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American Suicide

Why are so many more of us killing ourselves?
Anthony Bourdain: he had it all (Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock)

Here’s a rambling post about suicide.

About the Bourdain suicide, reader Futureman writes:

As someone who has wrestled with anxiety and depression for the better part of my adult life, my heart aches for Spade, Bourdain, and their families. Truly, the news has been terribly distressing for me. And yet my sadness is tinged with anger. The school district where we reside has endured 12 teen suicides since last August. Six (count ’em) of those teens attended the same high school. These recent high-profile suicides will further normalize what our community has been trying to combat. Suicide–even those of strangers–poisons the air my young sons breathe. You can’t quarantine it. Every episode of self-deletion compounds our sense of collective despair, making further episodes more likely. I’m watching it happen in my own community.

Today will not be easier for teens who isolate themselves, are distressed or lonely, or are prone to depressive rumination. Again, Spade and Bourdain’s deaths are heartbreaking to me. Their hopelessness likely prevented them from seeing beyond themselves. Still, their actions will heighten in others the very despair they would never want anyone else–children especially–to endure.

The NYT reports new statistics showing that the suicide rate nationally is skyrocketing. Excerpts:

Suicide rates rose steadily in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016, increasing 25 percent nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday. In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides.


The analysis found that slightly more than half of people who had committed suicide did not have any known mental health condition. But other problems — such as the loss of a relationship, financial setbacks, substance abuse and eviction — were common precursors, both among those who had a mental health diagnosis and those who did not.

Other studies have found much higher rates of mental health disorders among people at high risk of suicide, experts noted.

“The reason most suicide decedents don’t have a known mental disorder is that they were never diagnosed, not that they didn’t have one,” said Dr. David Brent, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.

Wesley J. Smith writes:

What could be causing this? I have my own theories: disintegrating societal cohesion, the loss of faith and the concomitant secularization of the culture — which can offer few existential comforts to the despairing — the increase in drug addiction, family dysfunction, the problems our veterans experience, and the prominence of societal nihilism.

At the same time, suicide is also promoted by euthanasia activists and the media as an acceptable answer to the problems associated with serious illness, disability — in some quarters, even mental illness. Good grief, Brittany Maynard was transformed into an international A-list celebrity because she announced her plan to kill herself. It strikes me that suicidal people are not going to think, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to me,” if their suffering is not illness or disability related.

Smith makes an important point. The stigmatization of suicide was, I believe, a powerful incentive not to do it, at least for a lot of people. I don’t know that this is measurable, but I think about, say, my dad. He was not a particularly religious man, and was a man who defined himself on what he was able to do — that is, on his physical ability to make things, to fix things, to go outside and work, play, and so forth. When he reached his late 60s, his body started slowly shutting down on him. The last 15 or so years of his life were pretty depressing to him, because the things that meant the most to him were taken away.

And that’s before my sister, his daughter and the apple of his eye, died from cancer.

I think he might have considered suicide at one point, only abstractly. I seem to recall having a conversation with him years before he became infirm, in which he said that if he was ever told that he would have to live in immobility, he would just take his pistol, go back to the barn, and end it all. I chastised him about that, and reminded him that he risked hell if he did that, aside from the cruelty that would inflict on the rest of us. I don’t think he had quite thought about that. Recall, my father had more in common with the Romans than the Christians.

Still, he actually did live under the conditions that he once declared would be unbearable, and he held out till the very end, even though his body humiliated him daily. What kept him from suicide? He became more religious at the end, and even called the Methodist pastor a week or so before he died, and made a confession, even though that’s not part of the Methodist tradition. His friends and family drew even closer to him as he was dying. I have tears in my eyes as I write this, thinking of how precious those last days with him were, for all of us, and what a gift my dad gave us all, with his natural death (a gift that home hospice care made it possible for him to give).

Maybe my dad feared God, and therefore didn’t kill himself. Maybe he loved us all too much to put us through that. I suspect that he loathed the shame that would come upon him if he chose to kill himself; he was old-school that way.

