Editor’s Note: David J. Morris is an English professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the author of “The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder” (Mariner Books, 2016). The views expressed here are the author’s. View more opinion on CNN.
On Monday, Jeremy Richman, 49, father of one of the Sandy Hook school shooting victims, apparently took his own life in his Newton, Connecticut, office. The third in a recent spate of suicides connected to school massacres, Richman’s death is doubly horrific because since his daughter’s death, he had devoted his life to preventing tragedies like Sandy Hook through a foundation he founded and named after her.
Few subjects defeat the scientific mind like the subject of suicide. Because researchers cannot interview the dead, we can never really know why someone takes this path. It confounds researchers, defies typical human logic and delivers laser-focused pain to a victim’s friends and family. And it’s hard to see any sign of progress. According to 2016 data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among people between the ages of 10 and 34 and the fourth leading cause of death among people between 35 and 54. In the United States, a country obsessed with gun violence and murder, there were twice as many suicides as homicides.
On a certain level, understanding suicide is more of a spiritual question than a medical one. As Albert Camus put it in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
The truth of the matter is that nearly all suicides cause more pain than they prevent, and research indicates that one suicide can breed others. For this reason, more than one researcher has compared suicide to a contagion. The waves of the event ripple ever outward, like a stone dropped into a still pond. As one mother whose son took his own life told journalist Andrew Solomon, “I feel as though my fingers are caught in a slamming door and I’ve been stopped permanently midscream.”
Public accounts of suicide also help inspire suicidal behavior and elicit suicidal thoughts. Whenever a major suicide story breaks in the media, the suicide rate goes up. After Marilyn Monroe’s death, which was reported widely as a suicide, the rate of suicide went up 12%. After Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade took their own lives in 2018, the number of calls to suicide hotlines across the US spiked by 65%.
One of the few things we can say with any certainty is that people have been killing themselves for a very long time and that most religions are opposed to it. The ancient Greeks looked at life as a gift from the gods. In Athens those who killed themselves were denied funeral rites and the hand that had been used to commit the act was severed from the arm. From its earliest days, the Catholic Church opposed suicide. St. Augustine, in his argument against it, said that suicide violated the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shall not murder.” Dante took matters a few steps further in “The Inferno,” where those who killed themselves were condemned to live in the Seventh Circle of Hell as bleeding trees while being tortured by harpies.
Despite all the official prohibitions against it, suicide has remained a constant throughout human history. Achilles, the hero of “The Iliad,” when he saw the dead body of Patroclus, his friend and second-in-command, had to be restrained by a fellow soldier, lest he cut his own throat. The impulse to harm oneself after trauma or the death of a loved one seems to be rooted deep in human psychology. Nor is the phenomenon of suicidal behavior as an expression of grief limited to Western society. As anthropologist Jack Goody noted in his 1962 study of the West African LoDagaa tribe, the hands of mourners were tied together with an animal hide as a precaution against self-harm after a death in the family occurred.
We will never know what prompted Richman, Sydney Aiello or another unnamed Parkland student to take their own lives. It’s tempting to offer some hollow version of “thoughts and prayers” for people who have lost family members to suicide, but as a society we need challenge ourselves to think more creatively about what to do about it.
Suicide is a kind of social epidemic seemingly exacerbated by the media and technology we binge on every day. We are spending more and more time looking at our phones and less and less time actually interacting with other human beings who might offer us an outlet to help relieve our suffering. We are spending more and more time online every day “connecting” with others on social media, but we’ve never been more socially isolated or possessed less self-knowledge. As Jaron Lanier writes in “You Are Not A Gadget,” his 2010 study of internet culture, “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.”
There are other tangible steps we can take as well. In the US, as one might expect, guns and drugs are among the most common methods of suicide. The Veterans Administration – which is dealing with a suicide epidemic that sees an average of 20 veterans taking their lives every day – has a longstanding policy of asking veterans undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder if they can lock up or remove any firearms in their homes in order to prevent them from killing themselves.
While I don’t expect to solve the gun control debate with this logic, research shows that impulsivity plays a huge role in suicide, so denying high-risk people access to firearms and dangerous drugs such as opiates could save lives. The most important thing, however, is to stop repeating the platitudes and start having a more honest and blunt conversation about suicide.
Many survivors will be haunted forever by the question which lingers – “Why didn’t he reach out for help?” Suicide is so many things – an act of desperation, a way of ending one’s pain, a kind of mass murder and a kind of mirror held up to our world, a world that many such as Jeremy Richman found unbearable. As G.K. Chesterton wrote:
The man who kills a man kills a man.
The man who kills himself kills all men.
As far as he is concerned, he wipes out the world.
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If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, here’s how to get help: In the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.