Suicide And Ethics

Just as we learned about the suicides of two niche celebrities, Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and designer Kate Spade, the news media is reporting a massive increase is self-homicide since 1999, over 25%. “Social isolation, lack of mental health treatment, drug and alcohol abuse and gun ownership are among the factors that contribute to suicide,” says the Times. All of that hasn’t increased 25% in less than two decades, however. What has changed?


1. The decline of religion. In Christianity, for example, suicide is a sin, and if you believe in an after-life, a terribly short term solution. People don’t believe in eternal punishment for suicide any more.

2. The end of shame. Suicide was once considered shameful in this culture. For decades, however, suicide advocates have been promoting it not only as a right, but a reasonable option under certain circumstances. Never mind sin: the culture currently teaches that suicide isn’t even wrong.

3. Reinforced narcissism, selfishness, and cowardice. Suicide is a terrible act of aggression against loved ones and associates.  As a member of a family that has suffered through three suicides, I have seen this up close. Suicides leave horrible emotional carnage in their wake. The essence of ethics, which is thinking about the impact of one’s conduct on others, has been gradually eroded in the culture through the dominance and influence of ethics corrupters.

4. Confused and contradictory cultural signals regarding death. Beginning with abortion, through assisted suicide laws in Oregon, our culture is sending strong messages that some people are better off dead. For the unsophisticated, the young and the gullible especially, this new cultural eddy makes suicide far more attractive than it used to be.

5. Celebrity suicides. In a culture that uses performing celebrities as role models, suicide becomes model conduct. Politicians rarely kill themselves, much as we might wish they would.

I don’t see any mystery at all. Suicide rates are increasing because our culture no longer sends the message that suicide is wrong.

56 thoughts on “Suicide And Ethics

  1. Again with the Times taking a swipe at guns. How does gun ownership correlate with suicide? Not at all, if you look into countries without common gun access. The method just changes, is all.

    A good perspective, Jack. I think you nailed the major reasons for the uptick.

    • Gun ownership is on the list because guns are effective at what they do and other methods of suicide are more likely to fail. The idea is that if someone who was suicidal did not have access to a gun, they’d have to find a different way to die, and they might lose their nerve or fail.

      If gun ownership is being tied to the suicide rate without mentioning any other aggravating factors, it’s junk. It would ignore everything that lead up to the suicide, and that’s not honest or helpful. But if it’s listed as the fourth item on a broad list, then it’s a little more legitimate. Two thirds of American gun deaths are suicides, and America *could* do a better job keeping firearms out of the hands of clinically depressed individuals.

    • Good point. They qualify this by claiming that having a firearm handy compels people to commit suicide who otherwise might not. What a crock! It seems to me that the all-important and difficult to hurtle step would be the decision to actually go through with such an incredibly desperate act. Once that decision is made, the method is probably a very peripheral detail. One way or another, it’s going to get done. People without full commitment are extremely unlikely to pull the trigger.

    • >>Not at all, if you look into countries without common gun access.

      That is incorrect. The risk factors for self-harm are no different in the US than other developed countries. However, our rate of successful suicide is significantly higher than in other countries because guns are quite effective.

      Suicide is often spur of the moment. While pressures may weigh on an individual for some time, the panicked choice to end it all can be quite sudden and overwhelming. Crisis hotlines are effective, because counselors at the other end can provide a friendly ear until the urge has passed.

      Pills, drugs, even hanging are subject to failure or intervention by a third party. Even bridge jumpers can be spotted by passers-by and talked back to safety. Some attempters even hope, count on intervention – a last desperate cry for help.

      Unsecured guns, however, leave little room between the sudden, possibly unexpected urge, and the very likely successful attempt. This is not a demonization of guns but a cold, hard fact.

      The solution is not confiscation (except in extreme circumstances), but education and outreach. Keeping a gun locked when unneeded adds critical time for an at risk individual. Adding momentos with the keys can trigger reflection and prompt asking for help.

      Gun owners have a duty to be aware of the risks of owning a gun, even the risk to themselves. They need to be aware of the risk of an impulsive attempt, and put barriers between them and their weapon, proactively addressing stressful situations, locking the gun and/or giving the keys to a loved one if they recognize ideation or other risks, and up to surrendering the firearm entirely if things get out of hand.

      Guns are an unavoidable factor when discussing suicide. They have an almost 100% success rate, and if failure to address it in suicide awareness and prevention education, leaves open a wide vector towards increasing the rate of “successful” suicide completion.

