Mass Suicide: Historical and Psychodynamic Considerations


Department of Psychiatric Sciences and Psychological Medicine, “La Sapienza” University, Via Panama 68/70, 00198 Rome, Italy; fax: ++39-06-8542731; E-mail:


Mass suicide can be defined as the simultaneous suicide of all the members of a social group and is closely linked to the human dimension of existence, although the social and cultural context may vary. In fact, the term mass suicide can also be used to describe situations in which a particular population has reacted to oppression by denying all normal activities of sustenance, with the intention of bringing about a traumatic metamorphosis in a cultural context (colonization, exploitation by other populations), thus transforming a catastrophe in which a passive role is played into one constructed actively.

Therefore, mass suicides can be subdivided into two categories: (a) hetero-induced, typical of defeated and colonized populations forced to escape from a reality that does not acknowledge their human dignity and (b) self-induced, in which the motivation is related to a distorted evaluation of reality, without there being either an intolerable situation or a real risk of death. The mass suicides that have taken place in the last 20 years are all related to the establishment of religious sects; the mystic delirium created within the sect leads to the self-destruction of the group as being interpreted as an act of self-assertiveness.