Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Alarming Rise of Suicide in America, Plus One More Thing to Think About

"He was a most peculiar manThat's what Mrs. Reardon says, and she should knowShe lived upstairs from him..."--A Most Peculiar Man, Simon & Garfunkel
Painting by the author.
A Wall Street Journal story about U.S. suicides caught my attention last month. It made me think about a blog post I'd written about Golden Gate Bridge suicide-attempt survivors. Tonight, while listening to The Essential Simon & Garfunkel (CD) I noted two songs on suicide, "A Most Peculiar Man" and "Richard Cory." 

I'm certain that one of the reasons Paul Simon's songs connected with so many young people in the Sixties was the angst he was able to capture in songs like Sounds of Silence, I Am A Rock, The Boxer. It was a post-JFK world during a war we didn't understand. We were coming of age and looking for America, but with our innocence somewhat stripped away.

The WSJ story by Julie Wernau was titled U.S. Suicides Reached a Record High Last Year, subtitled Older men are at highest risk, while suicide rates among young people have declined. 

One feature of the story was how Wernau tied the suicide data to a mental health crisis. She followed this by stating that nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. lost their lives to suicide in 2022. That's a pretty alarming figure, the highest since 1941 and a pretty grim milestone.

The Wernau article brought to mind a blog post I'd written a couple years ago on Medium about a stat that you don't often read about. It had to do with suicide attempts made by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The stat that struck me was not the quantity of people who have leapt to their death from that bridge, nearly one every 16 days, but rather it was this: all 29 people who survived their suicide attempts off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge said they regretted their decision as soon as they jumped.

That’s a mind-blowing statement. Each and every one who survived was immediately regretting their decision to leap to their deaths.

In my post I referenced an article titled The Jumpers, by Steve Taylor, Ph.D. The Jumpers opens by introducing us to a Ken Baldwin who had struggled with depression much of his life. Taylor shared details of what brought him to this point, then segues into several details about suicides on the Golden Gate.

From the beginning there have been 20 suicides a year at the bridge, he wrote. He went on to say, “Every jumper has a 98% chance of success, a much higher percentage than for hanging, drug overdose, or shooting. The bridge is 225 feet high, and after a four second fall, jumpers hit the water at a speed of 75 mph, with a force equivalent to a lorry crashing into a wall.”

The moment Ken Baldwin let go of the railing he immediately thought, “What am I doing? This was the worst thing I could do in my life.” He instantly thought of his wife and daughter and didn’t want to die.

He recalled realizing that everything he thought was unfixable was totally fixable — except for having just jumped.

* * * 

A second article Google found for me had a slightly different angle. Instead of being about people who survived after attempting to jump to their deaths, this one was about people who intended to jump but were stopped by police.

This article, by Stacey Freedenthal, Ph.D., LCSW., was titled Where Are They Now?: The Fate of Suicide Attempt Survivors. What Dr. Freedenthal found was that of 515 persons who intended to jump from the bridge and were stopped, only 7% went on to actually kill themselves at some point later in life. It was "a remarkable testament to the fact that a suicidal crisis is often — very often — temporary.”

One of the reasons I find this topic important is because it dovetails with another issue that I am concerned about, the legalization of physician-assisted dying. (Often referred to as doctor-assisted suicide.) I have written about this topic a number of times since the early 90s after doing a series of articles for a seniors publication on ethical issues in terminal health care.

The editor who handed me the assignment stated that I had to write four articles as a journalist before writing the fifth in which I could lay out my own conclusions. I found it to be a remarkably rewarding experience as I interviewed ethicists, oncologists, nurses and proponents (a member of the Hemlock Society, for example.)

The final article in the series was titled The Pros and Cons of Physician Assisted Suicide. In that article I began by noting the four reasons it seemed logical to legalize assisted dying. (Mercy argument, patient’s right to self-determination, economics and the reality that people are already doing it.)

But in my readings and in online forums, I discovered a range of concerns and red flags that ought to be considered. One of these red flags was this:

Many, if not most, people have wished they could die rather than face some difficult circumstance in their lives. Doctors who are given authority to grant this wish may not always recognize that the real problem is a treatable depression rather than the need to fulfill a patient’s death wish.

In a General Debate Forum on America Online someone shared this perspective:

“I know many individuals with significant disabilities: quadriplegia, post-polio survivors, persons with MS, etc. A number of them have tried committing suicide in the past and are now thankful that a mechanism wasn’t in place that would have assured their death, because they got over whatever was bothering them at the time and are happy with life again.”

As I read the stories of people who attempted to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. I could not help but connect it again to this argument against legalization of assisted suicide.

Currently there is a lot of money being invested in legalization. I would urge caution.

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Related Link
The Bodyguard and Richard Cory

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