The first time the Canadian philosopher and novelist Clancy Martin tried to kill himself he was six years old. He threw himself in front of a bus. He remembers horns blaring, and falling onto his back, but as he wasn’t hurt some adults picked him up and he continued on to school. When his mother later asked him about it, he pretended it was an accident. He has since tried to kill himself at least ten times, but this isn’t easy to count: how should he characterise, for instance, the two years he worked with his brothers in a jewellery shop in Texas and did a lot of cocaine, when he routinely locked himself in the work bathroom to put a gun to his mouth and will himself to shoot? For almost his entire life, Martin says he has lived with two incompatible thoughts in his head: “I wish I were dead” and “I’m glad my suicides failed”.
He has recently published a memoir, How Not to Kill Yourself: Portrait of a Suicidal Mind, that grapples with his death drive and explores the philosophy and history of suicidal thinking. It traces links between a 4,000-year-old Egyptian verse about suicide and a 2010 interview with Robin Williams, in which the actor speaks of wrestling with a suicidal impulse while drinking alone in a hotel room. Martin hopes the book will help others outlive their desire to die. There was a period while writing it that he fell into such a deep depression that he thought he might have to abandon the project, but since its publication something remarkable has happened. “I think I’ve gone whole days without thinking about suicide, which has never previously happened to me,” he told me on Zoom, speaking from his home in Missouri. He was worried about “jinxing” how he was feeling, but he felt a burden lifting and a “complete liberation from not having to hide any of this any more”.
The other change was that when he did think about suicide, his instant thought was: “no, you can’t do it.” He no longer believes his five children would be fine without him. He’s learned that the “tiniest attitudinal changes can result in these remarkable revolutions in your belief structure”. Now, instead of panicking in the face of mental distress, he has stopped fighting his feelings. Sober after years of alcohol abuse, Martin sees parallels with his suicidal thinking and other addictive behaviour: “suicide is just the most extreme manifestation of the desire to escape from yourself.” He’s trying to live differently. “I’m tired of giving up,” he said. An argument he finds helpful – a mantra of sorts, although not one to print on a T-shirt – is “you can always kill yourself tomorrow”: sometimes when life feels unbearable, it makes sense to focus only on getting through the day.
Martin must also now think of the other suicidal people, who contact him daily having encountered his writing online, sometimes while googling potential methods: “What would I be saying to all those people if I killed myself now?” he asks himself. “I was joking with my publicist the other day that who would have thought this person who has tried to kill himself so many times would be a good resource on not killing yourself… but it turns out I unwittingly and accidentally find myself to be a good resource for feeling this way,” he told me.
Often, Martin ends up giving out his private number. He’s contacted by teenagers and young parents and middle-aged military veterans and grandparents. His sense of responsibility takes an emotional and physical toll: he had been speaking to one person who had tried to kill themselves along with their children, and after each conversation his whole body came up in hives. (The children are now safe and well.) He realises that soon he will need to find a more sustainable way to help the many people who come to him.
A professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri Kansas City, Martin is 56 years old and bears a passing resemblance to Jarvis Cocker: square glasses, wiry frame, outgrown hair. He has a warm, professorial manner, and it’s easy to picture him entertaining a roomful of students, exuding eccentricity, papers flapping everywhere, or perhaps pacing the stage for a TED talk. Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people worldwide, he observed, but unlike many other major causes of death – heart disease or respiratory illnesses – “suicide we can actually cure! And how can we cure it? The best medicine we know is just talking about it. And if you suffer from suicidal ideation, the single best thing you can do about it is talk about it.”
Martin thinks society has a “dishonourable attitude” towards suicide, and that our silence around it contributes to people’s sense of shame and isolation. He’s concerned that well-meaning journalists, aware of the risks of social contagion if they report on suicides irresponsibly, “overreact a little”: “you don’t want to romanticise suicide, you don’t want to glamourise suicide…but in erring on the side of caution we’ve contributed to the taboo and stigma by not being willing to have a pretty darn open conversation about these things.” Research has shown that informed discussion about suicidal ideation, or surviving suicide attempts, lowers the suicide rate and the rate of suicidal ideation among people exposed to that conversation.
Martin’s father, a charismatic man who was a real estate developer and had a new age church, called the Church of Living Love, died of suspected suicide when Martin was in his twenties. His stepbrother also killed himself. Suicide can run in families, although this needn’t imply that it is genetic. I told Martin that I had been drawn to his book partly because I wanted to better understand a good friend, who took his own life last summer. His death was a terrible shock, and in our grief my friends and I had tortured ourselves over how we might have prevented it, a feeling Martin is familiar with.
“One thing I tell people is probably you were one of the reasons that person stuck around as long as they did,” Martin told me, which was the kindest thing he could have said. Self-blame isn’t helpful, he added, but you can learn to get better at helping people through crisis. He says the most important thing, if a friend is suicidal, is to get them talking and ideally get them walking, to help alleviate their claustrophobia and panic. It’s important to treat them with gentleness and kindness, to avoid reinforcing a suicidal person’s sense of self-loathing. If a friend is having a hard time, he advises, it is good to find a sensitive way to ask them if they have been thinking about suicide.
Martin recently asked his students to raise their hands if they have ever had suicidal thoughts, and 90 per cent did so. Rates of suicide and depression among teenagers in the US have risen sharply since around 2010 (when smartphones became ubiquitous), but Martin said he wasn’t sure the response would have been different if he’d asked the same question 15 years earlier. His research suggests that across centuries and cultures, people have reported similar attitudes and feelings about suicide, and that adolescents may be especially prone to this kind of thinking. “Teenagers haven’t yet built up all the armour of fear that we use to survive being a human in an adult world. So, I feel like they’re just willing to be more honest,” he said.
Martin likes to think of these conversations, and his book, as part of an effort to “domesticate suicide”: he doesn’t want to normalise it, but he wants to take it out of the “realm of the forbidden”. “We want to say: ‘This is nothing extraordinary, this is nothing special. It’s just a part of the human experience. It’s a hard part of the human experience, but you can get help. And you can help others,’” he said. “And there can be less violence, and less sadness, in the world as a consequence.”
For anyone struggling to cope, Samaritans is available 24 hours a day on 116 123 and online
[See also: The new age of perfectionism]