      • Pretty much impossible to prove that easy access to guns has any impact on our suicide rate. Someone who is TRULY committed to committing suicide will usually accomplish their goal, and if their not, it’s arguable that they’re unlikely to do something so hard to turn back from. No way to prove that someone who shot themself wouldn’t have been successful using other means. Maybe the odds are better, but by how much among the truly committed is impossible to say.

      • “Even bridge jumpers can be spotted by passers-by and talked back to safety.”
        Right up until they “pull the trigger” by jumping.
        “Some attempters even hope, count on intervention – a last desperate cry for help”
        These are the people who AREN’T going to pull the trigger of a gun.

        • This is pure heresay, but I trust the source:

          At some point during Sergeant’s time, the soldiers were distracted from their training by another soldier on top of the barracks threatening to jump, that he’d had enough and couldn’t stand the Army’s ‘treatment’ of him.

          The First Sergeant supposedly went to the base of the barracks and yelled at the suicidal soldier that he was wasting his Sergeant’s time trying to train good soldiers who were being distracted and that if he was going to jump he’d better do it and stop getting in the way of the unit becoming more proficient in it’s job, otherwise he’d better just come down and join the men in training, that First Sergeant didn’t care either way what happened.

          The ‘suicidal’ soldier came down, joined the training, eventually got counseling and nothing more was said.

  2. Missed one, Jack. The simple fact is that clinical depression, if it is deep enough, produces a lethargy in which the energy to commit suicide just isn’t there. Unfortunately, too many professionals prescribe medication that is effective, and gradually causes improvement. I say “unfortunately” because their follow-up skills are lacking. As the patient/client improves, energy levels increase and suicide becomes MORE likely, not less. This is when a patient/client needs us the most, but failure to recognize the danger costs us many more lives than it should. Frankly, this is a failure at the professional level. We are so busy congratulating ourselves on finding a chemical cure for clinical depression that we neglect the need to support folks who are dependent on us for their very survival. I’ve said this before about other short-comings of the psychiatric/psychological fields. There is a REASON I left the profession.

      • Thank you, Paul. I wish I could believe that. If I’d stayed in it for a few more years, I MIGHT have been able to make a difference.

        • “I wish I could believe that.”

          I sense you do believe that.

          “If I’d stayed in it for a few more years, I MIGHT have been able to make a difference.”

          Way I see it, you did while you were there.

    • I have bipolar type I and C-PTSD. One time, I went from a manic phase that kept me wide awake for a couple weeks, directly into depressive psychosis. I can’t begin to describe how unendurably hellish that was; a state that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I could barely move, and my mind was so “slowed down”, that everyone I interacted with, who suddenly seemed incredibly sophisticated, was “manipulating” me with everything they said. I literally thought that I was the subject of an enormous medical experiment that everyone was a part of, and at one point, I became convinced that they were all trying to “break” me. Once I started to emerge from it, and regained some energy, I decided I was going to thwart their plans by killing myself. I happened to have an extremely deadly poison that was used in our New Jersey light traps, which was used to collect and ID mosquitoes for our abatement program. Thankfully, I was stumbled upon before I had a chance to inject a gram of it. My chief concern at the time wasn’t fear of death, or of pain, but that my tormentors would punish me for trying to escape from whatever it was they had planned for me. This was more than 20 years ago. I was finally diagnosed and treated, and I haven’t had that kind of psychotic break since.

      • By the way, in case it wasn’t apparent, my comment was in response to

        “As the patient/client improves, energy levels increase and suicide becomes MORE likely, not less. This is when a patient/client needs us the most,”

    • Thanks for saving me having to compose at least three arguments on this subject, d_d. I ‘m coming to the end of my 24th year working on crisis lines under a suicide-prevention umbrella that began as regional and grew global as mobile phones and email allowed access to us.

