No room in the inn: Suicide survivors’ social, and emotional, wasteland

Over the past decade, while life expectancy has increased and homicides have decreased5, America’s suicide rate has increased by almost 20 percent every year – that amounts to at least 400,000 deaths, nearly the number of people killed in WWII and the Korean War combined6. Death by self-harm hit its highest rate since 1987 in 2012 – 12.6 deaths per 100,000 Americans, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released last year. The report also revealed suicide to be the only top-ten cause-of-death to rise during 2011-2012, in contrast to illnesses such as cancer or stroke, whose death burden decreased7.

And, for every suicide completion, there are many more attempts. A prior suicide attempt is the “single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population, according to WHO8.

Suicide is a global concern as well. Last year WHO released a landmark report on rising suicide rates, highlighting the need to recognize it as a worldwide public health issue, and emphasizing the imperative to increase prevention efforts in all countries9. Globally, more than 804,000 deaths by suicide occurred in 2012 – an estimated 60 percent increase since WWII – or 11.4 per 100,000 people; suicide accounts for 50 percent of all violent deaths in men and 71 percent in women. In developed countries, self-harm is the leading cause of death for people ages 15-49 – higher than cancer and heart disease10.

Said the WHO report, “There is no single explanation of why people die by suicide. However, many suicides happen impulsively… Social, psychological, cultural and other factors can interact to lead a person to [it], but the stigma attached to… suicide means that many people feel unable to seek help. Despite the evidence that many deaths are preventable, suicide is too often a low priority for governments and policy-makers.”

In the United States, a suicide occurs every 13 minutes11. Almost 40,000 lives are lost to it yearly – more than road accidents; it is the 10th leading cause of death overall, and the top cause of “injury death” in America12. Despite all this, far greater sums of research money from organizations like the CDC and the National Institutes of Health continue to be devoted to finding cures for diseases and social problems which kill far fewer Americans13.

If you don’t care about suicide after hearing statistics like the above – and most researchers believe suicide is widely under-reported – or because you mistakenly believe it’s the act of cowardly or selfish people (more on that later), maybe you’ll care about this: Every suicide costs society about $1 million in medical costs and lost work, on top of emotionally traumatizing at least 10 other loved ones and friends14.

Perhaps most importantly, the present suicide scourge is not simply a passing trend explained away by events like the Great Recession; according to a Rutgers University paper analyzing 80 years of suicide data, Americans born after 1945 show a higher suicide risk than expected, and everyone is heading toward a higher suicide rate than the age group most responsible for driving current statistics15.

And which U.S. age group is that? The middle aged, according to the CDC and a 2012 Global Burden of Disease Report16. A more careful analysis of the numbers this past fall – by two Princeton economists – showed that mortality rates for U.S., non-Hispanic whites ages 45 – 54 suddenly stopped declining in 1998, while that age group in other rich nations has continued its post-1970, downward trend of a 2 percent, yearly decrease in deaths. Suicide and drug poisonings were identified as the driving forces of increasing, American mid-life mortality and morbidity. Wrote report authors Anne Case and Angus Deaton:

“No other rich country saw a similar turnaround… If the white mortality rate for ages 45 – 54 had held at their 1998 value, 96,000 deaths would have been avoided from 1999 – 2013… If it had continued to decline at its previous rate, half a million deaths would have been avoided…. [This all] points to increasing distress in this population.”

This isn’t surprising, when you consider the research emerging from sociology and psychology – some of it summarized below – and the day and age we Americans live in: The impossible, media- and social-media-driven criteria for success; increasing economic and class disparities; high rates of divorce; the stigma crippling the “mentally ill” (or, as I prefer to call us, people who make others uncomfortable because we threaten established norms); prejudice of all sorts; and the complete collapse of the American promise that you can make it in this world if you simply work hard. Problems, in other words, which tend to fall on the shoulders of adults and family breadwinners.

