News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Suicide is painless?

The suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and chef, author, and television travel host Anthony Bourdain have spawned the media suggestions that anyone experiencing depression should seek mental health treatment.  They both hung themselves, as did Robin Williams four years ago.

When Williams died, his survivors found some cryptic notes he had written to himself in the vein of "It's time to go."  Spade left a note for her 13-year-old daughter which is alleged to have said, "Bea - I have always loved you. This is not your fault. Ask Daddy!"  No mention has been made at this point of whether Bourdain left any messages of any kind.

People often react to suicides with indignant outrage.  Although suicide is often driven by an intense sense of suffering by those who commit it, it is felt as the most severe form of rejection by the survivors.  People may choose with whom they choose to associate with a polite civility that conveys a basic respect, but a total rejection is taken as a denial of human worth.  Suicide tells the survivors that they offer no reason or comforts for the suicide to hang around.  It makes the survivors feel like the suicide departed life because of them.  In some cases, the attitudes and acts of others may well be the reason for suicide.

News of suicides is accompanied by those pleas to seek mental help if one is experiencing depression.  Those pleas evade the idea that a depressed state may be a totally rational state produced by the circumstances in which one is living.  As the suicides of youth on Indian reservations mounted and gained public notice, a young man from a reservation in one of my classes wrote in a paper that for many of his contemporaries, suicide was their best option.  He outlined the demonstrable and inescapable causes for hopelessness that comprised the life experiences for his peers. As he put it, the human race can be a degraded species from which some people would rather resign than be a part of.  Suicide can be the result of a very astute appraisal of the state of humankind.

However, the public attitude toward suicide has evolved.  When  I was still a full time member of the working press,  our city beat reporter ridiculed the way some suicides were reported by the local authorities.  Suicides by gun shot were often termed as the accidental discharge of the firearm while cleaning it.  Jim N., the city reporter, said it must be custom of a number of people to clean a firearm by sticking the barrel in their mouths and swabbing it out with their tongues.  Of course, they always forgot it was loaded.

After I left the newspaper,  i often visited the newsroom, and I took occasional special assignments and during the summers worked as vacation relief.  During a visit one afternoon after the paper had gone to press, some staff members were discussing the misreported suicides and we wondered how many deaths were, in fact, suicides.  One reporter said it would make a good series to track down the suspicious deaths.  So, we talked about how it could be done.

The newspaper was one of four that served the Quad-Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.  The metropolitan area includes five major cities and a few smaller towns, with a population of just under a half million.  The members of the news organizations knew each other, often worked on a cooperative basis in accessing government agencies and their documents.  The group that was discussing the misreported suicides mapped out a plan wherein death certificates could be identified for suspicious deaths and then obituaries could b analyzed for false information.  The editors and reporters organized a team to do the research, and I was a part of it.

Ultimately, we identified 26 deaths that had to be suicides, but were not officially declared so over a five year period. In a few cases, relatives or friends had admitted they were suicides.  The task we set for ourselves was, first, to explain why we determined the deaths were suicides, but more importantly to investigate why the public record about the deaths was falsified.  In some cases the stated causes of death were in contradiction to the circumstances. We interviewed coroners and medical examiners some of whom admitted that they termed the deaths accidental to prevent embarrassment to the families. Perhaps, the most informative people we interviewed were morticians.  They would not talk about specific cases, but they willingly discussed how they had dealt with cases in general terms and the difficulty of dealing with the families.

It was because of our attempts to work with families that the project foundered.  Some people were angered that we even considered getting information about the cases.  Some people were still in such a state of grief that we avoided raising any memories for them.  Some were so enraged that they indicated they did not want the deceased person referred to in their presence.  Some vehemently denied any possibility that the deceased took their own lives.  We realized that there was no way we could ever publish an account of the suicide denials without causing severe distress to people associated with the deaths.  We closed down the project and turned the files over to a professor at a medical college who studied the causes and ramifications of suicide.

Society has evolved from that state of denial.  Back then newspapers and other media did not mention the cause of death of suicides unless there were compelling circumstances.  Recently when my spouse was a broadcast reporter, the media she worked for had a policy against reporting suicides even if it meant not reporting the deaths at all.

Currently, obituaries of suicides might not bluntly state the facts, but they convey that the death had unusual circumstances, which leads to follow-up information.  An example within the past year was the death of a 13-year-old young woman.  After some questions were raised about her death,  the media revealed it was a suicide, although it did not report the details of how she committed it.  Society seems to accept the fact that denial of suicide aggravates the pain.  People understand that social forces, not always personal mental issues, are often behind suicides.  The social media plays a role in bullying in schools, which have experienced an increase in suicides among students.  School counselors note that what is referred to as bullying is malicious discrimination stemming from notions of race, class, and personality.  Some schools teem with "mean girl" behavior.  They reflect the social attitudes of their communities.  School administrators and teachers strive mightily to deal with this "bullying," but they are dealing with attitudes and behavior deeply rooted in the community.  The schools are simply a part of it, and teachers may ameliorate the malicious mental habits in some, but where the malignant force overwhelms benignity, their efforts aren't enough.  So, young people commit suicide when they experience virulent malice as the condition of life.  Thirteen-year-olds give up a life marked by one of those unnerving obituaries.

The reasons people commit suicide are to forego a life of pain.  Sometimes the pain is from a disease, physical or mental. Sometimes the pain is caused by people.  We live in a time when people have abruptly stopped the social and moral progress that America has made to make the realities of the nation meet the words of liberty, equality, and justice framed by the founders.  The election of Barack Obama revived the dormant malice that resided in a large group of people. The social media began to show racist insults and threats.  People sensitive to currents of depravity realized that America was reversing the progress it had made in realizing liberty, equality, and justice for all.  On the night that it became evident that Donald Trump was being elected president,  suicide crisis lines experienced a surge in calls.  People realized that America had stepped backward into a state of moral desolation.

Trump is not the cause of the drastic intellectual and moral deterioration of the nation. He is the measure of it.  That a man as despicable as Trump, whose vileness and criminality is a matter of well-publicized record, is elected president is the act of a degenerate nation. America contracted a malignant disease which destroyed its moral foundation.  Suicide is an option for facing its desolation.  The malicious depravity that grips the nation inspires thoughts of suicide.

Suicide is not merely an act of self-destruction.  It permanently damages the life around it.  And makes other people ponder if they want to live in that state.

The theme song for the television show "MASH" is about suicide.

That suicide is painless 
It brings on many change 
I can take or leave it if I please 
That game of life is hard to play.  
In a desolate world, some people don't think the game of life is worth playing.  It really gets hard when we ask if the things we've done and the kind of people we are make drive people to suicide.  


1 comment:

Porter Lansing said...

Marvelous post. Insightful, compelling and penetrating.
As an aside … I have a friend who maintains wholeheartedly that he'll commit suicide if he ever gets to the point where his family has to take care of him. Wipe his butt. Wheel him around and generally disrupt their lives because of his needs. I've told him how much it would hurt those that love him and that they don't care what he needs. They love him. It made no impression until I referenced what it would do to his young grandchildren. That might have influenced him a bit but what right do I really have to involve myself in a friend's choices? None, really. (I think his Dad did the deed for the same reason.)

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States