Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

Deconstructing the taboo of suicide

Post by Brian O'Neill on April 17, 2012 at 10:19 pm with 16 Comments »
December 27, 2012 11:56 am

In the vast repertoire of human actions there are few as disturbing as suicide. As such it is too often viewed as a stigma, a crime against the community as much as a crime against oneself.

If we were to be honest, the act of self-destruction is repellant to us for two basic reasons: It is a violation of both our primal sense of self-preservation and the moral principles which mold our personal and religious views. In the past, people who committed suicide were considered damned for eternity and unworthy of a Christian burial. In the present, conversation on this topic becomes hushed and tentative, while a written piece must strive to avoid a tone that is either too condescending or too lenient.

But many of these perceptions of suicide are, at best, misinformed, and at worst, malicious. In reality, suicide is a fatal symptom of a number of mental or emotional disorders.

Self-destruction has become a tragic result of the last decade’s descent into war and financial chaos. Last Sunday, Trib editor Karen Peterson wrote on the paper’s efforts to handle coverage of a recent young woman’s suicide with sensitivity and transparency. In another column, Nicholas Kristof highlighted the discrepancy between combat deaths and suicides by veterans, the latter of which occurs a staggering 25 times more often than the former.

There’s simply no denying that we continue to tiptoe around the topic of suicide, but would it hurt to have a more open discussion? It just might shed a little light on the dark corners of our collective psyche.

For example, let’s compare suicide with cancer, another major killer. Like cancer, suicidal tendencies are brought on by factors both known – PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues – and unknown. Like cancer, the symptoms that often lead to suicide are nondiscriminatory: Celebrity is certainly no defense, as famous figures such as Ernest Hemingway and Curt Cobain can attest; stoic war veterans have suffered and perished at their own hands in great numbers (an ironic end given the billions spent to protect them in the war zone); countless others fight a daily battle against the “black dog,” as Winston Churchill described his own crippling bouts with depression.

Whether a person dies from cancer or suicide, the word victim should not be followed with an asterisk. In the case of suicide, this altered perception fails to consider that each of us has a unique tolerance threshold, and the inner battle against one’s own demons can be far greater than the risks inherent in combat, or in the body’s struggle against a life-threatening illness.

I did not always have this perspective.  As a young police officer my reactions were a mixture of pity and loathing. Over time, however, I found myself dispensing street-level psychoanalysis to a long line of people with mental and emotional problems. They included a man with one leg over the roof of a building and a knife at his throat, numerous young girls with fresh slash marks on their wrists, and more than a few young men whose attempts to overdose were met with a vomit-inducing regimen of charcoal lavage.

I consider these people fortunate. They each had the opportunity to meet with a mental health worker at the emergency room and a second chance.

Courtesy of aasg.org

Those who chose to walk in front of a moving train, who hung themselves in a dark basement or who swallowed a bottle of narcotics and died alone had no second chance.

It might seem easy to pass judgment on such deeply troubled people. After all, weren’t they betraying the trust of a loved one or taking a coward’s way out of a difficult situation? The answer, as Atticus Finch reminds us in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is that we would need to “climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In my short exposure to these individuals, their empty gazes and broken spirits were enough to make me withhold judgment.

Perhaps suicide is so difficult to process because it is a paradox. Despite our innate will to live, our mental wiring that will consider just about any action to keep us alive, people from every walk of life and from every country in the world continue to make it their final act. That it is treated as a stigma only serves to make it more difficult to prevent.

We need to do a better job understanding the causes, put more resources into treating the symptoms and find a way to keep people from deciding that suicide is an option.
Leave a comment Comments → 16
  1. What becomes of the person when estimation of their
    worldly situation approaches clarity? Drugged and counseled
    is their life truly a better place?

  2. reformedliberal says:

    This is a superb piece, Mr. O’Neill. Thank you for writing it.

  3. harleyrider1 says:

    Really loathing? Unbelievable. Sounds like you grew up (matured) on the job.

    The death of just about anyone brings heartbreak. The manner sometimes strangely can mitigate the grief.

    Some police officers see a greater amount of death than others. With all of it comes discretion, tenacity, and continued work to process what one sees. Writing is one release.

  4. ttownnative says:

    Brian, I believe your intent in this article stems from a genuine desire to reduce the incidence of suicide, and I agree with the notion of encouraging more open discussion on suicide with this oped being a great start.

    However, some of your comments are a bit alarming, including: “stoic war veterans have suffered and perished at their own hands in great numbers (an ironic end given the billions spent to protect them in the war zone)” – isn’t the greater irony that these service people dedicated their lives to protecting others, and the experiences incurred during service contributed to their own demise? Your concern over the cost to protect these service people during combat is contradictory to your entire argument that we need to be spending more money and dedicating more resources to these individuals in order to “cure” them of their suicidal tendencies.

