What more can be done to prevent suicides?
A French writer/philosopher put it well: "Life has no validity unless it can project itself toward the future, can ripen and progress." - Albert Camus, "Neither Victims nor Executioners," 1946.
A hopeful phrase written 75 years ago, but, unfortunately, social science "experts" say the human species has an in-born trait to commit self-destruction. Self-murder is built in. Most of us are able to resist the urge. A few of us cannot. Those suicides never get the chance to ripen and progress to the future. Humans have been committing self-murder for thousands of years, often with religious overtones of the devil and evil spirits. In an attempt to prevent more suicides, ancient folklore demanded the body of a suicide be buried at a busy crossroads where thousands of carts and walkers would drive out any evil invader. Our ancestors wanted salvation of the soul of the dead one and to avoid family shame.
At first suicide was established as a sin by many clans and religions, not because of the fear of punishment in the afterlife, but because the premature loss of a single life reduced the effectiveness of cooperative actions of war, hunting and other struggles. Preventing suicide was essential for the preservation of the tribe.
Suicide rates in Oregon and most of the world have been going up steadily since records have been kept. Every social group (city, state, country, religion, etc.) has its own "suicide rate", usually measured in suicides per 100,000 persons. The 2016 U.S. suicide rate was 14 per 100,000. Oregon's rate is about 17.8. Wyoming, one of the highest, is 28.4. New York was recorded as 8 per 100,000.
For a better understanding of the social history of self destruction in
human society, I recommend reading the introduction (by George Simpson) to "Suicide, a Study in Sociology" by Emile Durkheim, published by the Free Press in 1951. Durkheim's epic study was first published in 1897, first translated in 1930, 13 years after his death, and nothing yet published in all the succeeding years by "experts" has yet contradicted his well thought out findings on suicide.
Suicide is a human problem often aggravated by societal structures, groups and group values. The "village" owns the rate of how many people per 100,000 will decide on self-destruction. The equation? Multiply the "group suicide rate" with the population (in 100,000) of a country, state, city, race, religion, etc., and you get a raw number. For Oregon it was about 825 for 2017 as noted by local editorial writers, journalists and the electronic outlets. The total number of suicides in the year 2000 was about 300. Leaving out the rate/population calculation leads to an exaggerated picture of 825 as an "emergency."
Is it a reason for special concern? No. Suicide "rates" around the world have gone up continuously since numbers have been recorded. There are many other possibilities for a spike in the raw number.
The population of Oregon is greater by about two and a half, and we need to consider the makeup of the increased population. We have more white people. The white race commits self-murder at a higher rate than other races. The Oregon "in migration" of older folks over the last 20 years is significant. The "group" is different than it was 20 years ago.
Currently this newspaper and other media are participating in a blitz to "write and talk more" about suicide prevention. Lives are worth saving. I agree. Life should ripen and progress. After years of traditionally not reporting on suicide deaths for fear publicity would lead to "imitation," our news gatherers have agreed to fully cover the prevention of the human urge of self-destruction. But will publicity about suicide and suicide prevention reduce deaths by self-murder? Almost certainly not. A public-relations campaign on suicide prevention is like the voodoo of the ancients burying a suicide victim at a crossroads. Why? Because suicide rates and suicide-prevention hotlines are not related. Suicide is a community problem. Prevention stories are about individuals. Suicide prevention is a version of a 911 call.
Electronic pronouncers, journalists and editorial writers fail to make a clear distinction between suicide prevention and the human problem of self-destruction. Several stories and editorials appear to conflate raw numbers with annual rates. The journalists and Oregonian editorial writers are careless in mixing "apples and oranges."
In the 1970s I was a volunteer board member of the Portland suicide-prevention service. I was not a trained mental health worker, just a footman. I learned enough from the professionals to pursue more information. I was also a worker in a state sponsored study of self-destructive behavior use of tobacco, alcohol, drugs and suicide by Dr. Paul H. Blachly of OHSU.
Interestingly, it was a study on media promotion of suicide-prevention telephone hotlines and publicity of suicide rates after national calamities. The study was inconclusive as to the effect of media promotion on Oregon suicide rates.
Suicide prevention as organized for the last 150 years or so is a good thing. When someone is hurting we need to offer help. But a hotline phone counselor, no matter how well trained, is just like an EMT headed for an auto crash to offer aid. A successful EMT event does not reduce the "rate per mile" of fender-benders or deaths on the roadway. Save a life? Yes. Prevent crashes? No. The same drivers are still out there. The road hazards that cause crashes are still in place.
Years of reporting increased rates of car crashes on holidays — or publicizing numbers of deaths each month, etc. — had little or no effect on crashes. Crash rates with autos began to decline when we got tougher on drunk drivers and distracted-driving habits, established speed limits, installed better signage, etc. We made substantive changes in the venue in which car crashes were occurring.
If we really want to reduce Oregon's "suicide rate," we need to talk and write about societal pressures and conflicts that most likely lead humans to act on their self-murder impulses.
As the lyrics to the theme music from the movie MASH say in an odd way, "Real life is not painless/The game of life is hard to play/I'm gonna lose it anyway/The sword of time will pierce our skin/it doesn't hurt when it begins/the pain grows stronger, watch it burn/is it to be or not to be."
The lyrics end, "That suicide is painless/it brings on many changes/and I can take it or leave it as I please." Is that really a choice to be made by individuals? Or does society maneuver the vulnerable into a corner offering a fatal choice to "painless"? The lyricist of the movie MASH theme said his lyrics were a little "crazy", but I don't think he was broadcasting suicide as "painless," but rather asking how can we eliminate suicide as a choice.
Statistics confirm men represent 80% of suicides. Why? More than half of successful suicides are by gunshot. Why? Is the careless display and use of guns and the gun culture of the NRA a contributor to the suicide rate?
Why do Catholic religious groups have lower suicide rates? Why is the suicide rate for the economically very poor eight to 10 times higher than the national average? Why is the New York City suicide rate significantly lower than the rate in Oregon and the western states?
The human problem of self-destruction is a perplexing but not insurmountable problem. What are the strategies we might employ to reduce suicide rates? How about Meals on Wheels? Much to my chagrin, I just rediscovered a valuable asset we have working in and around Oregon City/West Linn. Meals on Wheels serves one group of folks who are in the danger zone. Volunteers deliver meals regularly to people who are often older and living alone, with the personal touch they might be needing to stay alive and alert as time goes by.
Can we create more economic equality? Can we do more outreach to others in danger populations and create more livable conditions? Is it worth the price in public capital? Are there more important societal life/health extending goals than our desire to eliminate self-extinction? "Can we bring on many changes?"
John F. Williams Jr. is a former mayor of Oregon City.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.