Why NOT commit Suicide? -

"Absurdolytic" Medications and the Wisdom of Albert Camus

Copyright March, 2004, by John Tennison, M.D.


    According to the Nobel Prize website, Albert Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1957 "for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times"

    Although Camus, "always refused the existentialist label with which he is usually associated," 1 the word “existentialist” has become inextricably associated with him.  His resistance to the word's usage is understandable, in that its usage amounts to categorical thinking, which causes the uninformed to think in terms of stereotypes and assumptions about what Camus believed or wrote, rather than take the time to search out the uniqueness of his personal perspective and experiences.  This same discomfort is felt by many patients who have DSM’s (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association) 2 simplistic "diagnostic" labels applied to them, at the expense of their individuality being taken into account by clinicians.

    The DSM allows 1 of the 5 of 9 criteria required for a "Major Depressive Episode" to be "recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying)" or "recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan."  Thus, even the preoccupation with suicide is enough to be considered "pathological" by modern psychiatric nomenclature.  Yet, it was precisely a preoccupation with suicide that Camus considered the most fundamental question of philosophy.  Rather than taking the unsophisticated stance of modern psychiatry, which assumes, almost universally, that even considering suicide is irrational, Albert Camus turns the question around by essentially asking, "WHY should we NOT commit suicide?"

    In the 1955 Preface to "The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays" (translated by Justin O'Brien) 3 , Camus wrote,

    "The fundamental subject of "The Myth of Sisyphus" is this: it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a meaning; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. The answer, underlying and appearing through the paradoxes which cover it, is this: even if one does not believe in God, suicide is not legitimate. Written fifteen years ago, in 1940, amid the French and European disaster, this book declares that even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism. In all the books I have written since, I have attempted to pursue this direction. Although "The Myth of Sisyphus" poses mortal problems, it sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert." -- Albert Camus, PARIS, MARCH, 1955 3

    In his essay, "An Absurd Reasoning," Camus wrote, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards." 3

    Ultimately, Camus concludes that suicide is "not legitimate," that is, it is not a desirable thing to do.  Camus instead embraces the absurdity of the human condition, and finds meaning by becoming "a great sensualist for whom sun, sea, sex, football, and theatre were the answer to life's absurdity." 1  How each of us finds meaning, is, of course, an individual choice.  Thus, one role of psychiatry should be to help patients find there own sources of meaning, a process that can often have significantly greater lasting effects than those that result from the knee-jerk prescribing of the latest patented and often expensive medication(s).

    I am not trying to suggest that medications don't have a role in finding meaning.  In fact, I propose that psychiatrists use the word, "absurdolytic" to describe medications that can increase one's sense of meaning.  Clearly, some medications can accomplish this effect better than others.  These medications appear to have their "absurdolytic" (lessoning one's sense of absurdity) effect by activating the dopamine system.  In particular, those that are used in ADD (attention deficit disorder) (Also known as ADHD) can have this effect.  Dopamine activation, (or "agonism" as it is known in pharmacology) is often described as being associated with activating the pleasure or reward centers of the brain, but for the intellectually-minded, this activation can be experienced as an increase in meaningfulness, rather than an increase in pleasure per se.  This increased meaningfulness, in turn, is able to keep the attention of quick minds that would otherwise become easily bored.

    In terms of DSM terminology, the "anhedonia" which can qualify a patient for the label of "Major Depressive Disorder" (MDD), is often experienced more as a sense of "meaninglessness" by the intellectual, rather than as a loss of sensual pleasure.  In fact, DSM does not require the presence of a depressed mood to qualify for the "diagnostic" label of "MDD."  That is, "anhedonia" along with other symptoms can qualify one for the label of "MDD."  Although having a "depressive" disorder label without being having a “depressed” mood is an illogical use of the English language, knowing of this contradiction can be of assistance to the clinician who is under pressure from insurance companies or other institutions to pigeonhole his or her patients into DSM "diagnostic" categories.

    In summary, as is the case in most areas of psychiatry, the greatest therapeutic result is likely to occur as a result of combining psychotherapy with medication.  Although it is often under-emphasized in modern psychiatry, an existential approach to psychotherapy (emphasizing a search for sources of meaning) combined with dopamine agonism can have a very high-yield outcome.


1.  Introducing Camus, by David Zane Mairowitz and Alain Korkos, 1998, by Totem Books

2.  DSM-IV-TR (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fourth Edition, Text Revision), 2000, by the American Psychiatric Association

3.  The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays, by Albert Camus, (translated by Justin O'Brien), 1955, by Vintage Books, a Division of Random House

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