Did Whitney Houston want to die?

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on February 15, 2012 · 8 comments

in addictions,suicide

Fox TV personality Bill O’Reilly has encountered a firestorm of protest in defense of Whitney Houston following his provocative remarks about her death. However, he may have done all of us a favor by opening a door to discussing something on all of our minds.

Here’s what he said (as part of a general statement opposing efforts to reform drug laws):

Nobody takes drugs for that long if they want to stay on the planet. She follows in the footsteps of Elvis, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, and scores of other entertainment figures. The hard truth is that some people will always want to destroy themselves, and there’s nothing society can do about it.

If we filter out some of the harshness (and perhaps add names like Judy Garland and Joseph McCarthy), we might express this as a question:

Just as a healthy lifestyle reflects desire to live, doesn’t it make sense to assume that people with unhealthy or reckless lifestyles have a death wish?

While this brings us uncomfortably close to “blaming the victim,” one can’t help but notice something appealing about this perspective. It certainly gives us something to do with the anger we inevitably feel about poor decision-making by someone we cared about. And, conveniently, we note that the issue gets buried with the individual. After all, the problem was in the mind (soul?) of the deceased. Case closed. Better yet, as seen in O’Reilly’s remark that such will always be the case and “there’s nothing society can do about it,” we are forever excused from worrying ourselves, looking for ways to address other influences, whether social, psychological, biological or otherwise. Nope, not much you can do about human stupidity.

Must feel pretty crummy to Whitney’s family…

Here’s the fly in the ointment: Applying this mindset, we suddenly all have a wish to die. Certainly this includes all smokers and couch potatoes, who we know have shorter life expectancies. But even among us non-smoking, exercising, healthy-eating, seatbelt-wearing respectable citizens with good judgment, which of us adheres perfectly to our medication prescriptions? (Studies say less than half.) Who among us never exceeds the speed limit or occasionally takes a peek at our cell phones while driving? Doesn’t this point toward at least a hint of a death wish?

A death instinct?

Probably not. Sigmund Freud thought this was an intriguing idea and wrote at length about a “death instinct,” but eventually abandoned it as unsupportable. Suicidologists still occasionally talk about “indirect suicide” in the form of everything from unsafe sex practices to sky diving; but as we do so, we soon find that the construct of suicide itself evaporates, because it ultimately becomes identical to living itself.

A human agenda

A more reasonable idea is that we — all of us — have the same basic agenda to find happiness and manage physical and psychic pain the best we can. The fact that some get lost on this quest and end up destroying themselves in the process does not change the fact that the wish in most cases is not to die, but to find a path, at least, to a more tolerable existence.

By the way, here’s another problem with observations like O’Reilly’s: A circular explanation is one that loses meaning because it turns back onto itself. To wit: Why did Whitney do those unwise things, resulting in her own death? Because she wanted to die. How do we know she wanted to die? All together now … because she did all those unwise things!

Really, O’Reilly. We can do better than this. Scientific research over the past few decades has revealed a great deal about motivations behind unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors, and effective treatments have resulted. We still have a lot to learn, and we still lose battles more often than we would like. But stigmatizing and blaming the sufferers only impedes our efforts to win the war.

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