What Suicide Notes Can Tell Us About How To Deal With Mental Illness

In a recent study, researchers analyzed the final words of the deceased in order to find significant thinking patterns in mental illness.

Image courtesy of  Utamaru Kido/ Getty Images

When Kate Spade’s final words to her daughter were leaked to the press only days after her tragic death, the fashion designer’s husband spoke out against the breach of privacy the family experienced by the insensitive exploitation of the suicide note. “I… am appalled that a private message to my daughter has been so heartlessly shared with the media,” Andy Spade said in a statement to The New York Times.

Suicide notes, particularly of those who lived in the public eye, are all too often exploited and released for the wrong reasons – but in a new Canadian study, a group of researchers surfaced almost 300 suicide notes in order to find thinking patterns and clues that could help improve mental health care. The study, conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, looked at over 1500 cases of suicide in Canada between 2003 and 2009, focusing on 36 specific notes that mentioned experiences with mental health care.

The findings, both heartbreaking and scary, helped the researchers identify patterns of feelings and thoughts that these struggling individuals felt while writing their final words before taking their lives. “Some of the people who died by suicide — they felt that they had no control over their mental illness,” said Dr. Juveria Zaheer, a psychiatrist and researcher at CAMH. “Mental illness was often portrayed as an opponent or a foe that they were battling.”

The researchers found three consecutive patterns in their analysis of the notes: powerlessness, hopelessness, and loss of control. “Looking back, there were times I should have changed the course of my life but I didn’t and now there is no hope left,” one note read.

“I am too tired to keep going,” read another.

The researchers also found several notes indicating that the individuals identified with their illness, which may have worsened inner thoughts and prevented recovery. Dr. Zainab Furqan, one of the study’s co-authors, said clinicians should work to show patients a clear separation between themselves and their illness. One vital lesson clinicians should strive to get across: “You are not your illness,” Furqan says.

The researchers plan to use the information to improve the way mental health is cared for and treated upon diagnosis, aiming to reduce the number of individuals who feel that suicide is their only way out.“People who are suffering can be the greatest teachers,” Zaheer explained. “These notes provide us with a unique insight into the mindset of people who we weren’t able to help.”

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