Suicide is a multi-faceted problem which can’t be boiled down to one factor – unemployment, mental illness, gun access, or whatever societal ill is the scapegoat of the moment. As Tony Dokoupil, in Newsweek, eloquently put it, “It’s a problem with a broad base and terrible momentum, a result of seismic changes in the way we live… We know, thanks to a growing body of research on suicide and the conditions that accompany it, that more and more of us are living through a time of seamless black… We’ve reached the end of one order of human history and are at the beginning of a new order entirely… The takeaway is darkly profound: we’ve become our own greatest danger.”

While psychiatry, mental health practitioners and politicians seem bent on treating and researching suicide as a mental health issue, sociologists and public health experts are recognizing the need to address suicide for what it is: the symptom of a very sick society – rather than of sick, deviant, or morally bereft individuals.

In a 2011 article surveying suicide research in the Annual Review of Sociology17, authors noted suicide often reflects disintegrating levels of social integration and cohesion; they emphasized the need to treat suicide as a “significant social problem in and of itself,” to embrace the complexity of suicide, and that sociological understandings of suicide “are not only relevant but essential to prevention efforts.” Nonetheless, sociological contributions continue to be mostly ignored in suicide prevention and research, with the act and risk factors reduced to individual problems surrounding mental illness –  even when social and contextual factors are obliquely acknowledged. In psychiatric research, allegedly hard-wired, biomedical predispositions presumed to be fundamental risk factors in suicide tend to ignore how brain processes are flexible, the result of dynamic interactions between neurons, genes, society and the environment, the authors said:

“Given this individualistic frame, biomedical and psychiatric perspectives have become paradigmatic, with… prevention strategies focused aimed at high-risk individuals… [The solutions] which flow from this framework tend to neglect social and ecological determinants… We argue the present situation is problematic for sociology, for the scientific research agenda on suicide, and for the creation of solutions to this pressing social problem. In an age when biomedicine and genomics tend to dominate scientific and public policy debates” a multidisciplinary approach to suicide research and prevention is paramount, the authors wrote.

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  1. Sarah says:

    You are not alone Jeanene. We are all struggling, trying to stay afloat, working hard to create our own meanings and joys. We don’t talk about that enough, share our pain and struggles enough, so I think we forget that we are not alone. I hope for you a brighter side to this experience. I hope for healing and connection on the other side. Sending love.

  2. SuperSarah says:

    I’m so glad you’re still researching so thoroughly and writing so eloquently, even though you’re in such pain. That, to me, is the mark of passion; the fact that you still write through the pain and the depression and the nihilism. Keep writing. You’re doing great. I love you.

  3. Wendy Jones says:

    This is such an important and desperately needed piece. revealing the realities of suicide, and I think many people will benefit. Please don’t stop writing Jeanene, you have such a powerful and illuminating voice. I can bot imagine the horror you are experiencing right now, and it makes sense to me why you are not “grateful to be alive.” Let yourself have ALL of your feelings, You have a right to feel shitty. It’s almost taboo in our society to talk about negative feelings, but it’s the only way to help them move through and not remain stuck inside us. I honor your process Jeanene, you are a true survivor.

  4. Stasia Pringle says:

    I came across your website through a former RS employee’s FB post. (I was a reporter there many years ago.)
    First, I want to say what a powerful and gifted reporter you are. I have now spent more time than my boss needs to know about combing your website. The issue of how we stigmatize mental illness and suicide is something we can no longer afford. Thank you for trying to provide insight.
    In my past assignment I coordinated our county’s suicide prevention efforts. Personally, I have lost two to suicide. Your story was shocking and familiar. I wish I had something profound to say that would carry your through this journey. I do not. But I wish you well, and hope for your recovery.

