Last week, 104-year-old scientist David Goodall told the Associated Press he was going to “take advantage of Switzerland’s assisted-suicide laws” after contemplating suicide for 20 years and bungling it three times. That night, 36-year-old Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchison tweeted, “I’m away now. Thanks,” before killing himself. Investigators found his body three days later.
Last month, Rolling Stone reported that DJ Avicii committed suicide.
Last year, 45,000 Americans, including two celebrities, a professor, and a pastor, killed themselves, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in this country, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Nine days before Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington hanged himself on what would’ve been friend Chris Cornell‘s 53rd birthday if the Soundgarden frontman hadn’t killed himself two months earlier, a 27-year-old skydiver in Florida sent his wife a video saying he was about to go up, and he wasn’t going to pull the ripcord on his way down.
Three years before that, so many people in the banking industry had committed suicide that Fortune magazine wrote about a potential “suicide contagion on Wall Street.” Comedian Robin Williams killed himself six months later.
As you can see, neither talent nor fame nor platinum-selling records nor intelligence nor time spent with God nor adventurous lifestyle nor wealth nor sense of humor has prevented someone from killing himself — or trying to (for every successful U.S. suicide, there are 25 attempts). But aside from Goodall, who told reporters his quality of life had suffered since he wasn’t able to get around as well as he used to, few people talk about why they want to die. I blame journalists for three reasons.
1. Journalists Make Dangerous Generalizations
Journalists such as Olga Khazan, who writes for The Atlantic, make blanket statements such as, “The overwhelming majority of people who kill themselves are mentally ill,” knowing their audience will automatically picture crazy and eccentric schizophrenics they’ve seen in movies or gun-wielding white guys. A responsible journalist would remind or inform readers that the term mental illness includes everything from bipolar disorder and depression to anxiety attacks, substance abuse, eating disorders, and body dysmorphia, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “a mental disorder in which you can’t stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that, to others, is either minor or not observable.” That definition alone would make every woman in the world, including Carrie Underwood with her imperceptible scar, mentally ill. But few people outside the medical profession know this, so no one in her right mind or out of it is going to tell someone she’s feeling suicidal — especially after The Guardian reported that
- nearly a third of those who responded to a survey thought “someone with a mental health problem couldn’t do a responsible job”
- “fewer than four in 10 employers [felt] able to employ someone with a mental health problem” and
- “[p]eople are four times more likely to break off a romantic partnership if their partner is diagnosed with severe depression than if they develop a physical disability.”
So, every year, 800,000 people around the world suffer in silence until they muster the courage to pop pills, tie a noose, jump off a bridge, pull the trigger (like my father’s sister), or take the slow road to cirrhosis (like my mom and her mother).
2. Journalists Sensationalize Suicide
During the first season of “13 Reasons Why,” click-hungry websites warned parents that the wrist-slitting scene might encourage viewers — i.e., their children — to slit their own. According to a 2012 Psychology Today article that was updated as the show aired in 2017, suicides increase “after the depiction or prominent reporting of a suicide in the media.” The writer cited a 243-year-old novel in which a character killed himself after a breakup.
“Within no time at all, young men from all over Europe began committing suicide using exactly the same method,” causing the book to be banned, the article said. Rebellious teenagers (which means 99.9 percent of teenagers) and “people with a mental disorder” are more likely than others to succumb to such a suicide contagion, it continued.
If that were true, you’d think Psychology Today would’ve provided examples of copycat suicides that have occurred since the book was published in 1774 — perhaps after the self-inflicted deaths of Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell, Amy Winehouse, or Kurt Cobain, whose lyrics undoubtedly appeal to rebellious teenagers and “people with a mental disorder.” Alas, I had to go looking for them.
What I found were two important articles. In the first, Zach Schonfeld at Newsweek said suicides actually decreased in Seattle after Cobain’s 1994 suicide because journalists covering his death provided suicide hotline numbers and signs that a person may be contemplating suicide, adhering to guidelines the medical community had given to reporters in 1993.
Twenty years later, neither Khazan nor Psychology Today followed suit. The latter even flippantly closed a blog post about Christmas-season suicides with, “What, you didn’t think this suicide based post written and posted on Christmas day wasn’t going to end on a high note? Merry Christmas and happy new year!”
In the other important article, for The New York Times in 1987, when teen suicides averaged 15 per day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a University of California at San Diego sociologist said that, yes, moody, impulsive teenagers sometimes kill themselves when they hear about someone else’s suicide, but more than half of the teens who killed themselves had a close relative who committed or attempted suicide.
Khazan’s article mentioned genetics but only in passing before she told readers that nature may have incited their loved one to kill him- or herself. This brings me to the third reason I blame journalists for people not talking about why they want to die.
3. Journalists Ignore the Obvious and Report the Ludicrous
Just from the names I rattled off earlier, you can see that white males commit suicide more than anyone else. They accounted for 70 percent of suicides in 2016, according to AFSP. But instead of encouraging men to talk (to a friend, a family member, a faceless stranger at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or a member of their employee assistance program) and discouraging fathers from forbidding boys to cry, journalists try to dazzle readers with junk science. For example:
Depending on the region, Austria gets 39 to 60 sunny days per year. According to Newsweek, researchers compared the country’s suicide statistics to weather almanacs from 1970 to 2010 and noticed that suicides commonly occurred (on/after sunny days). They concluded that sunlight affects serotonin, which affects one’s happiness and spontaneity, and although long-term sun exposure improves one’s mood, “short bursts of sunlight” might give someone who’s been contemplating suicide the impetus to go through with it. The researchers couldn’t explain why.
