Maybe you knew him. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. A hardworking guy, in his mid-fifties, he long worked a steady job. Proudly he raised a family.
Then the bust came. He got downsized.
The losses came like dominos. First the job. Unemployment insurance went on for a while, but there was no way he and his wife could keep the house. He got some short term jobs. Then they petered out. Soon no one would think of hiring someone unemployed so long.
The marriage cracked. Then it cratered. Too much stress, too much anger, she said. Even the kids didn’t come by.
He took to drinking for a while, but not long. He couldn’t afford it. He decided he couldn’t afford living.
The choice was obvious – it was time to check out.
The Means of Suicide
The CDC’s recent national study of American adult suicides occurring between 1999 to 2010 carefully avoids declaring causes. The evidence often points, but does not convict.
And the potential reasons for the increased suicides step on too many political toes. The CDC is funded by Congress. Just as they outlawed most studies of gun violence, Congressmen with ideological will and a fiscal ax can and do tell Americans researchers what kind of science is acceptable – rather like they do in Russia.
When you don’t collect the evidence, you can stop worrying, right?
Yet a few facts push through the CDC suicide data:
More people kill themselves each year than die in car wrecks.
Nearly half of men kill themselves with firearms.
Both men and women in their fifties saw their suicide rate increase by nearly half. The overall rate was over three times higher in men then women. Women attempt suicide more than men, but succeed far less often.
The reason – men use more lethal means. The two biggest – firearms and “suffocation.” That latter term usually means death by hanging.
Suffocation as a means of dying increased by 75% in men and 115% in women over the decade.
Epidemiologists and clinicians are confused by many elements of suicide. They don’t understand why clinicians predict it so poorly. They greatly wonder what immediately precipitates events of self-harm. Many folks who tell you they’re “fine” – and look fine – may be dead thirty minutes later. Sometimes their lethal decision takes only seconds – as when people are behind the wheel and feel sudden, overpowering despair.
Researchers also try to understand why people who kill themselves often kill others.
Many clinicians see suicide as self-murder. Shooting yourself in the head or hanging yourself by the neck is an indelible act. Everybody left alive remembers.
And the real power of those actions is rarely addressed in public. When the NRA talks about “freedom and liberty” they rarely mention the 10,000 people each year who kill themselves with guns. That’s not a “crime.” Nor do they discuss suicide’s effect on families, friends, co-workers, communities. If you’ve treated the children and spouses of people who killed themselves, it’s hard to be so cavalier. Those scars are deep. They last long. In many cases, they never, never go away.
Americans generally don’t review our gun policies through comparisons with the rest of the world. The rhetoric of “freedom and liberty” can obscure the reality that in most countries personal firearms is a public health issue.
Many nations work hard to protect their populations from sudden death. They know how people die. And they want them to stay alive.
Suicide and Shame
Epidemiologists are well aware that suicides peak in economic downturns. You lose your job, your livelihood, your identity – then suicides increase.
And in the years of the CDC study, years where the middle class hallowed out, the financial system went bust and foreign wars slowly changed the country, people lost a lot. They lost so much of themselves that many saw no other way out than to end their lives.
But we don’t talk about that.
Families don’t discuss it. Friends don’t. Until rather recently, the military, despite their epidemic of brain-injured veterans, didn’t discuss it.
Perhaps the time for greater transparency has arrived. America, as a nation, remains highly fearful of terrorist attacks. Yet we’re not scared of tens of thousands of our own people deliberately murdering themselves.
And with greater transparency maybe we’ll start to see the complex interactions social and economic forces that don’t make for easy soundbites. That $700-800 trillion dollars of derivatives are still floating around financial markets, hiding in the shadows. That these “weapons of mass destruction” and other products of financial “engineering” have the ability not just to disrupt our nation’s economy but to maim and kill – including people you know. That as Jeff Skilling makes new arrangements to quit jail we think of the innumerable victims of financial crimes – people who lost jobs, homes, respect – and then their lives.
As too many Americans know, suicide is not painless. And those who long experience that pain live in every American community.