Whatever the reason, he didn’t do it. I like to think it was the fact that he was embedded in a social matrix of people who loved and respected him, as well as in a social matrix that was still Christian enough for suicide to be considered strongly taboo. Maybe these things strengthened his resolve. In my case, there have been times when I was in so much emotional pain that the idea of ceasing to exist sounded appealing, but suicide has never been remotely a real option for me. There is God. And there is my family, and there are my friends. If I cannot live for myself, then I can and I must live for them.

What about people who don’t have God? Who don’t have family or friends?

One thing that is so unnerving to us about the suicides of people like Kate Spade and Tony Bourdain is that they have it all, or rather, “have it all.” Me, I could hardly imagine a vocation more fun than traveling the world, meeting interesting people, eating their food, and making journalism out of it. And yet, it wasn’t enough for Tony Bourdain.

A friend texted this morning about Bourdain:

Metaphysics, man. If this is all there is … . A man who has looked upon all, seen all, experienced all, achieved all … and says, ‘So this is it?’ There but for the grace of God go we.

Look at this:

The suicide rate has also jumped for teenage girls in recent decades: the number of suicides among girls ages 10 to 14 tripled since 1999. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for all US teens and young adults ages 10 to 35. Hospitalizations for suicide attempts and ideation at children’s hospitals around the country doubled in the seven years from 2008-2015, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics.

Why would they be doing this? One contributing factor: social media. Ever hear the “This American Life” episode about the teenage girls and Instagram? It’s short but hard-hitting. Ira Glass just lets three girls talk about the role of social media in their personal and social lives. It’s horrible. Here’s the transcript.  Read it — it won’t take long. What these girls describe is a savage society in which members are constantly ranking each other, commenting on each other’s status, and so forth. If you didn’t have a strong personality to start with, it’s not hard to see how you could be driven to suicide by this stuff. Time magazine explains how it works. Excerpt:

As a Public Barometer of Popularity

Instagram lets you tag your friends to announce that you’ve posted a new photo of them. Girls do the app one better: they take photos of scenes where no person is present – say, a sunset — but still tag people they love and add gushing comments. It’s a kind of social media mating call for BFFs. But girls also do it because the number of tags you get is a public sign of your popularity. “How many photos you’re tagged in is important,” says Charlotte, 12. “No one can see the actual number but you can sort of just tell because you keep seeing their name pop up.”


That broken heart necklace you gave your bestie? It’s gone the way of dial up. Now, girls use Instagram biographies – a few lines at the top of their page — to trumpet their inner circle. It’s a thrill to be featured on the banner that any visitor to the page will see — but not unusual to get deleted after a fight or bad day, in plain, humiliating sight of all your friends.

A Way to Retaliate

Angry at someone? Don’t tag the girl who is obviously in a picture, crop her out of it entirely, refuse to follow back the one who just tried to follow you, or simply post a photo a girl is not in. These are cryptic messages adults miss but which girls hear loud and clear. A girl may post an image of a party a friend wasn’t invited to, an intimate sleepover or night out at a concert. She never even has to mention the absent girl’s name. She knows the other girl saw it. That’s the beauty of Instagram: it’s the homework you know girls always do.

Old-fashioned bullying in high school is hard enough to deal with. But this? This is like giving Mean Girls high-tech psychological weaponry.

I think we have to be careful, though, not to assume that suicide is always a response to adversity, social and otherwise. And we have to resist the temptation to blame automatically whatever it is we dislike (social media, bigotry, etc).

Transgendered people are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than the average. Last week, Chelsea Manning, who attempted suicide twice in prison, tweeted a photo of himself standing on a ledge of a high window, with the words “I’m sorry.” After being alerted by concerned Twitter followers of Manning’s, local police kicked down Manning’s door to try to save his life. He later said that this was an example of the “police state” — blaming cops who tried to save his life. Read the report here.

Manning lives as a woman now and has become a celebrated figure on the left. But he’s still so miserable he is in danger of self-murder.