      You are, of course, correct. In fact, both our records and that of emergency responders and hospital records covering 73 of the 99 cities and towns in the Bay Area support the theory that clinical depression took a great jump in the generation that discovered it was not going to achieve, much less surpass, its parents’ goals, and that it was going to have to run twice as fast to stay, unstable, in the same place. The result — my conclusion, supported only by most of my coworkers’ experience since we have no other correlations — is that the result of the several succeeding generations meeting the same obstacles in spite of lowering expectations, along with the concomitant rise in general instability, has led to a slow exodus en masse from life, not necessarily to suicide, but into withdrawal from life into (un)social media, human communication by thumbed shorthand, continuing confusion between fact and fantasy/truth and lies, eyes ever more downward. [here endeth rant]

      [well, not quite] I have been particularly interested in tracking the development of President Trump as a player in this. The post-election predictions were positive that his (supposedly undeserved) success would have a negative impact on those of liberal/left backgrounds who were already through the desperately unhappy phase, the realm of death-wishes, and coming into that pharmaceutically induced “everything’s okay, really. Don’t need anymore meds or help, thanks.” On the contrary, it roused several into real anger, an emotion they hadn’t felt since … they didn’t know when. A powerfully positive sign, a state that could be worked with. Okay, it’s not that long – 17 months – but by their voices and vocabulary, new self-knowledge, future plans … and a little anger management, …it ain’t bad.
      By contrast, those who had been in touch regularly from rural areas in the state and the mid-west didn’t seem affected, one way or the other. Could be an anomaly. Otherwise:
      Who knew!

  3. My faith is sometimes the one thing that’s stood between me and the final exit. Dante painted a terrible picture of what happens to suicides in the afterlife. No thanks.

  4. First time caller, long time listener…
    The other omission is psychatric “anti-anxiety” medication. Many people seem to find this irrelevant, but as the black-box warnings actually mention the side effects, “Suicidal Ideation” and “Suicidal thoughts or actions”, I feel it is worthy of more investigation. Call me crazy.
    What IS a suicidal action? Might it not result in… suicide?

    • I’m with you there. Pasting over human misery (often caused by neglectful parents or some other external problem) with chemicals may improve a person’s mood…but that’s kinda why some people get wasted when they’re depressed too. Hardly a “cure.” People often bring up “mental illness” in relation to school shootings, but many of those shooters were both seeing counselors AND already on meds.

  5. “Social isolation?” How is that possible? We didn’t even have Facebook in 1999! How can anyone be suicidal when they have 976 friends?

  6. I don’t think I completely agree with #2 in all situations, and may have more to do with incompleteness of some guidelines. At some point in a very late-stage terminal condition when the patient (THEMSELF deciding) is tired and ready to go and has said their goodbyes, I don’t think it’s a sin. Especially when late stage medical can ruin family finances on top of grief. That’s may not be selfish cowardice, but ready to meet their Maker.

    I do agree this is a very narrow exception, most suicides are not this self aware and considered. And any murder suicide or suicide by __ is just an evil excuse and no repercussions for violence.

    I would proffer that isolation is a HUGE factor in suicide, they feel so strongly and see no other answers. Online friends and social media are not deep enough to help with someone in crisis. You need face to face friends, coworkers, and family whe can and will intervene. I could do little when a online friend in Australia was in crisis from an abusive relationship. The very anonymity that protects from stalkers and distance that lets people sort from widely dispersed locations to be friends, acts against dealing with many real problems. You cannot call 976 FB friends when your car needs a jump or you need a real hug. Digital hugs don’t cut it.
    Social online connections are nice, and in some rare cases may develop into solid real ones. But people have given up real connection, warts and all, with real people in favor of the over-specialized, and echo chamber ones. This unperceived isolation in the middle of the explosion of social media connections contributes to many social issues. The digital web of connection is gossamer thin, not even as strong as a spider web.

    How many of online friends would you call at three a.m. in a storm for help and count on them to show up? I’ve had less than a handful in twenty years online. Counting followers and retweets is not in that sphere as real and deep, it’s counting dandelion puffs. Kids don’t go to the mall to shop, flirt, or bond with friends they try to do it all online in smaller and smaller circles.

    At the end it does not give the F2F that people need, and gobbles the time and energy to make and maintain the deeper relationships. So people are far more connected shallowly, but don’t have people close enough when things hit the fan, either to ask for help or intervene. Digital isolation keys into youth socialization issues, echo chamber mobs, and suicide. Probably more.

      • I’m not going to tell you what to do, you know your own mind and minefields.

        I’ll tell you that merely being an adult provided a lot of distance. I can remember high-school (without smartphones and facebook and far fewer people getting laid*,) but all those teenage problems are too far behind. I can remember the feelings but I don’t feel them all over again. Since your so very advanced age provides even more distance… Probably safe.

        Or you could re-watch some old West Wing episodes. Season 2’sIn this Whitehouse seems right down your alley or the next one And it’s Surely to Their Credit

        *Not that there wasn’t plenty of false boasting about it going on, bet that hasn’t changed.

