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The Suicide Solution

Ten Chinese workers at Foxconn, the Taiwan-based company that makes iPhones and iPads among other devices, have killed themselves this year. The very public suicides—they all leaped from tall buildings—have naturally led to questions about whether conditions at the mind-bogglingly large and extremely strict company are responsible and whether those of us who buy the gadgets those workers helped produce shoulder some of the blame.

But before you can figure that out, you have to understand why people kill themselves. A new paper published in Psychological Review proposes a fairly simple answer: People kill themselves when they a) feel alone and b) feel that they are a burden to others. The overlap of those two factors—which the paper calls “thwarted belongingness” and “perceived burdensomeness”—combined with the availability of an effective method of suicide creates the right environment for killing yourself. It’s not just lonely people, the paper contends, but lonely people who think they are a burden who are most at risk. 

That may not sound like much of a revelation but it differs from previous theories of suicide, which have shied away from universal explanations. The authors of the paper are proposing that the same mechanism underlies most suicides; if true, it might change how we go about preventing them.

So how does this apply to the Chinese workers? In the past, the company has paid the families of workers who kill themselves roughly the same amount as the average worker would make in a decade. If feeling like a burden to others is one of the prime motivators for suicide then such a hefty sum might serve as an unintentional incentive. Foxconn sent a letter to employees indicating that the payments would cease, though that letter has reportedly been rescinded. Where things stand now is unclear.

As for what to do about suicide, the paper suggests “public health campaigns promoting the importance of maintaining social connections and social contributions could impact suicide rates.” At Foxconn, maintaining those crucial social connections might be tough considering that workers are usually banned from talking to each other.

(The paper is not available for free online; the abstract is here. The authors are Kimberly A. Van Orden, Tracy K. Witte, Kelly C. Cukrowicz, Scott R. Braithwaite, Edward A. Selby, and Thomas E. Joiner, Jr. One of the authors, Thomas Joiner, was recently profiled in The Chronicle Review.)

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