Suicide Continues on the Rise in Our Society

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

In the most prosperous nation on this earth, America, five million of its inhabitants at some time in their lives attempt suicide.  More than two hundred thousand people will attempt suicide this year alone and twenty-six thousand of them will succeed   About every twenty minutes someone in the United States commits suicide.   My recent study of suicide in U.S., hit me with two painful facts:  one, the largest number of suicidal attempts are made by people who are in their "prime of life," specifically, between 24 and 44; second, suicide is rising most rapidly for the ones in the "prime of their youth," specifically, between, 15 to 24.  Among 15 to 24 years of age, suicide ranks the third highest cause of death, the first two being accidents and homicide.    

 To the above ironies of suicide, add another one, the pills.  We think of pills as pain-killers, health restorers and life savers, but sometimes we use pills to carry an assault on our own life.  More than half of those who attempt suicide, do so by ingesting pills.  What do others do who don't take pills?  About one-third of them cut themselves, and the remainder -- mostly males -- use other and more deadly methods, such as hanging, gunshot, or jumping from high places. 

 Incidence of suicide is rising much more rapidly in women and younger population.  Among women, the rate of successful suicide used to be one third of that in men, but the gap has begun to narrow.  Women have always made more suicide attempts than men, but their attempts were not nearly as lethal.  While women tend to use barbiturates (sedatives) as means to attempt or commit suicide; men tend to use gunshot.  Unfortunately, now women are becoming more effective in taking their lives.  But the greatest increase in suicide has been among the 15 to 24 year old.  Youngsters, today, commit suicide three times more often than they did in 1950s.  

 Is suicide primarily related to failure, incompetence, lack of education and poverty?  Not really.  For instance, suicide rate is pretty high in college students and members of certain professions.  Compared to the average population, college students are arguably more intelligent and educated.  Over ten thousand college students in our country attempt suicide each year and about ten percent of them succeed.  Among these college students, more students from universities attempt or commit suicide than do the ones from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges.  In the professional groups, physicians, dentists, lawyers, and psychologists are at a higher risk than members of other professions.  Perhaps suicide is related more to our expectations from ourselves and others, our self-image, and internal and external stresses rather than actual lack of competence.   

 High degree of stress, depressed and angry feelings, relationship crises, drug abuse, failure and consequent self-devaluation, inner conflicts, and the loss of meaning and purpose of life, can all produce a mental state that looks to suicide as a possible way out.  College students face tremendous stress in coping with the academic demands and trying to fit in the society and with peers.  Looming on the horizon for them are the challenges of career choices and the conflict between what their basic values are and what their life- situations demand of them. 

 Suicide, often stems from loneliness and isolation.  What is the common trait or link between the depressed, elderly, alcoholics, mentally ill, separated or divorced people, individuals living alone, migrants, and people from socially disorganized areas?  The common element among them is the high risk of suicide.  They all experience loneliness and isolation, albeit for different reasons.  

 The link between suicide and depression is a strong one and needs to be mentioned separately.  The risk of suicide is about 1 percent during the year in which a depressive episode occurs.  However, for people who have recurrent episodes of depression, their risk for committing suicide rises to 15 percent.  Treatment of depression can sometimes be life saving.  Contrary to popular opinion, depression is not a sign of weakness, and receiving treatment for depression is a sign of wisdom rather than of craziness or personal failure.   

 Generally, people who are integrated with their families and friends can successfully cope with the suffering and pain of depression without getting actively suicidal.  Sure, they occasionally entertain a death wish or suicidal thoughts such as, "Wouldn't it be better for everyone if I was gone or had taken something to sleep and never got up?," but, they can usually shrug these ideas and go on.  

 This should not be taken to mean that if a person commits suicide, his or her family had abandoned or participated in some way in his or her isolation.  Neither outsiders not the survivors should jump to such a conclusion.  Sometimes, individuals kill themselves to save embarrassment or further trouble to their family.  We should, however, recognize the importance of support and open communication when either we or our loved ones are coping with a crisis or a long-term serious problem.  

 A sociologist once said that a person who commits suicide places the skeleton in the cupboard of his or her family and friends.  Survivors not only have to deal with their loss but also about how others view them.  Suicide survivors need the support of others who have faced the same situation.  Doctors, nurses, and counselors need to be constantly  vigilant of signs of stress and irrational guilt among suicide survivors.            

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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