By: Amy Walden | Published: | 9:21 am

According to the Gun Violence Archive, the United States reported 656 mass shootings in 2023. When it comes to understanding and preventing tragedies such as murder-suicides, mass shootings, and terrorism, some may wonder why the attackers in these cases are motivated to kill.

Now a Florida State University psychologist is shedding light on the role that suicidal tendencies can actually play in many scenarios that are widely considered to be murderous in nature.

Robert O. Lawton, Thomas Joiner Distinguished Professor of Psychology, leads Laboratory for the study and prevention of suicide-related conditions and behaviors at FSU, which focuses primarily on the study of the nature, causes, and management of suicidal behavior and related disorders, including eating, mood, and personality disorders.

Joiner is available to reporters looking for context on topics surrounding suicide and suicide prevention [email protected].

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide, dial 988 to reach out National suicide and crisis lifeline and speak to a trained crisis counselor. Prefer to write text? Visit Crisistextline.org.

Joiner discussed his latest book, The Varieties of Suicidal Experience: A New Theory of Suicidal Violence, and his research in this area:

When did you start working on your book, The Varieties of Suicidal Experience: A New Theory of Suicidal Violence, and what inspired you to write it?

About 20 years ago, a theory about suicidal behavior crystallized in my head. This gave rise to the interpersonal theory of suicide, which has become arguably the most influential suicide theory in the world. When I described the theory in my lectures, a common question was: “What about murder-suicide?” or “What about suicidal terror?” had concentrated on what could be described as “conventional suicide”. However, I continued to ponder the question and began to investigate it, particularly in relation to murder-suicide. This was an intellectual adventure because I assumed that about half the time it would be shown that murder preceded suicide and the other half the time the opposite. In other words, in murder-then-suicide scenarios, someone would commit murder and then die by suicide, perhaps out of guilt, remorse, fear of incarceration, etc. The “plan suicide, then plan murder” scenario would mean that people plan their suicide and then think that their death necessitates the death of others. I was surprised to find that this latter scenario occurred very regularly, while the “murder first” scenario was rather rare. This culminated in a book entitled The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide. This is about the idea that one or more of the four virtues are used or perverted to justify and plan the element of murder that results from the decision to die by suicide.

My current book, The Varieties of Suicidal Experience, applies the same kind of “suicide is primary” logic to a range of forms of violence—forms that are often, sometimes quite passionately, construed as having nothing to do with suicide do.

The book presents the theory that a range of behaviors such as mass shootings, murder-suicides, and acts of terrorism can be better understood as being motivated by suicidal impulses than by homicidal impulses. Why is this distinction important?

It makes sense of what is inherently seen as meaningless and shows what needs to be done. In other words, suicide prevention means preventing these other forms of violence. In addition to murder-suicide, these forms of violence include suicide by police officer, volunteering on death row, mass shooting, physician-assisted suicide, suicide terrorism, and most mass shootings. If it is true that suicide is at the forefront of all of these forms of violence, then what we know about suicide prevention also applies to these cases.

What surprised or fascinated you most during your research for this book?

I’m not sure I even knew that volunteer work on death row existed, and when I looked into it, I was surprised at how clear it is that it is a form of suicide.

What do you hope to gain from reading your book?

Understanding the seemingly incomprehensible and a plan of action: Implement Means Safety – a collection of approaches that increase the distance between an at-risk person and their intended method of suicide – in a creative and all-encompassing way.

What is the most exciting thing about your research area?

For me personally, it means facing the most frightening of all human diseases – and sometimes even looking down.

For more information about Joiner’s research and the Department of Psychology, see psychology.fsu.edu.

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