Fascinating if very sobering transcript of a recent radio broadcast over on the Freakonomics site about the so-called “Suicide Paradox.” As the commentators make clear, the attempt to “make sense” of suicide is a dodgy task from the get-go – if you know someone who has been touched by it, you know that suicide is something that, by definition, defies explanation. The “Why” in particular. Thankfully, the commentators keep their focus on the other, slightly less volatile factors: the “who’s”, “where’s”, and “when’s”. Which doesn’t make the subject any less morbid, but does keep it out of the realm of pure conjecture (sort of).
Many of us are vaguely aware of the corresponding rates of suicide and standard of living, i.e. suicide is something that afflicts the wealthy in particular. What’s not discussed, at least not as frequently, is the undercurrent of expectation which some believe accounts for this relationship. This extends even to the timing of the event, Spring (not Winter) being the most common time that people kill themselves. Not the type of confirmation one wants to find re: the crushing power of ‘should’ but there you have it.
The significant discrepancy in male-female and white-black suicide rates may not exactly be news, but I was caught completely off guard by the figure showing double the amount of suicides than homicides in the US. Except where noted, all the quotes come from Freakonomist Stephen J. Dubner, ht JD:
The preliminary numbers for 2009, the most recent year for which we have data, show there were roughly 36,500 suicides in the U.S. and roughly 16,500 homicides. That’s well over twice as many suicides. So why don’t we hear more about it? Partly because, as Levitt says, most suicides don’t make the news, whereas murders do… But also: they’re different types of tragedy. Murder represents a fractured promise within our social contract, and it’s got an obvious villain. Suicide represents – well, what does it represent? It’s hard to say. It carries such a strong taboo that most of us just don’t discuss it much. The result is that there are far more questions about suicide than answers.
As you drill down into the numbers, one thing that strikes you are the massive disparities – the difference in suicide rates by gender, by race and age, by location, by method and many other variables. In the U.S., for instance, men are about four times as likely to kill themselves as women… [And] there is a seasonal spike – but it’s not in the long, dark days of winter.
[Psychology professor and suicidology expert David] LESTER: In fact, suicide rates peak in the spring in most countries. It’s as if you expect things are going to be better, and when they turn out not to be better you’re more likely to be depressed in a suicidal way.
LESTER: ...I’ve done studies on the quality of life in nations, and the quality of life in the different states in America. And regions with a higher quality of life have a higher suicide rate. Now, quality of life is more than wealth. The people who try and rate the quality of life use a variety of indices, health, education, culture, geography, all kinds of things. So they put more into it than just, you know, median family income, or individual per capita income. And what I’ve argued therefore is it seems to be an inevitable consequence of improving the quality of life. If your quality of life if poor, and it may be you’re unemployed, you’re an oppressed minority, whatever it might be, there’s a civil war going on, you know why you’re miserable. You know as the quality of life in a nation gets better and you are still depressed — well, why? Everybody else is enjoying themselves, getting good jobs, getting promotions, you know, buying fancy cars. Why are you still miserable? So, there’s no external cause to blame your misery upon, which means it’s more likely that you see it as some defect or stable trait in yourself. And therefore you’re going to be depressed and unhappy for the rest of your life.