Escaping the World: The Language of Suicide Notes
This study analyzes the written performance of suicide notes written by well-known artists before they died and compare them between males and females. The aim was to understand the reasons behind committing suicide by analyzing the language that was used and the motivations indicated in the notes which can potentially help prevent and minimize the number of suicidal people in the future. The purpose was to determine the differences in features of language use and content by focusing on the number of words, social words, as well as the emotional tone that showed by using positive and negative words. The analysis of the notes also included the study of the motivations that were indicated by the words and phrases used in the notes written by the artists. The texts in the suicide notes were analyzed by using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) program. The program revealed seven different predictors of suicide such as positive emotions, negative, references to self, social and cognitive words, and articles. Apart from the word count, the measures are expressed as percentages. Words and phrases written in the notes were also analyzed to reveal the four theoretical categories of relational, somatic, spiritual and psychological motivations for suicide. The results of the data then supported the hypotheses that males and females do differ in writing suicide notes by the use of language and content. However, based on the data used in this study, no difference in motivation between the two genders was noticed.
“We live in a world where we are preoccupied with wars, terrorist attacks and people killing other people, yet every year more people kill themselves than are killed in all wars, all terrorist attacks and all homicides.” (United Nations, 2008). Both Linguists and suicidologists have struggled to find a valid method of investigating suicide, especially because the deceased isn’t alive to be questioned. There are three methods commonly used to investigate suicide: examination of official statistics, psychological autopsies, and suicide note analyses (Leenaars, 2002).
Despite researchers’ engrossment in these subjects in an effort to gain more information in helping to prevent suicide, many efforts in prevention have failed. Allport (1962) suggests that suicide notes have an important value in research. He mentions by analyzing the choice of words written by the descendants, there can be many benefits of using the notes in research, such as gaining knowledge about the individual, and the possible usefulness in understanding and predicting suicidal behavior. Suicide notes are also quite important in trying to understand the reason behind suicide as they are written by the deceased themselves and commonly a short period before their death. Suicide notes provide a glimpse into the feelings and mind of the suicidal person. As such, understanding and analyzing suicide notes can potentially help in preventing future suicidal attempts.
Therefore, the purpose of this study aims to determine whether distinctive features of language could be discerned in the suicide notes of males and females and then to identify the motivational factors that contributed to these suicide attempts.
The literature review was conducted with the purpose of analyzing suicide notes by identifying the themes, motivations, and the difference in both language features and content; mainly on how it is used by both males and females. Through the analysis of the notes written by famous people who committed suicide, the study provides an insight into the role of gender and the relationship between the person’s words and nonverbal messages. In opposition to the previous studies done of suicide notes and gender role in love and romantic relationships, the current study took a wider approach in terms of analyzing the themes and motivations that were revealed in the notes.
Language and content difference:
Upon analyzing the few pieces research done on the subject that support or deny gender difference in content and language use in the suicide notes, it seemed that there is a disparity in the findings. For example, in Lester’s (2014, as cited in Leenaars, 2016) study, suicide notes written by 166 women and 513 men collected by Edwin Shneidman were analyzed. He mentions that: “Lester (2014) found 13 significant differences. The notes from women had a higher percentage of words found in the dictionary, pronouns, references to the self, negations, positive feelings, references to cognitive processes, insight words, discrepancy words (such as should, would and could), and present tense verbs, and a lower percentage of articles (such as a, an, the), and numbers.”
Fernández-Cabana, M., Jiménez-Féliz, J., Alves-Pérez, M. T., Mateos, R., Rodríguez, I. G., & García-Caballero, A. (n.d.) conducted a linguistic analysis of suicide notes and found that the ones written by women had more emotional and longer content, denials, pronouns in first person plural and verbs in past and future tenses. Delgado, K (2012) Mentioned in her research that the suicide notes written by females presented more themes related to pain where they expressed burdensomeness, failure, and pain. However, in Sanger, S & Veach, M (2008) ‘s investigation of suicide notes, showed no significant difference in the length of notes between the two gender’s notes.
Upon analyzing the research done on the analysis of suicide notes, it generally revealed four theoretical categories of relational, somatic, spiritual and psychological motivations for suicide. In (Rogers, Bromley, Mcnally, & Lester, 2007)’s study, a sample of 40 suicide notes was analyzed for motivation, results supported the four categories of motivation. The most common was psychological, followed by relational, spiritual, and somatic motivations.
Canetto and Lester (1999) examined a sample of suicide notes written by men and women and found no difference in terms of the motivation behind the suicide of the two genders. In another study, Canetto and Lester (2002) mentioned that their results consisted with their previous research and reported no difference in motivation mentioned the two gender’s suicide notes.
More recently, Sanger & Veach (2008) investigated suicide notes based on gender and age and found no significant difference.