    Being the family member of a person who chose to take his own life by jumping off the overpass next to Stanley & Seafort’s 8 years ago, the realization I came to at the ripe age of 20 was that the people who decide to take their own lives are not inherently different from people who do not. My uncle was a funny, outgoing, charismatic man who grew up, got married, had two children and probably always thought he would live a normal, fulfilling life. Somewhere along the line, life events and experiences took a big enough toll that he completely changed course and no longer wanted to live. This tells me that suicide is not as completely juxtaposed to the innate human will to live as suggested. In fact, it might fall right in line with the same triggers that will us to live; once the burden of life becomes too great to bear, our brains have the capability to let us contemplate the idea that death could be a more personally satisfying option than life.

  5. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thanks for your insightful comment, Ttown. I’m afraid you misinterpreted my comments on the irony of war vets’ suicides. I do find it deplorable that so little money is spent trying to stop these tragic deaths, while billions are pumped into the war machine. The current rate of suicide, one vet kills himself every 80 minutes, suggests that they are expendable.

    Nothing could, or should be farther from the truth.

  6. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    Brian, could you help me out with something here. I read above the military numbers are 25 times higher than the civilian side. Then you mention one vet kills himself every 80 minutes.

    How many is that in a 12 month period? Just trying to get a better idea of the seriousness here. I have had to respond to a number of suicides myself, very sad to see somebody making such a final decision.

  7. Brian O'Neill says:

    NPC- The “25 times higher” refers to the rate of suicide vs combat deaths, all referring to soldiers. The math suggests that the number is about 6500 suicides per year. If you’re looking for the source, click on the link in my column to Nicholas Kristof’s article.

  8. While I empathize with the problem fundamentally, I’m a bit skeptical of the numbers and some of the conclusions being made from them.

    First, in some of the articles detailing this “epidemic” there isn’t any solid accounting, just estimates. Many deaths of vets listed in the numbers aren’t confirmed as suicide, only suspected. One report (if I remember correctly) stated 21 deaths suspected of suicide in one month, but only 4 were actually confirmed as such.

    There is also no proven correlation between suicide and PTSD amongst the veteran suicide numbers, only inference. Most military vets haven’t seen any combat whatsoever and are not at risk of developing PTSD at all. The cause of suicide could be just as easily linked to money, health, or relationships amongst veterans as stress from combat.

    The statistic is alarming (if true, remember, it’s just an estimation), but I personally think this is just more political talk.

  9. leehallfae says:

    Not caring so much for this article. My best friend killed herself. She was dying anyway, all she did was put a stop to the hurting.

    “a mixture of pity and loathing” when you were young. Sir Brian, if ever you suffer some disease such as Fatal Familial Insomnia, or an illness that causes great physical pain, my guess is that you just might see death as releasing people from said desolation.

  10. NotPoliticallyCorrect says:

    Brian, Thanks for the info.

  11. Brian O'Neill says:

    This is obviously a difficult topic, and it would be easy to read too much into it. leehallfae- The suicidal issues I discussed have absolutely nothing to do with physician assisted death (a la Dr Kevorkian) or other circumstances involving painful and fatal illnesses. That is a personal decision between an individual and his or her deity (and physician). I am sorry for your friend, but she does not fit this particular discussion.

    Gandalf- You are certainly free to take issue with the statistics (which were put forth by the NY Times), but I take exception when someone attempts to explain the phenomenon of soldier-suicide outside the causal effects of combat. The statistic is alarming, as you say, but I find your attempt to pass off the issue of soldiers’ deaths as “political talk” to be cold and uncaring.

  12. Brian, as I said, I I empathize with the problem, but just because a subject is tragic that doesn’t mean there can’t be some motive behind the reporting of it. I’m a retired military veteran myself. Jaded? Yes. Uncaring? Hardly.

  13. Brian O'Neill says:

    I do agree that sometimes statistics can be spun for personal gain, but when young soldiers, between 17-25, kill themselves at well above the average rate there is an obvious disconnect. Sometimes the simplest reason – deployment, war – is the right one.

    I can’t fault you for being jaded, though. Been there, done that.

  14. But that’s part of my point. You state “young soldiers, between 17-25…”. The statistics brought out claiming 6500+ suicides a year *by vets* isn’t the same category as “young soldiers, between 17-25″. Veterans includes ALL military, past and present, active duty or retired, from 17 to old age. Current active duty deaths are more in the 15-20 or so deaths a month. Obviously a truly shocking number, but WELL below your stated “every 80 minutes” statistic.