  5. Tim Hearden says:

    Hi Jeanene,
    We worked together at the Record Searchlight in 1999-2000, and I’ll always appreciate that you were one of a few people who were supportive of me in what was a difficult first year at the paper. Anything I say now might sound like a bit of a cliche, but I am thankful you survived. I know that life right now is very painful, but understand that you are helping a great many people by sharing your ordeal. This website that you’re doing, I believe, is the future of journalism. The future belongs not to cookie-cutter corporate media elites, but to independent-minded individuals who are willing to stand in the gaps and educate people. It’s difficult to fathom because money is more than tight, but you’re not a “formerly” successful journalist, if success is measured by the value of your work to society. This work you’re doing examining the mental health system in America is way more valuable than any City Council story you ever wrote. And you’re among the pioneers of what journalism will be for the next generations.
    As for suicide, I met and knew several people in recovery meetings who had survived suicide attempts or near-attempts before they came into recovery. What they said is that they never really had an epiphany, or an “a-ha” moment, but they got help because they had to, and then they just trudged along with life and tried the best they could until one day they just sort of realized they were where they were supposed to be. And they found joy in using their experiences to help others, as you’re doing with this column. Life still sucks sometimes because you’re right; this is a sick world we live in. But what they taught me is that there are people and a loving God that’s personal to me willing to take me by the hand and walk me through it.
    Hopefully what I’ve written doesn’t seem too cliche-ish or overly simplistic, and I hope you have as merry a Christmas as possible under the circumstances.

  6. Ilana says:

    I don’t want to invalidate or deminish your expirience by saying that everything will be okay. I’m not religious but I have to believe in a better future for you and for anyone who has overcome a struggle. You are loved and worthy. It probably doesn’t feel that way, though. Know that you’re not alone. I spend so much of my time remembering comments from a certain therapist (ehem) who made me feel like I had nothing of value to say, like everything coming out of my mouth was based in manipulation and malintentions. I work to prove him wrong. I don’t know if his voice ever rings in your ears, but if it does, he doesn’t deserve a spot on anyone’s conscience.

    I love you and wish you the best.

  7. Fiona says:

    I’m deeply sorry that you are suffering so much, and that you have been through so much.
    I deeply relate – I have battled my own mental illness problems since childhood, have had multiple serious suicide attempts that ‘failed’ and I relate to nothing being better for it – there being no epiphany because you survived something that should have killed a human being.
    I deeply relate to the neverending struggle, to be independent and not feel like a perpetual sponge on society, to find a place in a world where I am behind even the teens let alone those my own age (nearly 40), where the things most people take for granted – job/career, family, home, car, travel, comfort – have never been and probably never will be mine, no matter how hard I work for them.
    Life has felt like a constant fight to swim against the tide – so that even though I am madly swimming, I never advance more than a few millimetres. I can’t rest, because then I get swept right back to where I started. And every time I feel like I’ve hit the bottom of the ocean and couldn’t possibly go deeper, the bottom drops out from under me again. And trying to suicide – people don’t think “Oh, this person needs more support, what is wrong with our society”, they treat you like you are bad. That it was at some stage a criminal offence to ‘commit’ suicide (even the usage of the word ‘commit’ says a lot) is shocking. And from my 20 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, I can tell you we are treated worse than those in jail – for something we never chose to have.
    Your writing is eloquent, heart-felt while remaining professional. You are definitely one of the most talented writers I’ve had the pleasure (and sadness) to read. Please, please don’t give up. I hope that the fog does clear. And I hope that things turn around for you. That you get the recognition you deserve and that life starts being that bit better.
    I wish I could offer you more than just saying “I relate, and I CARE.”

  8. Soul Sister says:

    Jeanene… even as a writer myself, I have no words… none which speak to how much I identify with your struggles, your perspectives, nor any which seem valuable in your context.

    I live in Redding, I survived a suicide attempt on October 7th. I vacillate day-to-day (sometimes, hour to hour) as to whether I feel fortunate to have failed at even figuring out how to die. Much more of the time, I am pretty much motherf***ingp***edoff that I am still here trying to deal.