If, God forbid, Manning succeeds in taking his own life, activists and LGBT allies will accuse people like me of being responsible, because we wouldn’t accept Manning’s transgenderism. That would be a politically useful lie. As Daniel Payne pointed out a couple of years ago, the suicide rate is much lower for black people than for whites, even though blacks overall suffer disproportionately from discrimination. While abuse and mistreatment no doubt contribute to suicidal tendencies, it seems far more likely that transgendered people suffer from mental instability in the first place. Could it be that transgenders who commit suicide falsely believed that if only they could get what they wanted (a change of sex), then all their problems would be resolved — and when that in fact did not happen, they ended it?

Here’s a comment from the Bourdain thread by reader Ginger, whose father killed himself twenty years ago. She’s still not over it:

To be clear, I don’t think it is the media’s fault people are falling all over themselves trying to make suicide less painful somehow. As if they could.

Personally, it would have really made me angry, though, if my father had been famous (praise God, none of us in my family are and are in no danger of becoming that way), and all media coverage was “celebration.” No, he just did something really awful to the rest of us left behind, and I don’t want to hear everybody telling me he had zero responsibility, that is was his “demons,” how wonderful his work was, while I am trying to process the evil that was just visited upon us in the most sudden and horrifying of manners.

It’s social condemnation that should happen. Not media condemnation. Perhaps “disapproval” is a better word, although I certainly feel the act of suicide is horrible enough to deserve condemnation. I would like people to feel comfortable saying, “That was a really horrible thing that was done to you, and it was very wrong of him to do that to you. You have every right to be angry with him, and I’m sorry.”

Don’t try to sugarcoat the evil that was just heaped upon folks by pretending people who commit suicide have no agency (barring, as I said above, insanity and psychosis). The vast majority of people who commit suicide do have at least some agency and make a choice that has lasting, terribly damaging, effects on others for the rest of their lives. That alone deserves strong social disapproval, despite the fact there are mitigating factors which greatly reduce moral responsibility in many cases.

Besides, social disapproval of the act (rather than sympathy and sugarcoating of the evil committed by the person who killed themselves) may, in some cases, help prevent the spread of contagion. If you do this horrible thing to your family and friends, society will not look kindly upon your memory, any more than it will look kindly upon somebody suffering from depression and anxiety who killed, maimed, raped, or otherwise harmed another human being.

I guess you could say it would be a form of social policing I would have no problem with. Good heavens, if you are going to do that sort of thing, at the very least try your best to make it look like an accident so your family doesn’t have to live with the heavy burden of wondering what they could have done, what they missed, on TOP of having to deal with never seeing you again on the face of this earth.

Frankly, I had zero respect for Kate Spade upon hearing of the content of her suicide note. Who DOES that to their daughter?! It sure was a giant Eff You to her husband, though. If I thought there was even the remotest possibility I might write something like that to my child and then hang myself in the home they live in, I’d beg to be locked up immediately.

Oh well, not going to fix the world. I sure hope Kate Spade’s daughter is allowed to be as pissed off as she wants to be for as long as she needs to be, though. Yes, your mother did do something horrible to you, and you have every right not to have to pretend none of it was her fault because that’s what makes everybody else around feel better about themselves.

There’s a part of me that totally understands this. I want people to believe that suicide is taboo, for whatever reason. On the other hand, is someone who is so far gone into despair and self-loathing that suicide seems to be the only way to ease their pain really going to be susceptible to these appeals?

Anyway, to go back to Wesley Smith’s point, if you say that suicide is legitimate under particular medical conditions, as the euthanasia advocates do, you have torn down a powerful taboo. Why does the act become any more morally legitimate when it has been sanitized by the cleanliness of the hospital, and the imprimatur of medical authorities? I don’t believe it does.

Last observation: Charles Krauthammer, a man who has lived in a wheelchair most of his life, after having been paralyzed in a college diving accident, announced today that he is dying of cancer, and has only weeks to live. If anybody had the right to end their lives, it’s him. Yet he persists, courageously. Why? Why does Charles Krauthammer, who has endured vastly worse physical suffering than Bourdain did, choose to live, but Bourdain chose to murder himself?



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