Do males and females differ with suicide note content, language use, and motivation?
For this research, both qualitative and quantitative data collection methods were used in order to analyze the content and language used the notes.
The overall sample included a total of 6 well-known artists who committed suicide between the years 1890 and 1994 with 3 females and 3 males. The 6 individuals were: Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, Clara Blandick, Vincent Van Gogh, James Whale, and Kurt Cobain. At the time of the suicides, the females were aged between 49 and 82, while the males were aged 27 to 68. All 6 individuals were famous artists, with 2 writers, actors, a singer and a painter.
Research had access to the suicide notes that were made available to the public. Demographic information of the descendants such as name, age, gender, and profession was collected. As well as articles and reports which provided details of both the suicides and the circumstances surrounding them. A coding sheet was developed with different categories which included demographics (gender, age, name) and characteristics of the note (e.g number of words, emotional tone, self-reference, and motivation suggested by the content of the notes (psychological, relational, spiritual, somatic). The texts were put into the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) Program.
The research divided the notes into two parts, the first part included having read the online articles and reports about the descendant’s life and death. Next, the notes were read several times; the clauses, phrases, and sentences were highlighted and analyzed to investigate the likely motives behind their suicides in order to develop motivational categories consistent with the literature. The second part consisted of counting the number of words, linguistic features, and the content used in the notes (see Appendix). All 6 texts were saved and analyzed by entering the texts into the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) Program to determine the emotional tone, number of words, and type of words that were used in the notes. Among others, the LIWC has been used to analyze the linguistic characteristics of language used by suicidal persons (Handelman & Lester, 2007; Stirman & Pennebaker, 2001). The analysis of the two parts of the samples was completed with special consideration to differences between males and females.
Malini and Tan (2016) mentioned that: “Traditional LIWC dimensions reflect the percentage of total words within the text. I-words is the percentage of first-person pronoun used (I, me, my). Social words indicate the percentage of words that show social relation and activity. Positive emotions stand for the percentage of words that show positive emotions. Negative emotions show the percentage of words that show negative emotions, cognitive processes show the percentage of words that show cognitive processes and cognitive complexity. ” The tables below show suicide notes percentages and compares it with the two genders.
1- According to the LIWC program, the above bar shows that females use an average of (0.4%) of words in their notes while males use (0.8%). Self-reference words (I, me, my) percentage for females is (0.25%), significantly higher than the males which is (0.3%). The percentage of social words are higher in females (0.3%) than in males (0.1%). Positive and negative words, however, were quite similar between the genders. Some of the examples taken from the notes that show the use of self-reference written by the females:
“I am now about to make the great adventure.”
“What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.”
2- Upon analyzing the notes; some phrases, words, and sentences did indicate the reasons and motivations behind the suicides. Results show that the most common theoretical category for suicide was psychological motivation. 4 out of 6 of the notes indicated the presence of psychological problems. This shows that psychological issues are the primary motivation for suicide. Another common motivation was the relational motivation. (appearing in 3 of suicide notes), suggesting that suicide might be motivated by personal relationships. Spiritual motivation (i.e., reference to religion, and faith) was not indicated in the suicide notes, whereas somatic motivation (i.e., illness, poor health, pain) was indicated in 2 of the suicide notes. However, no significant difference in motivation between the two genders were noticed. Some of the examples taken from the notes were:
• In Virginia Woolf’s suicide note she wrote phrases such as: “I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate.” And “I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work.”. This shows the writer’s hopeless state and depression which was caused by her mental condition. The second phrase also shows guilt, self-blame and burden. This indicates psychological motivations.
• In James Whale’s note however, phrases like: “My nerves are all shot and for the last year I have been in agony day and night.” And “The future is just old age and illness and pain.”. Those phrases can indicate that he was suffering from poor health which has caused him to take his own life. This indicates somatic motivation.
• Kurt Cobain also mentioned in his note: “There’s good in all of us and I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too sad. The sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man. Why don’t you just enjoy it? I don’t know!” Which also indicated psychological issues. This indicates psychological motivations.
3- How can linguistic choices indicate the feelings of the descendants or the motivation behind the suicide? The following are some examples of uses of the word “can’t” in the suicide notes.
” I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.”
“I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.”
“I cannot endure this agonizing pain any longer.”
The use of the word “can’t” indicate defeat, giving up, and failure.
As Shneidman (1996) has suggested, “our best route to understanding suicide is not through the study of the structure of the brain, nor the study of social statistics, nor the study of mental diseases, but directly through the study of human emotions described in plain English, in the words of the suicidal person” (p. 6). The primary goal of this research was to investigate the difference in language content and use between males and females, and also the four theoretical categories of motivation for suicide. By studying an analyzing the words of suicidal people who wrote suicide notes and left a foundation for content analysis. The results of this research were quite as expected, supporting the hypothesis. The hypothesis predicted that there is significant difference in gender when it comes to written suicide notes.