    I trog on, attempting to find the silver linings, the sunny side of the street, and the yellow brick road. I don this facade, partly because it keeps people from getting all disingenuously up in my biz to make themselves more comfortable in my awkward predicament.

    Know that I value and respect the way you identify with death every bit as much as I value the gifted writer and thinker that you are.

    Peace to you, wherever you may ultimately find it.

  9. A says:

    Oh, my god. I had read Jeanene’s now-deleted Twitter post where she stated that she was heading up to the roof of her apartment building and was going to jump to her death. Sloth, a clearly baseless suspicion that Jeanene was just blowing off steam, a clearly selfish and baseless fear that I’d look like a fool for calling the authorities on a woman who was only venting, and an aversion to interacting with the police were the reasons I read that Twitter post and did nothing to help Jeanene. Jeanene is absolutely right about the suicide epidemic being caused by social disengagement. My disgusting disregard for the very existence of a woman whose writing I love to read is exhibit A of this dreadful phenomenon. If humanity is measured by the bare-minimum standard of not impeding the survival of our species, than I’ve just protected the things I thought I “needed” at the expense of my need to belong to a species that is capable of recognizing that I have needs. In other words, I’m not exactly human right now. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

    Jeanene, I know this won’t mean very much right now, but I’m deeply sorry for not trying to call someone who could keep you safe. You are alive, beautifully giving a voice to what you think and feel, and connecting with people who respect and care – perhaps not enough – for you. These are the greatest miracles I’ve witnessed this Christmas. Not that I deserve to witness them, but they do exist and for that, I’m grateful beyond what I’ll ever have the words or the mettle to express.

    I’m hoping that I won’t offend anybody by saying what I’m about to say, but here it goes: Jeanene’s post-attempt writing is, in my opinion, faster-moving, less predictable, more direct, and no longer hesitant or slightly recriminatory. Of course, as I’ve said, Jeanene’s writing has always been marvelous, but its structure, content, and tone are far superior now than what they were before her suicide attempt. To draw a causal link between Jeanene’s excruciatingly painful and nearly lethal attempt on her life and the new vibrancy and ease of her writing is, no doubt, likely to be read by some people as an odious double-down on what they already believe is a provocatively offensive comment I’ve written. However, I don’t know of any other explanation for Jeanene’s resolute metamorphosis of both the emotional and academic features of her writing.

    I guess I could dismiss the previous paragraph as a frantic bright-siding of Jeanene’s suicide attempt. Minimizing Jeanene’s near-final act of desperation and its long-lasting physical, emotional, social, and economic consequences might just be how I’m choosing to bear my deserved self-condemnation for being too narcissistic to grasp the gravity of this monumental crisis and too weak to quit running from my guilt for having contributed to it. But despite the possible ulterior motives I may have for writing this paragraph, I’m not simply going to write off my perceptions about what I believe may be the meaning of Jeanene’s suicide attempt. Moral bankruptcy may be one of my personal failings, but an eye for fine writing certainly isn’t one of them. It may be too soon for Jeanene to see the improvements in her writing and to classify these as a positive by-product of her suicide attempt, but when she does, she’ll know that what she sees in herself is as real to other people as it is to her.

    Hang in there, Jeanene. You are a loved, bright, and sensitive person. People like you CAN lead happy lives. Your life and your future are worth fighting for.

  10. Gwyneth says:

    I just came across your article. I decided at first to sit with the uncomfortable reality because it is the only way I knew how to express my profound respect for your truth, your bravery and your honesty. There is nothing that is selfish, cowardly or self-absorbed in the decision you made in October. While I want for you to rise like a phoenix from the ashes, I have a sneaking suspicion that wish reflects my selfishness — my need to have you rewarded with the life that would make for a just world.

