An Idiographic and Phenomenological Approach to Understanding Suicide

Sara Hirst (2010)

This qualitative study utilized Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis [IPA] to explore the experience of attempting and surviving a suicide attempt. Five female participants between the ages of 31 to 66 participated in semi-structured telephone interviews in which they discussed the circumstances preceding and leading up to their attempts, their experiences of the attempt, and the meanings that they ascribe to the attempts, over time. Data analysis yielded eight themes that encompassed the experiences of these women. These include that the suicide attempts occurred in the context of severe and chronic stress and pain, and that the attempts often occurred at the interface of acute stress and this chronic emotional pain. The purpose of the attempts was to end unbearable feelings or to escape an intolerable situation, and often elements of impulsivity were present in the attempt. Many experienced feelings of disappointment, anger, demoralization, resignation, and disconnection immediately after realizing they had survived the attempt. All went on to experience positive life changes (in the longer-term), and ultimately expressed gratitude about having survived the attempt. They were more able to contextualize their experiences over time, and lastly, they expressed a desire to help others in similar situations, who may also be struggling with thoughts of suicide. In accordance with views previously put forth by Edwin Shneidman (1996), one implication of these results is that it would be clinically useful to understand the function or role that suicide or thoughts of suicide serve in an individual's life. Another implication is that suicide is fundamentally an unpredictable phenomenon, although retrospectively it may be easy to understand why an attempt occurred at the time that it did. And lastly, results indicate that an individual's experience with suicide can only be thoroughly understood by careful, nuanced exploration of each person's unique experience, despite commonalities amongst experiences.