Language use & content:
To verify the hypothesis, the research focused on comparing the two genders notes by the following categories: Number of words, self-reference, social words, positive emotions, negative emotions, cognitive words, and articles (a, and, an). Evidence to support the hypotheses was found in the percentages of the number of words, self-reference, positive and negative emotions. It showed that females used more self-reference and positive emotions. Males, however, seemed to use a greater number of words and negative emotions. This is solid confirmation of the gender difference in suicide notes.
Additionally, research also compared the motivational categories used by the genders. Phrases and words written in the notes gave a lot of indications of the motivation behind the individual’s suicides. Overall, psychological motivation was most commonly noticed. Although psychological issues seemed to be the leading cause of committing suicide, results of the analysis of the phrases did not show a gender difference in terms of motivation.
There are constraints to the research that should be mentioned. The sample size was too small. This made it difficult to find significant relationships from the data. Another constraint was that the type of sample is a special kind, it was only limited to famous artists. However, the suicide notes written by famous people were made public. Therefore, there were better chances of accessing the type of material in which to observe the content.
The present study provides yet another limitation for using the LIWC as a method of text analysis. According to Paj?k and Trzebi?ski (2014) “The LIWC program is based on counting words only, and it is not able to capture the characteristics of sentences, utterances, metaphors, and the whole structure of a text (e.g., of a story plot). Also, the LIWC aggregate many different words within one category, and this may be an obstacle in analyzing specific associations between individual words and psychological traits. There is a need to develop a quantitative methodology of studies on co-occurrences between words within a sentence and on the characteristics of text structures.”
For future research, the spectrum of writers should be enlarged in future studies. There is also a need to develop other ways for analysis instead of depending on the LIWC Program alone, as well as seek the help of both psychology and Linguistics specialists in order to make the analysis more valid,
In conclusion, results of this investigation have provided initial support for the research question in proving gender difference in language use and content between the two genders. As well as the four theoretical categories of relational, somatic, spiritual and psychological motivations for suicide. Suicide has been a global issue that keeps increasing with time. However, with a better understanding of suicidal behavior and thinking, this issue can be decreased to a certain extent. The analysis of suicide notes by studying linguistic choices and motivation can provide a better understanding of the reason for committing suicide and ultimately increase awareness and provide help for those who are in need.
Canetto, S. S., & Lester, D. (1999). Motives for Suicide in Suicide Notes from Women and Men. Psychological Reports, 85(2), 471-472. doi:10.2466/pr0.19184.108.40.2061
Canetto, S. S., & Lester, D. (2002). Love and achievement motives in women’s and men’s suicide notes. Journal of Psychology, 136, 573–576.
Delgado, K. (2012). The Role of Relationships in Completed Suicide: A Gendered Analysis of Suicide Notes. Retrieved from http://corescholar.libraries.wright.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1796=etd_all
Fernández-Cabana, M., Jiménez-Féliz, J., Alves-Pérez, M. T., Mateos, R., Rodríguez, I. G., & García-Caballero, A. (n.d.). Linguistic analysis of suicide notes in Spain. Retrieved from http://scielo.isciii.es/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext=S0213-61632015000200006
Lester, D., & Leenaars, A. (2015). A comparison of suicide notes written by men and women. Death Studies, 40(3), 201-203. doi:10.1080/07481187.2015.1086449
Malini, N. L., & Tan, V. (2016). Forensic Linguistics Analysis Of Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Notes. International Journal of Education, 9(1), 50. doi:10.17509/ije.v9i1.3718
Martin, G. (n.d.). Suicide notes of famous people. Retrieved from https://www.phrases.org.uk/quotes/last-words/suicide-notes.html
Paj?k, K., & Trzebi?ski, J. (2014). Escaping the World: Linguistic Indicators of Suicide Attempts in Poets. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 19(5), 389-402. doi:10.1080/15325024.2013.794663
PRESS CONFERENCE IN OBSERVANCE OF WORLD SUICIDE PREVENTION DAY | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases (2008.). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/press/en/2008/080910_WHO.doc.htm
Rogers, J. R., Bromley, J. L., Mcnally, C. J., & Lester, D. (2007). Content Analysis of Suicide Notes as a Test of the Motivational Component of the Existential-Constructivist Model of Suicide. Journal of Counseling & Development, 85(2), 182-188. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6678.2007.tb00461.x
Sanger, S., & Veach, P. M. (2008). The Interpersonal Nature of Suicide: A Qualitative Investigation of Suicide Notes. Archives of Suicide Research, 12(4), 352-365. doi:10.1080/13811110802325232
Shneidman, E. S. (1996). The suicidal mind. New York: Oxford University Press.