Is Suicide Still Shocking?

Ryan Freel, Tony Scott, a British nurse. We see the headlines so often that the horror hardly registers. What’s behind the disturbing statistics—and our even more disturbing apathy.

01.02.13 9:45 AM ET

Last week, former Major League baseball player Ryan Freel shot himself in the head. He was 36. A number of prior concussions and a history of mood swings were likely contributors. His ex-wife said, “I know a lot of people weren’t shocked by it.”

Which only added to what I have been wondering lately: is suicide losing its shock value?

I am not speaking here of those who ruthlessly kill others and then finally themselves—the Adam Lanzas of the world. Nor am I speaking of the very old who choose to opt out of chronic pain and deserve that right. Suicide is not the new normal, but this darkest of subjects seems to be eerily commonplace. Dare I say it is in the Suiceist?

Along with Freel, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, 25, former San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, 43, and Tennessee Titans receiver O.J. Murdock, 25, are among at least half a dozen athletes who have committed suicide in the past two years. Other boldfaced names—film director Tony Scott, 68, hip-hop mogul Chris Lighty, 44, comedy writer Alan Kirschenbaum, 51—have recently ended their own seemingly enviable lives. Last month, a British nurse took a crank call from “the Queen” and that apparently did the poor woman in.

We read, we register … but are we shocked?

Those in the business of suicide would like to see it as a higher priority. Guns turned on others is a hot topic and clearly strikes at our core, as the national reaction to the tragedy in Newtown showed. But self-destruction? Not so much. “We are training specialists as fast as we can on suicide prevention,” says Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “Funding is always an issue and the subject just keeps coming at us with frightening frequency.”

It may be too simple to blame the media once again, but perhaps we are numbed by a culture that is deploying suicide with almost casual inevitability. In the off-Broadway show If There Is, I Haven’t Found It Yet, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal and enjoyed a second run in New York in December, a central character slowly enters a bathtub and proceeds to slit her wrist; in the past month alone, episodes of HomelandThe Good Wife, Law & Order, and Parenthood have centered around suicides; the new James Bond film features the villain asking his female nemesis to put him out of his misery. Meanwhile, our kids are hooked on social media, which spreads viral venom and can lead to bullying-induced self destruction.

And the facts are scarier than the fiction.

Suicide is now the leading cause of injury death in the country, surpassing car accidents, according to a recent national study. More veterans are dying by their own hand than on the battlefield. Twenty-five percent of high schoolers experience suicidal ideation, the Center for Disease Control reports.

One might also point to the economy as a likely culprit. The suicide rate between 2008 and 2010 increased four times faster than during the previous eight years. The rising statistics may correspond to the high number of unemployed Americans worrying about putting food on the table. But one also has to wonder if suicide has become an increasingly inviting solution for those privileged few who have found themselves less wealthy than they once were. (Chris Lighty apparently owed the IRS $5 million. Recall, as well, the hanging death of Bernie Madoff’s son.)

“The evidence on that is more anecdotal than empirical,” says Dr. Berman. “People are most vulnerable when they lose a job or a home, leaving little financial security.” Yes, but what about the loss of the second home or the pressure to keep up appearances and remain competitive at the high-powered job?

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“I would say the trend in all areas is heading in the wrong direction,” says Dr. Berman. You think?

Romantically, we may have associated suicide with great but tortured artists: Van Gogh, Plath, Hemingway, Ledger, Monroe, Foster Wallace. Or, more traditionally, with those who suffered from lifelong depression, whose friends and families live in fear of “the call.” Their deaths were always shocking, but never completely surprising. But many of the current cases seem to be the end result of searing short-term crisis, wherein, according to psychiatrist Dr. Roger Gould, “they can’t see past the blackness, the rational becomes the irrational.”

One group that bears watching is the generation that had high hopes of doing well, doing good, and staying forever young. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a nearly 20 percent increase over the last two years in suicide rates for those aged 45–54. There are 75 million boomers, representing a lot of angst, unmet expectations, and fading dreams.

“These men and women are vulnerable to depression, dealing with aging bodies, and have fewer people to talk to, as their parents die and their children empty the nest,” says New York psychotherapist Dr. Vivian Diller. “It is also a generation that has grown up with more money than their parents, but now worries their own kids won’t.” All the prominent names we read about lately had children, who will now grow up wondering why they weren’t enough.

So finally, one has to ask if suicide is the height of selfishness. And if we may be less shocked these days because we are so damned pissed.

“It’s very common for all kinds of people to get fleeting suicidal thoughts,” explains Dr. Simon Rego, director of psychological training at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “But that’s where something else clicks on—be it family or religion—protective factors that prevent most people from the downward spiral.”

The thing that clicks on, hopefully, is the understanding that while this may be the solution to your problem, it is no longer only about you.

“I wonder if there was more I could have done, when I knew he was going on anti-depressants,” said a close friend of comedy writer Alan Kirschenbaum. She now has to juggle guilt with her grief. My friend Monica discovered there is no end to the residual emotions since her 90-year-old father-in-law threw himself in front of a moving train last summer. He left a hefty will, but oh so much more.

“After it happened, everyone had his or her own narrative,” she said. “That he was selfless to spare us all his misery. That he was courageous. I felt only rage that the gift he gave my children is that suicide is now in the family consciousness.”

Maybe its shock value has diminished, but the repercussions of suicide have not. Apart from the immediate family, there was a conductor driving that train and witnesses on the platform. Jovan Belcher’s coaches have to live with the memory of his self-inflicted death, and their inability to talk him out of it. There were more than 100 youngsters on the sidewalk when a boy leaped from the window at Manhattan’s Dalton School. That’s a whole lot of nightmares.

I am embarrassed to say that every time I watch a show now and a character disappears, I go to that dark assumption. When I read a news story about someone’s mounting troubles, I go there. I hear friends complain about their aging faces, their unstoppable migraines, their embattled divorces—and I pray they won’t go there.

And I confess that when someone tells me they were “shocked” by a suicide, I feel relief.