    It is not a just world. We are all merely the flow of energy in the universe. But in that absolute nihilism, there is perhaps a way out of maintaining any connection at all to emotions that internalize social inequality. There may be the possibility to view your own emotional salience of so-called shameful dependence on family, or lack of an illustrious, established or even viable career as having no more meaning or purpose to how your energetic state flows towards entropy than whether your leap had been successful or not.

    It’s not “taking and taking” when you bestow such a breathtakingly brutal set of insights on the struggle to face down having internalized all the criteria of success, purpose, meaning and value in our society, out to the world as you have in this piece. And therefore your framing of the need to end your own life is not entirely based on an entirely objective assessment of your value and none of us can ever have any objectivity on anything in any case. You also may hope that your death would ultimately leave your loved ones better off, but again there is absolutely no way you are in a position to determine that because you (and the rest of us) are never able to objectively identify what is in someone else’s best interests.

    Do we therefore need any purpose, meaning, success or value to live our lives such as they are and such as they unfold? Are we not perhaps just here as energy witnessing its own flow to entropy? Would it be possible to simply be because you are?

    Of course I have no concept of what is right for you Jeanene. I can only tell you that I fully anticipate I will never read another article or piece on the topic of suicide that will come even remotely close to capturing the reality of its presence (and increase) in our society as yours has done. That truth doesn’t pay the bills; doesn’t solve your predicaments; and it most assuredly doesn’t make anything better at all for you. But objectively it does mean that the energy concoction that is you changed the energy concoction that is me. And I value that deeply.

  11. Denise Norwood says:

    I hope my words bring enlightenment and comfort.
    There is not a more misunderstood malady than that of mental illness. And in the substrata of this disease, the most misunderstood is what I term suicide illness. Suicide illness is what happens when depression grows up and decides to bulk up on anabolic steroids. Suicide illness demolishes a person from the inside out — victims feel ‘dead before death’, so the removal of the shell becomes nothing more than a technicality. Victims of suicide illness do not “commit” their death any more than victims of cancer commit their death. I deplore terms like suicidal and suicidal ideation — we never describe someone as being canceridal or having diabetes ideation….

    Sadly our culture shies away from providing the care and openness needed to combat suicide illness. We retreat in fear or in sheer desperation, level guilt. We plead with God in the quiet dread of night, and we speak in hushed tones amongst ourselves. The triggers for suicide illness are as individual as a thumbprint or snowflake. While one child may endure a savage childhood relatively intact, another may die from an acute suicide illness flare up over a bad test score or grade. Without expert intervention and care, the body hangs around even after the soul has fully expired.

    Sufferers often self medicate with alcohol and drugs, or have their condition worsened by well intentioned prescribed medications that turn out wrong. Barbaric as this sounds, THERE ARE CURRENTLY NO TESTS THAT DETERMINE IF A PSYCHOTROPIC DRUG WILL WORK. The soft term used in the medical field (including psychiatry) is “trial and error” — sadly with mental illness there is often zero wiggle room — sufferers need immediate relief and lasting change in conjunction with immediate change and lasting relief. The current medical model goes like this: a patient visits a psychiatrist, or a general practitioner who shockingly is allowed to prescribe psychotropic drugs, and is told to “come back in six weeks”. That is akin to handing a tourniquet to a hemorrhaging amputee and telling he or she to “apply this and check back in six weeks”. If the patient wins the medication lottery, they will experience relief relatively quickly. If bone luck is not on their side, they may stay the same….or die from exacerbation of their disease. The wrong drug can worsen an already critical condition. There are no ‘crash carts’ for mental illness, no snapping to medical attention as with physical illness. There is only “trial and error” with the “error” part often synonymous with death.

    Death from suicide illness is not the ultimate tantrum or a display of cowardice or revenge. It is the end stage result of an unmanaged or incorrectly treated terminal disease which is an equal opportunity killer. Being adored or famous or wealthy or educated does not provide immunity.
    A person in the midst of a Suicide Illness flareup is under the spell of a homicidal hypnotist that has taken up residence in his or her brain.

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