Sunday, July 3, 2011

More Taboo Than Sex

Several years ago, I ran into one of my Hungarian uncles at the supermarket. During the course of our brief conversation, he mentioned his father’s suicide—the first time I had ever heard about it. My uncle was in his late sixties at the time. No one in the family, including my parents, had ever mentioned that his father had killed himself. They just said he died, leaving a widow and four children behind during the height of the Great Depression.

Suicide, apparently, was not something people discussed. It was a source of family shame. That still may be the case, according to the Freakonomics Radio hour I listened to this week on National Public Radio (NPR). The program cited some interesting statistics.

The rate of murder in the US is about five times that of other developed countries. However, there are twice as many suicides as murders in the US. So why don’t we hear about them? Well, suicides don’t make the news like murders. The NPR announcer suggested that’s because suicide carries a strong taboo and so is rarely discussed.

“As soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life.”—Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788-1860)

Eastern Hemisphere has highest suicide rates.
Suicide can inflict deep wounds in loved ones. I have a friend who is in his early fifties. He's a model husband and father. A core reason he has such sensitivity in those roles is because his father committed suicide when he was a child and he experienced the ultimate abandonment by a parent. I’m not sure if there is ever any closure for such an event.

Despite the fact that there are many experts who have made it their life's work to study suicide, no one can really answer why people do it, says NPR. All they can do is cite statistics about it:
  • Suicides peak on Mondays—the Blue Monday effect
  • Contrary to popular belief, suicides are more likely in the spring in most countries than during the winter holidays. The theory for this is that people associate spring with hope and if things don’t get better during the spring, they give up and commit suicide
  • Global suicide rates have increased by 60 percent in the past 45 years (that statistic comes from
  • In the US, the Suicide Belt describes 10 western states from Idaho and Montana running down to Arizona and New Mexico, where most suicides in this country occur. The typical demographic of a suicide victim is a middle-aged white man, single, unemployed, who owns guns and lives in a rural area. That section of the country seems to have a large number of people who fit that description
  • People are least likely to kill themselves in Washington DC. People are more likely to be murdered there. Only three places in the US have a higher murder rate than suicide rate: Louisiana, Maryland and Washington DC. These areas also have a high concentration of African Americans, says NPR. African Americans are half as likely to kill themselves as whites, but are six times more likely to be murdered. The reasons for the low rate of suicide have, in theory, been attributed to everything from the community solidarity that comes from battling racism to religious faith
  • Then there’s the suicide paradox: suicide rates rise as does a country’s standard of living. The reasoning is this: If the quality of life gets better, but you’re still miserable, then you don’t know why you are still miserable. You’re not dealing with war, unemployment, poverty, etc. So when you still feel unhappy, you may view that feeling as a defect or bad trait within yourself
“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.”—Arnold J. Toynbee

One fact that hit home with me was when I learned which country had the highest suicide rate in the world. It isn’t the US by a long shot. We fall somewhere in the middle when measured against all other countries. Which country has had the highest suicide rate for the last century? Hungary.

In 2008, 2,400 people committed suicide in Hungary versus 394 in Greece, which has a population about the same size. There are many factors that may go into why Hungarians are so prolific in doing away with themselves:
  • Ill-fated genetics: The prevalence of bipolar disorder is 5 percent in Hungary, but only half that in the rest of the world
  • Alcohol consumption: Magyars can pack away their alcohol. Hungary has the third largest alcohol consumption in the world
  • Societal approval: In Hungary, suicide is thought of in a positive light. It is considered a brave act because the victims had the courage to end their suffering or to free their families from the burden of their exit. This may offer some clue as to why my Hungarian great Uncle did away with himself. It was the Depression, his business had failed, and some people in the family said he might have been seriously ill (although that may have been a rationalization). In any case, shooting himself in the root cellar did not remove any burdens for his widow and four children
People who study suicide have found that books, songs and newspaper stories that glorify suicide or showcase mourning families can encourage copy cat suicides. When glamour icon Marilyn Monroe died in August 1962, suicides that month went up by 10 percent. But when Kurt Cobain killed himself, Courtney Love was outspoken about how wrong he had been to do so, and as a result the usual spurt in copy cat suicides did not occur.

Harkening back to Hungary, in the 1930s there was a Hungarian song played across the airwaves called Gloomy Sunday that was thought to have precipitated suicides across Europe. The basic gist of the song was that the person singing was thinking of suicide because he wanted to be reunited with a lover who had died. Experts refer to something like this as a suicide “trigger.” Authorities decided it had to be stopped. So both Hungary and the BBC banned the song until 2002. Ironically, the song's composer, Rezso Seress, killed himself on January 13, 1969, by leaping from the window of his small apartment in Budapest. That must have been one hell of a song.

“If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.”—Mohandas Gandhi

Original sheet music: Gloomy Sunday.
How suicide is viewed depends upon your culture. Plato believed that suicide was wrong in some cases and not in others. Aristotle believed it was always a cowardly act. The Stoics (a school of philosophers in Athens during the 3rd Century BC) believed that if well thought out, it was the act of a wise man. It was not done in agitation or depression, but as a reflective, responsible act of a genuinely wise man. He would plead his case before magistrates for permission, and if approved, was rewarded with a cup of hemlock. Christianity considers suicide a sin. Some Muslim subcultures consider it a heroic act in a holy war.

In Japan, seppuku—ritual suicide by self-disembowelment on a sword—was an accepted form of ending one's life in Japanese society. The thinking behind this act was that an honorable death was more desirable than a life of shame. The last recorded seppuku occurred in 1970. Today, the most popular place in Japan to commit suicide is Aokigahara Forest, also called the Sea of Trees. Up until this past year, the Golden Gate Bridge had more suicides than any other place in the world. Now Aokigahara Forest just outside of Tokyo holds that dubious distinction. It seems oddly appropriate that a culture that is known for its sense of aesthetics would be drawn to a forest with breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji as a site for suicide.

Whether you view suicide as a brave or cowardly act, one thing seems apparent—at least in the US culture. When someone commits suicide and leaves loved ones behind, it inflicts a deep emotional wound that can last a lifetime. I don’t know if scientists will ever be able to uncover why people commit suicide. I suspect there are as many factors involved as there are people.

The natural impulse of any living creature is to want to survive. Whether illness or mishap occurs, people often fight desperately to continue living. Why someone would actively pursue self-annihilation is a mystery—and perhaps one we will never solve. What it comes down to is this: Who can possibly know what's going on in the mind of another human being?


  1. I have heard about this kind of difficult situation, once a friend of mine suffered of his mother's suicide, it was very difficult for him, I won't like this happen to me..

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