Mr Cataldo adds. 

That is the difference between “motivations for suicide” and “the concept [of] predictors or risk factors”. 

“[For example] if we look at the biological causes, lots of evidence points out the involvement of the serotonergic pathways, extensively involved in suicidal thoughts and behaviour, and depressive disorders, which are currently treated with specific medications,” she says. 

The blurred line between depression and existential depression

With the realisation of absurdism, an existential awakening may happen. This is when the questions of what one is doing with his life and if it has any real purpose, value, or meaning is being challenged intellectually by him. 

An existential depression is ‘a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence’. (Photo source: Mindful Breath)

Through such exploration which arose from this awakening, an existential depression may follow. This is ‘a depression that arises when an individual confronts certain basic issues of existence’. 

Pioneer in existential psychotherapy Irvin Yalom said this branch of psychotherapy emphasises that mental health problems are often caused by struggles with existence and that four ultimate concerns — death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness — lead to this existential depression. 

‘Death is an inevitable occurrence. Freedom, in an existential sense, refers to the absence of external structure. That is, humans do not enter an inherently structured world. We must give the world a structure that we ourselves create. Isolation recognises that no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains, and we are nonetheless alone. Meaninglessness stems from the first three,’ he says. 

Following the line of questioning, Yalom finds that one eventually arrives at this conclusion: ‘If we must die, if we construct our own world, and if each of us is ultimately alone, then what meaning does life have?’ 

Dr Cataldo says that it is “possible to include the existential crisis among the multiple causes or reasons to think of, plan, attempt, or even commit suicide”.

One may face a difficult or pivotal season in their life, which leads to suicidal thoughts. (Photo source: Bloomberg)

She recognises that one may face a difficult or pivotal season in their life, which brings about stress. “The word ‘crisis’ derives from the Greek term ‘krinen’, which means ‘decide’,” Dr Cataldo says. 

And sometimes, the decision is “ending one’s own life”. 

In the endeavour to differentiate the grey line between depression caused by mental illness, and existential depression caused by an existential awakening and crisis, Dr Cataldo feels the need to first challenge the concept of ‘existential crisis’. 

“While most people have in mind [what depression] could be like, the term ‘existential crisis’ refers to feelings of unease about meaning, choice, and freedom in life, leading to questioning the purpose of one’s existence itself,” she says. 

She cites ‘Components of Existential Crisis: A Theoretical analysis’, the works of Butėnaitė Sondaitė, Jolanta Sondaitė, and Antanas Mockus, published in 2016

Dr Cataldo says the authors ‘describe a theoretical analysis of the emotional, cognitive, and behavioural components that define an existential crisis. Many of these, like emotional pain, anxiety, guilt, despair, relationship loss, isolation, or helplessness, do overlap with frequent symptoms of clinical depression’. 

The Myth of Sisyphus and the imagination that he is happy

So as Sisyphus pushed the boulder, he harboured all the heavy emotions of an existential depression. 

Then what is the point of carrying on? Camus asked. 

He said the only way to overcome existential depression and crisis is to ‘revolt’ against the absurdity and live anyway. 

Dr Cataldo has the same belief. “Life doesn’t necessarily have to be meaningful, and that doesn’t necessarily have a meaning to be lived.” 

“[For] Camus, he suggested that suicide could be seen as a sort of ‘confession’ about life. Specifically, he wrote that the act of suicide ‘is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it’,” she says. 

Thus with this kind of ‘awakening’, “the focus on the cognitive reasons, more than the behavioural or emotional ones, could be a gateway to intercept the underlying causes of the existential crisis,” Dr Cataldo adds. 

A way to cope with this is through “psychological consultation and psychotherapy to understand deeply the inquisitions about life, death and suicide,” she says. 

“Targeting fragile windows or events that might have triggered such a crisis could help find a solution, together with and according to the person’s availability and willingness,” Dr Cataldo adds. 

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. (Photo source: Izzet Young)

As Camus ended his essay, despite the meaninglessness of Sisyphus’ labour, he said that, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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