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Suicide by Self-Immolation: Historical Overview

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Abstract

There are historical accounts and documentation of self-immolation in ancient religious texts. Suicide by self-burning remains a common practice in some Asian cultures. Symbol of destruction, fire is also said to have the power to build the world. A Greek historian two thousand years ago recorded detailed descriptions of self-immolation in India and there is growing evidence that all ancient Indo-European cultures shared this custom. When psychiatrists began to focus on suicide, one of its marginal methods was suicide by burning. Before the widespread availability of flammable liquids, self-immolations required to erect a pyre in a methodical way. As gasoline became widely accessible in society, there was a fear of a suicide epidemic even before the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc. The protest suicide of this venerable monk took place in South Vietnam in 1963 and attracted widespread international media attention. Self-immolation increased rapidly thereafter. Nowadays it mainly affects persons with mental disorders, primarily those with depressive and stressor related disorders, and disenfranchised people. At the present time it is most prevalent among Asian women and preventive efforts focus on how to address persistent traditions in the collective memory and domestic violence from sociological and medical perspectives. Psychiatric assessment and treatment are fundamental for the medical follow up of burns in specialized units. There could be a role for psychiatrists to offer a secure possibility of dialogue to understand motivations and to lead therapeutic interventions for those at risk of self-immolation. This chapter provides a historical account of self-immolations throughout the world by reviewing primary sources from ancient to modern times.

Keywords

  • Self-incineration
  • Protest suicides
  • Human sacrifice
  • Domestic violence
  • Women
  • History
  • Sociology
  • Philosophy
  • Psychiatry
  • Religion
  • Suicide
  • Literature

If all that changes slowly may be explained by life, all that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal…

Gaston BachelardThe Psychoanalysis of Fire, 1938

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Correspondence to Jeremie Sinzelle .

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Sinzelle, J. (2021). Suicide by Self-Immolation: Historical Overview. In: Alfonso, C.A., Chandra, P.S., Schulze, T.G. (eds) Suicide by Self-Immolation. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-62613-6_2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-62613-6_2

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