Suicide and all of the poor desperate people that sink in her. In fact around 1,000,000 souls sink in her per year, that’s one every 40 seconds or so, a figure which is up 60% in the last 45 years. Quite a sobering vision for our future. I know there is a dearth of people on this planet, but to ponder on the fact that somewhere, someone on this rock of ours is reaching a point so low that nothing else seems like it’s an option anymore. That is a drastic and poignant image. In the league tables of causes of death across the globe, a report by WHO (2002) place suicide at number 24. If you only look at “developed” countries suicide comes in 10th place, just after Tuberculosis.
I began looking at suicide stories one sunny Saturday afternoon, and had a browse through some information about Mathematicians who topped themselves. My line of thinking was that these minds had traveled well out side of the realms of what most people would call sanity and managed to come back in one piece. Maybe there comes a point where you can no longer come back from the edge of the imaginary number landscape you have created. Or possibly your new found knowledge of the intricate tapestry of 0’s and 1’s in our so called reality finally unravels it’s self along with your sense of self, of life and of hope.
But that is all empty hypothesising on my behalf. I’m not sure if I found any evidence of that in my obituary trawl, but there certainly were some snap shots of dark and constructive lives.
It’s hard for many people to imagine coming to a state of such despair, I’m sure a lot of people have passing thoughts of annihilation, some may not even be passing, sometimes a black cloud may settle for days or weeks. But for most it still seems a huge leap to go from despair to dead at your own hand. However there are some situations which I am sure you could not transplant your empathy in to unless you too had stared down the same corridor of doom. War, capture, impending torture, genocide, none are easy to imagine from my warm south facing bedroom as I sit on my comfortable chair with a full belly. I get a sense of impending doom/ mild peril when my boss returns to the office, I don’t want to trivialise this but I seriously have no point of reference. But these are states of mind others have had to endure, and then I can imagine, it becomes easier for them to see light in the dark and dark in the life. Wolfgang Doeblin, born in 1915 (The same year that Palestine had a seven month locust plague which pushed the price of a bag of flour up to $15), got bang into probability theory and was revered as an excellent theoretician becoming a Doctor at 23. He was begrudgingly drafted in to the army, one year before World War II kicked off massively. At the young age of 25, as he caught his first glimpse of the German’s approaching, he burned his Mathematical notes and killed himself. One can only imagine the fear.
One of the most famous Mathematicians of all time i.e. I have heard of him, Alan Turing also died by his own hand after one of the fullest life stories of the millennia. His drama coated episodes include code breaking against Nazi Germany, choosing chemical castration as an alternative to jail time for being homosexual, cycling to work in a gas mask to avoid the pollen which gave him chronic hay fever in early June and suicide by cyanide. He also managed to get a posthumous apology in 2009 from the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown over the low down dirty treatment of him by the British Government, here’s an excerpt:
“Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”
The suicide doesn’t look Maths related in the slightest really. He had big societal beefs that were imposed on him during the dark days of war. I don’t think we can blame stepping outside of the human realm of thoughts on that ending. Just a shockingly difficult life in a shockingly difficult season of European History. So what professions are more likely to lead you down Hades’ garden path?
Well it turns out that your chosen profession has little impact on your likelihood to let nature take it’s course or grab it for yourself. An Article in American Psychology in January 2001 (the same month that an earthquake hits Gujarat, India, killing 20,000+) quotes the biggest investigation in to the suicide/ job problem as undertaken by by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1995. This is the basic summary of there results: there’s more suicides in the Medical profession, but beyond that we can’t see anything else, oh, and most of the data is rubbish too. Apparently low data quality is due to occupation not always being put on Death Certificates, and when it is entered there is no clue as to who filled it out and whether it is accurate. In an earlier study by the same group using death certificates in the USA between 1980 and 94 there were statistical increases in suicides in white male physicians, black male guards (except those working in prisons) and white female painters, sculptors, craft-artists and artist printmakers. Another study by the University of California showed there was a small difference for labourers and the unemployed who were slightly more at risk, but found no other interesting data nuggets. Also, there’s the trouble with categorising, i.e. you might be tempted to lump all office workers in to one category, but in reality the variety of work in the office is huge, maybe telemarketers have a higher suicide rate than statisticians for instance? Just a theory, but probably true.
So what are the predictive factors for suicide then? Unsurprisingly underlying mental disorders figure very highly being present in 87%-98% of cases. Other bigger players are drug addiction, availability of means, family history of suicide and maybe a little more surprisingly, previous head injury. None of those, except the last one are a shock. As far as substance abuse goes, we would expect someone who had been a chronic alcoholic or heroin fiend for years to be genuinely and physically living on the edge, and just a little kick either way would realistically topple them from the cliff of the living. In USA one study claims that 15% of alcoholics kill themselves. I’m not sure what they used as the benchmark for “alcoholic” though, as according to government stats most of us are already binge drinkers. One substance that was a surprise though was Nicotine. Several studies have shown strong evidence of a link between how heavy the smoker and how regular the suicide. A study on nurses showed that those who smoked 1-24 cigarettes were twice as likely to kill themselves than someone that had never smoked, and those that smoked 25+ were four times more likely. Another study on 300,000 US soldiers found that those soldiers that smoked more than a pack a day were twice as likely to crack and self destroy than those that smoked less or none. That seems very surprising to me indeed. It’s not as if cigarettes are full of delusional devil spawn. Yes, they sure are evil, but I would never have expected them to predict suicide so gracefully. Maybe heavy smokers drink more, or do other naughty substances?
And what country has the highest rate of Suicide? Nope, not the Scandewegians at all. It’s the poor old Lithuanians. In the Gallup International poll Lithuanians were found to be the most pessimistic people among 62 nations polled, with 53 percent of the country believing the year 2000 would be worse than the year 1999. Harsh. Suicide is generally more common in large cities, but in Lithuania the opposite is true: the rate is twice as high in rural areas. Apparently their new found independence brought nothing to rural Lithuania other than unemployment. Everything else is the same: poor infrastructure, a lack of social services and a heroic dose of alcoholism. A third of Lithuanians live in rural communities, where poverty levels are three times higher than in urban areas. Half of the population do not have a shower or indoors bogs, and only 25% have running water. The mortality rate is 75%. 400, 000 young people have left the countryside since 1990, according to a study by the European commission on poverty and social exclusion in rural Lithuania.
I think I’m going to go there on holiday.