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Suicide

Global Warming and Suicide

New research links climate change to taking one's life.

“Suicide is painless” was the theme song to one of the country’s best-loved films and TV shows, M*A*S*H*. But suicide is widely considered to be improper—it used to be illegal in many countries, and runs counter to a wide variety of religious teachings, including those that privilege martyrdom.

More importantly, suicide is among the top 15 global causes of death, and top 10 for U.S. residents aged between 10 and 54. But what causes it?

There are numerous psychological correlates, such as anomie, depression, psychosis, loneliness, failure, drug addiction, gambling, dishonor, and terminal illness. Any Sociology 101 student has read Émile Durkheim on the subject. Over the last few years, we have seen significant press coverage of people killing themselves rather than continue working and living in electronics factories that make the tablets and phones we use.

The media themselves seem to play a role in some cases of suicide. In the month after Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, mimetic suicides went up 12 percent across the U.S. That history provides a classic case study for teaching the epidemiology of how news coverage of the death of stars can affect the public, alongside the history of Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Man Werther) (1774)—when the novel was released, its suiciding hero was deemed to have caused numerous copycat suicides among readers. The book was subsequently banned in many cities.

We see effects as per the Marilyn mimesis in Japan, where numerous citizens follow the example of suiciding politicians and celebrities in the weeks immediately after their deaths. And Twitter updates on mental health correlate with levels of suicide.

We know that climate can negatively affect health in a variety of ways, from the spread of vector-borne disease to heatstroke, heart attack, drowning, and starvation; and it has long been thought that the natural rhythms of weather have an impact—that summer is the season where most suicides occur, along with moments when the temperature rises in an extreme fashion. But what happens when there are profound changes to the climate?

There has been considerable speculation about connections between mental health and global warming, but so far, not a great deal of empirical investigation, though temperature variation correlates strongly with conflict more generally.

New research ties suicide rates to climate change. The leading scientific journal Nature just published a study of suicide in Mexico and the U.S. on this topic. That groundbreaking work gives us real food for thought, and has attracted significant media coverage, from The Atlantic to CNN. It has also drawn critique, which did nothing to question its methodology or findings, other than to deny them.

The researchers who undertook this study are located in California, Chile, and Massachusetts. They examined the U.S. and Mexico for a number of reasons. Between us, we account for about 7 percent of the world’s suicides, and the two nations have detailed information about temperature and suicide over many decades, across many municipalities. There are lots of factors not directly affiliated with climate, such as the onset or increase in poverty or gun ownership, but which are also very relevant as independent variables and are often available for comparison.

In addition to suicide statistics, the paper in question also looked for correlations between social-media expressions of sadness and desperation with temperature change.

The results clearly indicate a stronger tendency towards suicide with increased warmth, and vice versa. The rates keep increasing as new temperature records are set.

The next question is an aetiological one—why should this be so? Might it be that there are neurological changes, a physiological deterioration in mental well-being, associated with ruptures in the climatic experience of the body?

We don’t know as yet, and further research must be done to certify these initial findings as foundational. But the methodology was impressive, the caution appropriate, and the results suggestive. Extrapolations from the new research suggest there could be 26,000 suicides in the U.S. each year by 2050. Anyone for quality of life?

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