Suicide has changed across the millennia of human existence, and it is changing across generations. Suicide Across the Life Span: Premature Exits walks us through what we know about both the history of suicide and how generations experience and interact with their unique suicide risks.
Before looking at modern generations and their suicide experiences, it’s important to recognize that suicide isn’t a new phenomenon. As Stay, A Sadly Troubled History, and other books have done, Suicide Across the Life Span reviews known suicides throughout history – and the list is long. When we’re reviewing suicide in the present, we need to acknowledge that it does have a long history that includes various kinds of exaltation and condemnation.
The other primary theme that works throughout the book is the concept of generations. Most people are aware of generations, how they behave in similar ways at various ages, and how there are differences. There are some relatively minor differences in the categorization of generations between this book and those used by Chuck Underwood in America’s Generations. But the fundamentals are sufficiently similar that I won’t revisit generations separately here.
I will say that it’s the experiences generations have that creates their uniqueness, and therefore generations are only slightly generalizable across national boundaries. The public events that move us and unite us are largely viewed from the perspective of nation.
There were two behaviors to death by suicide that we’ve long sense abandoned. One was dragging bodies behind carts, and the other was driving a stake through the heart and burying the person at a crossroads. It strikes me that the community might have been aware of the suffering of the person and have been concerned that the person might come back to terrorize them.
Consider the fact that the way vampires were killed was to drive a stake through their heart. It’s an interesting coincidence that those who died by suicide were treated with the same approach.
Suicidal Crisis Strength
It’s widely believed that most people who die by suicide go through moments of suicidal crisis. Though there is some disagreement about the percentage of people who plan their suicide and those who are “impulsive,” research indicates that 71% of people who attempt suicide and don’t die hadn’t considered it more than 1 hour prior to their attempt.
As was explained in Capture, sometimes we get into states where there’s reinforcement of negative beliefs that are difficult to get out of. However, when we do learn to get out of them the first time, we build our capacity to get out of them in the future. Antifragile likens our gradually increasing capacity to how we grow muscles by first tearing them down and then, with sufficient recovery time, allowing them to be rebuilt stronger.
Rejecting the Positive
Someone tells you that you did a really good job. They’re impressed. You respond with “it was nothing.” Perhaps you believe you’re being humble. However, being humble isn’t about thinking less of yourself. It’s about thinking about yourself less. (See Think Again.) Humilitas provides a definition of humility as “power held in service of others.” In either case, the positive comment is like a rock skipping on a lake. It doesn’t sink in that someone is sharing a presumably honest assessment that not everyone could have done what you did – whether or not you believe it.
Sometimes, our self-esteem can get so low that we’ll reject a positive remark as incompatible. Instead of letting the positive comments sink in, we reject them. We think, “they don’t really know me,” or “they don’t realize how easy it is.” Sometimes, it might even seem like you’re an imposter. (See Imposter Syndrome.)
It could have been ripped out of yesterday’s headlines. “Anxiety seems to be the dominant fact — and is threatening to become the dominant cliche — of modern life.” The problem is that it’s not from yesterday. The quote appeared in Time magazine on March 31, 1961. It predated the 500% increase in violent crimes that my generation, Generation X, experienced during their late adolescence and young adulthood. It also predated the internet and social media.
We’ve seen a rise of suicide rates that are often attributed to our urban, industrial lifestyle with further changes that are elevating the rate of teen suicide. Anxiety and lower self-esteem have been associated with social media use. It seems as if the forces that are moving us to suicidal risk are getting larger than they’ve ever been.
Protective Power Limits of Love
We’d like to believe that we can protect those we love. It seems like our love should be enough to prevent bad things from happening to them. However, parents cannot protect their children.
It seems like figuring out the relationship between alcohol and suicide should be straight forward. However, it’s not as simple as it seems. While alcohol use is a factor, there are many suicide deaths that don’t involve alcohol – and many more where alcohol is a part of the poison cocktail designed to bring about the death. Disambiguating between alcohol being the cause or being implicated also has other issues.
Alcohol addiction, or alcohol use disorder, isn’t without its life complications. That is, alcoholics tend to lose jobs, shelter, and relationships as a result of the alcohol. If they subsequently die by suicide, is alcohol the direct trigger, or is it the loss of one of these other aspects of life? The rise in mid-life alcohol-related suicides may be related to the consequences of alcohol use disorder becoming more prevalent in their lives.
Who Has Considered Suicide
The book asserts that 55% of the people in their survey acknowledged having considered suicide. The data around this number is difficult to get, because people don’t want to admit it. Studies range in their prevalence, with some putting the number somewhere between 1:3 and 1:6 people.
Jumping Out of the Basement Window
When trying to understand ethnic and racial disparities in the suicide rates, one realizes Caucasian people are most likely to die by suicide. As Dick Gregory once said about the plight of minorities, “You can’t kill yourself by jumping out of the basement.” Viewed from a different lens, one might look at the expectancies. That is, minorities, in most cases, don’t expect that they’ll be wildly successful. (I’m not saying it’s right, just saying it’s typical.) As a result, they may have less turmoil when they encounter situations where they’re rejected or face loss. For better or worse, they expect it.
Breaking Down Stigma
Suicide, while becoming more acceptable, still has a stigma attached. (See Stigma for more about stigma in general.) I was speaking with a friend about one of our mutual friends who lost her husband recently. Our mutual friend wanted to make it clear that he didn’t die by suicide. Clearly, there are still reasons for people to want to separate themselves from suicide and the stigma associated.
The book asserts that “survivors can be helped by breaking down the stigma attached to suicide. This can only be done by education.” I certainly agree that education – and understanding – isn’t harmful, but it misses the essential point that stigma is, by its very nature, a lack of normalcy. If we’re going to truly remove stigma around suicide, we have to stop believing that it’s abnormal and that someone did something wrong for them to want to die by suicide. As Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption, the factors that shape lives are too numerous to control.
Balancing the Witch Hunt and the Whitewash
When someone dies – from any cause – there’s a need to establish what happened. It’s the reason why we do autopsies. (See Postmortem.) The problem is always the balance between relentlessly seeking a cause and assigning blame and the decision to stop the investigation before a cause can be found. It’s another form of what Jim Collins calls the “Stockdale Paradox” in Good to Great. On the one hand, we need to work towards finding systemic causes and what we can do better. On the other hand, we sometimes must let go and accept that we’re not going to know the answer.
Without careful consideration of both the loss survivors in the moment and the need to find causal factors so we can eliminate them, we’ll never eliminate Suicide Across the Life Span.