First of all, calm down. We rank about 50th among countries for suicide. Guyana ranks first.
Bear in mind that data for suicide can be questionable. That is to say, understated. Some countries are quite touchy about the number of their citizens who kill themselves. It is embarrassing and can discourage tourism. Some local and state authorities are complicit with people who want to hide family suicides. The act can have insurance or religious implications, for example.
The scary parts for Americans of the new CDC report are the trends it shows. Between 1999 and 2014, the rate for all categories — factoring for age, ethnic group and gender — went up 24 percent. The suicide rate for men aged 45 to 64 went up most — by 43 percent. It also went up among women and Native Americans.
So that raises the question, why?
Almost everyone has had some experience of suicide, in the family, among friends or through a connection to the deaths of celebrities. This past weekend Americans were watching to learn, for example, how Prince died (though no evidence of suicide has surfaced). In my family I knew of one suicide, and possibly two. There were families in my small hometown who were known to have the habit of killing themselves.
The one in my family that I knew of was an uncle who had worked hard his whole life, on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He smoked a pipe. He tried to teach me to fish. (I lacked the patience to become proficient.) He had a heart attack. The doctor told him he would have to sit in his chair the rest of his life. He ended his life by hanging himself from a kitchen fixture while his wife was out.
Another was more complicated, and not necessarily a suicide. Again, a man who had worked hard his whole life had a heart attack. His doctor told him he had to stay in bed. He didn’t, got up, had another heart attack and died. I don’t know if he did it on purpose, or whether he was just testing himself, defying the prognosis.
Both of those men were in what currently seems an especially vulnerable age range, 45 to 64, when they died. Given my own ferocious Protestant ethic wiring, I imagine they ended their lives because neither of them could face the idea that they no longer could make what they considered to be a useful contribution to their families, or to society.
Media speculation about the findings in the new CDC report mentions the Great Recession, which started about halfway through the reporting period, and its accompanying financial woes. I don’t know about that and am suspicious. There could lie behind that piece of analysis a “vote Republican and die” message, since Republicans were in power when the recession began.
One of my career favorite politically freighted suicide stories has to do with an anti-Slobodan Milosevic slogan in Yugoslavia when his opposition was trying to get rid of him. Both of Mr. Milosevic’s parents had committed suicide. The slogan became, “Slobo, kill yourself, save Yugoslavia.”
The state in America where the suicide rate is highest is Wyoming, the base of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The other country I lived in where suicide was an issue was Iceland. It ranks 35th, but the Icelanders were so prickly on the subject when I was there that the suicide rate was a state secret. The high rate was attributed to the depressing weather, as well as to the sometime darkness of the Scandinavian character. On the other hand, I found the Icelanders capable of having a very good time.
So, why the increase in suicides among Americans?
I would put it down to increasing isolation in Americans’ interpersonal communications. Anyone who has ever felt guilty about a suicide, that of a relative, a friend or even an acquaintance, has wondered if one could somehow have headed it off if one had been in close communication with the person who died.
In my view, there are at least three levels of communication, in terms of closeness and in terms of quality.
The best is face-to-face, looking at the other person, hearing his or her voice, sensing the state of play and spirits of the other person.
The second is contact by telephone. At least one can hear the other person’s voice, sense through queries or responses and the tone of voice how his or her life is going.
Of course, the phenomenon of robocalls by politicians trying to influence our votes has diminished our expectations of phone calls. The other evening, at dinner time, our phone rang. I foolishly answered it, thinking it might be one of my children. “This is [former coroner] Dr. Cyril Wecht ... hello ... hello ... hello,” repeated the broken recording. For an awful minute before I hung up, I thought someone had told him I had died.
The third is the communication with one’s friends and family by the blasted Internet. I don’t want to look at someone’s cat. I couldn’t care less what his or her other friends are doing, if posted on Facebook. If I look at someone’s site, it is a time-saving measure. It does virtually nothing for our relationship. It is impersonal. It can even contribute to misunderstanding.
My point is that, what has taken place in American society and is advancing in its practice is a lack of direct, face-to-face communication between people. I can’t not think that this trend is contributing to the rise in suicides among us. Nothing discourages depression more than the thought that someone loves and needs us, expressed in person.
Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette. com, 412-263-1976).
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