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Characteristics of suicide pacts

Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Researchers have found that at least one of the members involved in a suicide pact usually suffers from depression, borderline or antisocial personality traits, or substance abuse.

A suicide pact is a mutual agreement between two or more people to die at the same time and usually at the same place. This is a rare phenomenon and are therefore difficult to study. Despite their rarity and the fact that suicide pact victims generally choose nonviolent suicide methods, suicide pacts are generally lethal and the chances of survival are low.

Suicide pact commonalities

Suicide pacts have some common characteristics. The suicidal people have a close and exclusive relationship, often free of significant bonds to family or friends. The isolation can be caused or exacerbated by a recent retirement, loss of work, disease, or social rejection—for example, two lovers or two friends who are not permitted to be together. The suicide pact is often triggered by a threat of separation of the dyad, death of one of them, or social and familial restrictions on seeing each other. The fear of losing the relationship with the other person motivates the majority of suicide pacts.

The dyad is generally composed of a dominant person who initiates the suicide pact, and convinces a more submissive person to agree to this plan. The dominant member is usually the most suicidal member and the dependent person is the most ambivalent. In most cases, the male plays the dominating role. However, there are no indications that someone can become suicidal only due to the suggestion of another person.

Most suicide pacts use poisoning. This nonviolent method allows the synchronisation of the deaths and, at the same time, allows the pact members to change their minds. It appears that when the pact is aborted it is frequently because the passive member changes his or her mind and saves the instigator, sometimes against his or her will. However, some researchers claim that the dependent member may ask the dominant one to kill him or her in order to not survive and be left alone.

Suicide pacts and mental health

The prevalence of mental disorders is lower in suicide pacts than in individual suicides. However, researchers have found that at least one member of the dyad usually suffers from depression, borderline or anti-social personality traits, or substance abuse. Physical diseases are frequently observed, particularly in older suicide pact victims. 

Often, at least one pact member has attempted previously or has been exposed to the suicide of a close relative. This has led some researchers to suggest that suicide pacts are related to suicide clusters (a series of suicides in the same community) because there is a contagion effect. Besides these commonalities, some important differences exist. 

The love pact

The love pact is one of three types of suicide pacts and generally occurs between two lovers who are faced with the threat of separation as imposed by their parents or society. There are some cases of love pacts in the Western world, but this type of pact is particularly frequent in the Eastern world where there are strict rules concerning dowry and marriage. 

For example, in India and Japan many young people are forced to break off a love relationship to marry the person that their parents have chosen for them. Some of these young lovers view suicide as the only way that they can stay together. Lover suicide pacts are often also seen as rebellion against parental authority and linked to the intense guilt of giving priority to one’s own desires instead of respecting social conventions.

Prevention of suicide pacts

Numerous risk factors associated with individual suicides are linked to suicide pacts. For this reason, it is important for health practitioners and loved ones to pay attention to general signs of suicide risk, such as major behavioural or emotional changes, sleeping or eating disorders, disposal of important possessions, loss of interest and energy, substance abuse, and hopelessness. One should also be watchful for signs of suicide pacts, such as the isolation of an older couple with a physical illness or emotionally unhealthy, exclusive relationships in young friends. Moreover, the people who engage in suicide pacts often talk about their plans to family and friends.

Mental health practitioners suggest that one asks direct questions to verify suicide intentions and plans, such as, “Are you thinking of suicide?” “Did you plan your suicide (i.e., decide when, where, or how to do it)?” The more the suicide is planned, the more important it is to be direct and act quickly. One should be empathic and warm with a suicidal person, and try to find new solutions or alternatives to the person’s problems, and encourage him or her to seek professional help if needed. Finally, despite the fact that suicide pacts share a lot of characteristics with individual suicides and are a rare phenomenon, health practitioners believe that education programs on suicide prevention should incorporate information on suicide pacts and guidelines for preventing suicide pact behaviour.

(Encyclopedia of Death and Dying)


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