        • “far fewer people getting laid*”

          This will veer off-topic but that is something I’ve pondered.

          Do you think there was less hooking up back in the day than there is now? I’d say the opposite, but that’s nothing more than a guess.

          I graduated HS in ’73 and U.W. (GO BADGERS!!) in ’79. That was a time when (pre-herpes), and at the risk of being flippant, you couldn’t catch anything that penicillin couldn’t cure.

          My college employment (bouncer at a major downtown hotel/entertainment complex) offered…um…opportunities galore.

          There was a lot of indiscriminate, guilt-free (or guilt-ignored), drive-reduction fueled activity back then, and I wouldn’t think it’s the same way now because there are graver risks.

          I don’t know. Heck, I don’t know anyone that I could, or would, really even ask. I have a 15 year-old nephew and a 17 year old niece (as fate would have it, arriving for the day in a couple of hours) whom I just couldn’t fathom questioning.

          Reckon I’ll just have to find out on a street corner…

          • You graduated high-school before I was born so we’re making different comparisons and I certainly could be wrong maybe teens really are going at it like rabbits these days.

              • I’m thinking about the books you got to read when they came out. Reading Heinlein when he was alive or Niven before he became a dirty old man. You got to go in Cold to the Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea.

                • Yes, to all 4. Haven’t re-read Earthsea in a number of years, But Magic, Inc. and Starship Troopers remain among my favorites.

            • ”You graduated high-school before I was born”

              Yoikes, that casts a certain gloom over things!

              “Make you feel any better, Val, I graduated 10 years before Paul.”

              Shoot d_d, it sure makes ME feel better.

              Of note: 1963 was 1 AD (After Delta) the year following Pinto & Flounder beginning their matriculation at Faber College…you got that going for you, which is nice!

        • Thanks for the advice. I’ll take any I can get. Three family members down by their own hand, and at least two more where I have reason to worry. Just learned about the seriousness of one of the situations yesterday, in fact.

  7. Well, the media keep telling us how gun ownership is down. So now, to hear them tell it, some 400 million guns are now all owned by a handful of dedicated nutjobs, sitting in the basements of their mothers’ trailers, gun in one hand, Bible in the other, masturbating to Death Wish. So it’s kind of hard to tie that to an increase in suicide.

  8. I think the state of comedy might have some small impact on the severity of depression, and possibly suicide. I’ve self-medicated for years, with Twain and Thurber, the Marx Brothers and screwball comedies, Bob Newhart and Seinfeld. There’s almost nothing in the nature of “sit down and have a belly laugh” being produced anymore. Virtually all of new comedy requires the acceptance of cynicism as the price of admission. Ironically, Twain and Thurber both wrote very dark comic pieces, products of their own depressive episodes. It’s almost as if these pieces have become the models for modern comedy.

    Woody Allen sort of touched on this:

      • You owe me a keyboard…

        I had to explain who Woody Allen is to my 17 year old Autistic son this weekend, as he showed up on the Hedy Lamarr documentary.

        Thanks to EA and discussions here I was able to describe why what he did was unethical, if not illegal. And my son gained a bit of cultural literacy.

  9. I concur with mariedowd and PennAgain. People lack the tools with which to approach reality and the relationships to form some sort of context that they can engage with. This habitual isolation and learned helplessness is what leads people to fail to come up with the answer to the question, “why bother?”

    I have a unique approach to suicide, I think. Whenever I get tired of living, the part of me that wants to just give up kills itself and itself only. The rest of me continues on. There’s no sense in wasting a fully functional mind, after all. I choose to live simply because I’m what’s left when the parts of me that choose to die cancel themselves out. Any other “reason for living” comes after the foregone conclusion that most of me will choose to live. There’s your answer, Camus!

  10. “1. The decline of religion. In Christianity, for example, suicide is a sin, and if you believe in an after-life, a terribly short term solution. People don’t believe in eternal punishment for suicide any more.”

    This sells religion, specifically in this case, Christianity, short. It isn’t merely the intense prohibition and stigma of suicide pushed by Christianity, it’s also that Christianity once provided a unifying framework and shared values essential to any community that combated the problems of isolation, detachment, purposelessness that drives suicidal visions.

    • Christianity also rigorously taught a perspective on life that diminishes the personal impact of set-backs and negatives…a sort of thickening of skins in any individuals’ personal life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.