    Deployment to war is also misleading. Deployment doesn’t also incur an onset of PTSD either. Deployment, regardless of location, and the family separation that goes with it, is probably the more likely suspect. Cheating (or suspicions of cheating) spouses, money, stress, loneliness, etc are just some more likely issues with soldiers deployed.

    The bigger factor (in my opinion) of the increase of suicide rates isn’t PTSD, it’s the pace of deployments and how underhanded the military is in the rotations. Currently the policy is after a deployment units aren’t supposed to go back to the middle east for at least 15 months (or something like that, I’m currently not in the whole loop personally). Soldiers are screwed over, however, when they transfer from one unit that recently returns from the middle east to another unit that is getting ready to deploy. It happens all of the time. Some soldiers have spent more time over in the sandbox than they have stateside. That certainly would have a big (if not bigger) impact on suicide rates, yet no one seems to discuss THAT.

    Finally, as I stated before, the VAST majority of military people, active duty or retired/resigned veterans, never have heard a shot fired in anger.

    My point still stands. Inferring that PTSD from combat related issues to current active duty is causing the sharp increase in suicides sounds more like a political ruse than exposing the bigger issues. Does it happen? Of course. Is it the main factor in the increase? I don’t think so. I blame it on the deployments (and other factors) themselves, and the mishandling of the process, and the broken promises being made by people working in oddly shaped building(s) in the DC area.

  15. Brian O'Neill says:

    Not sure why we’re debating this, since I agree with most of your assessment. Thanks for the discussion.

  16. ElizabethRose says:

    Thank you so much for your article and honesty Mr. O’Neill.

    Illumination is desperately needed in the dark recesses of the diseases, depression and PTSD primarily, leading to suicide. More people die from suicide a year than cancer despite its documented existence for centuries – denial and prejudice continue to reign.

    Through my experience of the unexpected and unwanted sudden and severe onset of PTSD, I’ve discovered firsthand many well-meaning individuals without (and with) medical training opt to doubt PTSD and depression’s existence; however, these same individuals do not question if cancer existence.

    I draw the comparison to cancer only because most can somehow relate to cancer. Cancer, although horrific, is acceptable. PTSD and depression are deadlier, and stigmatized.

    PTSD and cancer have medical tests to diagnose and prove the existence of both conditions; unfortunately, the tests for PTSD are amazingly still unavailable to the general medical community.

    There are scant, if any, non-veteran PTSD support groups, there are not walks or runs (to the best of my knowledge) to raise money for awareness, cures and/or support. Why?

    One person may get PTSD and another not under the exact set of circumstances is as illusive as why one gets cancer and another does not. Those afflicted with PTSD are often blamed for their illness or assumed the condition is a weakness of character and those afflicted with cancer are rarely blamed. Why?

    I’ve been told just not to think about it. People with PTSD don’t think about it – or go to great lengths to avoid thinking about it! It’s the last thing we EVER want to think about.

    But we feel it. For me, it’s like being scorched from the inside out. Invisible to the outside world while it silently and painfully burns and kills. Again, a bit similar to cancer. However, I doubt anyone with cancer has ever been told just not to think about it and it will likely go away. Why?

    As a result, those with insidious disease of PTSD or depression silently suffer in humiliation, continually withdrawing, until the pain because so intense that continuing life (and it is no longer ”life” as anyone else knows it) is no longer an option.

    Sufferers know Hell exists, but it is not in any after-life. It’s here and now, it doesn’t get worse.

    There is scant help, no cure, little acceptance or quality of life in the foreseeable future. So desperate for hope that there may be a possibility of feeling life and perhaps even joy again. Hope of once again becoming the mommy or daddy, the wife or husband, the brother, the aunt, the friend, the daughter that once existed in the same body keeps us trying and trying to get better, somehow. Until hope vanishes and the death toll goes up another number.

    To be deprived of hope is the cruelest human condition. Pain and shame, so underserved, closely follow.

    While I certainly don’t expect everyone, or even most, to understand; history has repeatedly taught us the destruction caused by action, inaction or prejudice driven by fear of the unknown destroys families, societies and even countries.

    “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch, by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

    I fight everyday to cling to hope. I would rather be beat up daily with a baseball bat, honestly. It is a battle nobody sees and one I rarely speak of – except to my psychiatrist who blessedly has helped me hold on and does not give up on me. He works with the medical community and Universities for options to make life bearable for sufferers until a cure is found, it one exists.

    On many days, the only reason I keep trying is for my children, not for me. This condition was not a choice, nobody would ever choose, nor deserves, this illness.

    Consider…

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