Why Do People Commit Suicide by Fire?

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A Colorado teenager intentionally set himself on fire in his high school cafeteria early Monday morning. It’s not known what the student’s motivation was, but it appeared to be a suicide attempt.

No other students were injured, and Standley Lake High School was closed for the rest of the day. The unnamed student remains in critical condition in a Denver-area hospital.

There is nothing unusual about a young man trying to take his own life. Worldwide, an estimated 10 to 20 million people attempt suicide each year. About 30,000 people die by suicide each year in America — it’s the ninth leading cause of death in the United States, and the suicide rate is higher than the homicide rate.

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In America, self-immolation for its own sake is rarely a motivation. There are far less painful — and lower profile — ways to kill yourself. According to researchers at Seattle’s University of Washington who examined the socioeconomic, cultural and psychiatric patterns of self-immolation in a 2011 article published in the journal “Burns:”

“The horrific spectacles of self-burning and suicide by fire, behaviors recorded in texts ancient and modern, continue in our day …  Self-immolation accounts for approximately 1% of all suicides in high-income countries (Western Europe and the United States) but this statistic is much higher in many low-income countries. Self-immolation has been reported to account for as much as 40% of suicides in some areas of the developing world and as high as 71% of suicides in specific locales.”

Motivations for Self-Immolation

The reasons for such drastic actions vary. Sometimes the motivation is religious. In India, for example, widows often threw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres in a tradition called sati. This act of self-immolation was culturally proscribed for centuries, and was believed to assure the woman’s acceptance into heaven. Though the practice was officially banned in 1829, it still occurs in rural India.

More often, however, the motivation is protest.

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Frustrated political and social activists usually see self-immolation as a powerful tool to bring international attention to their plight. Tibetan monks, for example, burn themselves to death on a fairly regular basis. Over 100 monks and nuns have set themselves on fire in protest against the Chinese government, according to The New York Times. In the early 1960s, Buddhist monks in Vietnam famously set themselves on fire in political protest as well.

A rash of protest self-immolations also characterized the recent political unrest in the Middle East.

The self-immolation trend began in Tunisia during government protests when a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010. His death the following month made him a martyr to Tunisians seeking revolution and led to the removal of that country’s president.

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Fiery copycat suicides spread throughout other North African countries in 2011. Five men set themselves afire in neighboring Algeria and Mauritania. One man, Abdou Abdel-Monaam Hamadah, in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, set himself on fire outside a government office.

Police are combing through the Colorado high school student’s belongings searching for clues. Whatever the student’s motivation, there is some concern among authorities that news coverage of this student’s act might inspire copycats, and grief counselors have been dispatched.

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