In “Suicide is Painless,” the theme song from the iconic film and TV series “M.A.S.H.,” the lyrics include the following lines:
The game of life is hard to play. I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay, so this is all I have to say…
That suicide is painless.
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.
The news that Mick Jagger’s beautiful 49-year-old girlfriend and fashion designer, L’Wren Scott, hanged herself in her posh Manhattan apartment shocked the world. Combined with the tragic suicide of my own former girlfriend, I am wondering if suicide is a social fact—that is, a predictable pattern based on social forces—as argued by many sociologists.
Last year just before Thanksgiving, similar to L’Wren Scott, my beautiful and talented 48-year-old girlfriend hanged herself and, not surprisingly, it has weighed heavily on my heart and mind since then. I have felt deeply the pain and despair of suicide in my own life. I have also analyzed suicide extensively as a criminologist and social scientist.
The statistics indicate that suicide is sharply on the rise in the U.S. Moreover, they reveal that suicide patterns are changing. It is no longer concentrated primarily among isolated elderly and teenage Americans. It has been dramatically on the increase among middle-aged Americans. There has also been a dramatic increase in suicides among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Consider this: There are now more than two suicides for every murder in the U.S., and suicides also outnumber deaths in motor vehicle accidents. To put it in perspective, there are currently about 15,000 murders, 33,000 auto fatalities and 38,000 suicides in the U.S. annually.
As reported in The New York Times last year, suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade, prompting concern that a “generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm” (1).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans aged 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000 (2).
Although most suicides are still committed using firearms, officials said there was a marked increase in poisoning deaths, which include intentional overdoses of prescription drugs, and hangings. Poisoning deaths were up 24 percent over all during the 10-year period and hangings were up 81 percent (3).
The CDC’s deputy director, Dr. Ileana Arias, told The New York Times that the rising suicide rate among middle-aged Americans might be due to a series of life and financial circumstances that are unique to the baby boomer generation. Men and women in that age group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children (4).
The rise in suicides may also stem from the economic downturn over the past decade. Historically, suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks. “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period,” Dr. Arias said.
The legendary nineteenth century social scientist Emile Durkheim, considered by many to be the founder of sociology, argued that suicide is a social fact not an individual pathology. Using a vast amount of data from official records on suicides in different parts of Europe, Durkheim documented significant variations between countries in their rates of suicide which he found were correlated or linked to environmental conditions. This evidence, Durkheim argued back in 1897, shows that “each society has a definite aptitude for suicide” which is a social fact that is external to the individual members of a given society.
As a criminologist trained in sociology, I understand the merits and validity of Durkheim’s argument. I agree that the current suicide epidemic among middle-aged Americans and the dramatic rise in the overall suicide rate are social facts.
In addition to those who actually commit suicide, there are countless others who chronically fantasize about ending their own lives. Most of the latter group conceal their pain and never discuss their dark thoughts openly. They may exist for years in quiet misery. Others make an attempt at suicide but somehow survive. For them, the attempt at suicide is really a desperate cry for help.
Suicide is a social fact but the act itself is manifested at the individual level. Suicide is an individual choice—rational or not—that cannot be undone. It has powerful implications for the friends and family of those who commit suicide. The M.A.S.H. theme song reminds us that “it [suicide] brings on many changes.” Those changes can be overwhelming for survivors to endure and try to accept after a loved one unilaterally chooses to end his/her life.
My former girlfriend’s suicide has deeply and profoundly affected me. Intellectually, I understand that she chose suicide because living another moment was unbearable for her and she was unable to reach out for help. Although I am grateful that she is no longer suffering in silence, my acceptance of her unilateral choice to end her life is a daily struggle for me.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call1-800-273-TALK (8255).
I discuss the motivations, fantasies and habits of notorious serial killers, including the “Son of Sam” and “Bind, Torture, Kill” based on my personal correspondence with them, in my new book “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.” To order it now, click: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1629144320/ref=cm_sw_r_fa_dp_B-2Stb0D57SDB
(1) Parker-Pope, Tara. “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.” The New York Times, May 2, 2013.
Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com