To Be Or Not To Be . . .

By Mark Sconce


hamletIs there one among us who hasn’t thought about, contemplated or even attempted suicide? The statistics tell us that more and more people worldwide are not just contemplating; they are committing suicide in growing numbers. But the reports, both official and anecdotal, reveal some surprising insights. For example, who would have guessed that Montana has more suicides annually than any other U.S. state, and Alaska comes in second. Gives new meaning to that project, Bridge to Nowhere… The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, publishes suicide statistics periodically some of which are eye-opening.

In 2013, there were 41,149 deaths by suicide in the U.S.; that’s 112 Americans every day or one every 13 minutes. Therefore, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death; homicide ranks 16th. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds. There is one suicide success for every estimated 25 suicide attempts, and women are three times more likely to attempt suicide than men, even though suicide among men is 4xs higher than women. Females are more likely than males to have suicidal thoughts perhaps because they experience depression at roughly two times the rate of men. Poisoning is the most common method of suicide for women. A firearm is the preferred method among men, another feather in the cap of the National Rifle Association. Suicide rates for males are highest among those aged 75+ while the rates among females are highest among those aged 45 to 54. A 2009 U.S. Army report indicates military veterans have double the suicide rate of non-veterans, and more active duty soldiers are dying from suicide than in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan even to this day.

The World Health Organization and the National Institute of Mental Health tell us that over 800,000 people die by suicide every year, in most cases, succumbing to the “intolerable burden of existence” to use a phrase by Hans Küng, the controversial Catholic theologian. Depression and hopelessness are leading causes of suicide worldwide. Alexander Pushkin can take us there:

“In bleak despair and isolation

My days stretched on in quiet strife.

No awe of God, no inspiration,

No love, no tears, no sense of life.”

There is one death by suicide in the world every 40 seconds. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in the world for those between 15 and 44 years of age. This is the case in a country I know something about, Nepal. Suicide is illegal in Nepal and is punishable by fines and imprisonment for survivors. The result is a “culture of silence” especially in cases involving domestic abuse. Families also avoid reporting suicides due to social stigma and discrimination against people with mental health problems.

Social, religious, and legal pressures result in inaccurate reporting and record keeping. So take the following ranking with a grain of salt: It was prepared by the World Health Organization in 2012. Guyana was way ahead of number two, South Korea, with approximately 44 suicides per 100,000 people. South Korea, about 29 per 100,000 people. India ranks eleventh. India, where the Hindu custom of suttee was practiced for centuries. The suttee is Sanskrit for 'good woman' or 'true wife', namely, the Hindu widow who makes the supreme sacrifice by following her husband onto the funeral pyre. "A wife who dies in the company of her husband shall remain in heaven as many years as there are hairs on his person," says one of the holy scriptures.

Now if you find these Eastern revelations depressing, let’s change the venue to Paris, France, city of lights, city of romance.   At its center, at its heart, stands the Eiffel Tower. So many couples come here for their honeymoon. One day a woman tried to commit suicide from the Eiffel Tower. Wouldn’t you know she landed on a car and later married the person who owned the car. Viva La France! Unfortunately such a happy ending is a rare thing, the Eiffel Tower has one of the highest suicide rates – 17.5 per 1000 visitors. It’s an important issue for the French government along with recent suicide bombers.

So, on to Moscow. Russia ranks 14th in the world with this footnote. As of October 2011 nearly one million Russians had committed suicide since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Japan comes in at number 18. This country of course pioneered hari-kari, a practice that claimed so many Allied naval vessels during WWII as kamikazi dive bombers slammed into the decks. Today’s kamikazis are the suicide bombers who claim so many lives in the cause of jihad.

The United States is 50th, where more Americans now take their own lives than die in car crashes. Canada comes in 70th, Germany 77th, and China 94th, one of only two countries where more women than men commit. The United Kingdom is in 105th place and Catholic Mexico 137th if you don’t count the ex-pat community. The winner is Saudi Arabia at 170th. If you try to commit suicide there you might even be stoned in public…not that we haven’t seen people stoned in public here.

Ever since Socrates imbibed his hemlock, and Cleopatra clasped her asp, suicide has been a familiar feature, indeed a reality of the human condition. Famous suicides include Nero, Mark Antony, Hannibal, and Hitler. Peter Tchaikovsky, Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark, Sigmund Freud, Earnest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Boyer, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Robin Williams—and our own “Pedro Loco” a few years ago.

Of course suicide can take place on a much larger scale. Here’s Abraham Lincoln: “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” And who do you think said this? “I think a question that we are not asking ourselves is: isn’t humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate, tyrannical use of nature? Safeguard creation because, if we destroy it, it will destroy us. Never forget this.” —Pope Francis, earlier this year…

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