That’s probably because, as John Grant said in his book “Bullshit: How to Detect Junk Science, Bogus Claims, Wacky Theories, and General Human Stupidity,” “The plural of ‘anecdote’ isn’t ‘evidence.'”
But in response to such sunlight-or-warm-weather-might-cause-suicide studies, Khazan offered the stupidest explanation I’ve ever read: “[W]arm weather is activating, so people who are suicidal might not find the energy to attempt suicide until spring.”
That would mean: people who are suicidal clean snow off their car, put gas in their car, go to work, shop for groceries, and run other errands but put off killing themselves because that would take too much energy. I can tell you from personal experience that’s Grade A bullshit. Despite suffering from seasonal affective disorder much of my adulthood in Cleveland, Ohio, Forbes’ “worst winter weather city” due to the amount of snow we get and the thick, gray clouds that smother three-quarters of the sky 76 percent of the season, I still managed to stop at Drug Mart to buy three boxes of sleeping pills Christmas morning of 2002. I don’t own one, but I’m sure it takes even less effort to load a gun.
Khazan went on to blame tree pollen for suicides.
“There’s evidence that excess pollen in the air triggers the release of inflammatory proteins called cytokines into the upper airways, exacerbating mood disturbances in people who are prone to them,” she wrote.
Loosely translated, this means pollen causes allergies, and allergies make people irritable.
“When scientists dumped tree pollen into the nasal cavities of rodents,” she continued, “the critters had more cytokine gene expression in their brains, and they become more anxious and socially withdrawn.”
This stands to reason. If I were a poor little lab rat and you dumped or even blew a pinch of tree pollen into my nasal cavities, I’d freak out and retreat to my corner of the cage, too. That doesn’t mean I’d kill myself; nor, from the lack of sentences stating so, does it mean the rats in this study killed themselves. But according to Khazan, Denmark’s suicide rate increased 13.2 percent when its pollen count was high. Unfortunately, she neglected to provide crucial information such as Denmark’s average suicide rate, but if it were 10 suicides per month, that would mean tree pollen caused an additional 1.3 deaths per month that could easily be attributed to other factors. Maybe that’s why she ended the paragraph with, “The science on that connection is still developing,” before she changed the subject.
That’s 21st-century journalism for you though. Instead of giving people “the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments,” which, the American Press Institute said, is the purpose of journalism, journalists provide unproven hypotheses.
The fact is, life offers plenty of legitimate reasons to want to kill yourself.
“Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius shot himself at age 75 an hour and a half after telling his son he didn’t know how much longer he could deal with seizures he’d been suffering from since his aneurysm 15 years earlier.
“Top Gun,” “True Romance,” and “Days of Thunder” director Tony Scott jumped off a bridge while battling cancer at age 68.
Journalist Hunter S. Thompson likely shot himself to alleviate chronic pain from hip replacement surgery, a back injury, and a broken leg at age 67. He didn’t tell his 32-year-old wife who called from the gym after an argument, but he left her this note bemoaning his inability to walk or swim.
Robin Williams, who was probably the only person on the planet who snorted cocaine to calm down during the ’70s and ’80s, hanged himself while deteriorating from dementia and Parkinson’s disease at age 63.
Fashion designer Alexander McQueen did cocaine and took sleeping pills before hanging himself in despair at age 40 nine days after his mom died.
Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain, who often complained of stomach pain during interviews, said he was “too sensitive” in the suicide note he wrote to his wife and daughter before shooting himself at age 27. “I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad,” he said. He signed it, “Peace, love, empathy. Kurt Cobain.”
Singer Amy Winehouse drank herself to death at age 27 because she couldn’t let go of a sick relationship.
Houston Oilers player Jeff Alm shot himself at age 25 because the car accident he’d caused by speeding killed his best friend, who was ejected from the vehicle. “It’s believed he fired off two rounds before going to the guardrail, sitting down and shooting himself in the head,” The New York Times reported.
Actor Sawyer Sweeten, who played Ray Romano’s son Geoffrey on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” reportedly shot himself in the head at age 19 due to financial troubles post-series finale.
After hearing about actor Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt in 2007, writers at Mental Floss posted “A Surprisingly Long” but not terribly informative list of formerly suicidal celebrities, including Elton John, who stuck his head in a gas oven over an impending marriage to a woman, Drew Carey, who was molested as a child, and Sammy Davis Jr., who was “fed up with cracks about his race, religion, and height” when he drove off a cliff. But you don’t have to be famous to want to exit stage right. In fact, you don’t even have to be an adult.
Approximately every five days between the years 1999 and 2015, one child between age 5 and age 12 committed suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2015, suicide became the third-leading cause of death among children between the ages of 10 and 14, LiveScience reported.
This school year alone, six students — all boys — at one Salt Lake City high school have committed suicide.
“A lot of people aren’t so nice,” a girl whose friend committed suicide last year told reporters. “They need to be nice to others.”
I couldn’t agree more.
If you know someone who’s being bullied or abused or going through a health, relationship, or financial struggle, don’t wait for the person to tell you he or she is feeling suicidal. It probably won’t happen. Sharing this post is a great way to initiate a conversation.
And if you’re the person who wants to die, #screwthetaboo and talk to someone. Dial 800.273.TALK to reach the National Suicide Prevention hotline.