A Worldwide Problem
“Suicide is a serious public health problem.”—David Satcher, U.S. surgeon general, in 1999.
THAT statement marked the first time in history that a surgeon general of the United States had made suicide a public issue. More people in that country are now killing themselves than are being killed by others. Little wonder that the U.S. Senate declared suicide prevention to be a national priority.
Yet, the suicide rate in the United States, which was 11.4 per 100,000 in 1997, is below the global rate published by the World Health Organization in 2000—16 per 100,000. The suicide rates worldwide have increased 60 percent in the last 45 years. Now, in a single year, about a million people worldwide take their own lives. That amounts to approximately one death every 40 seconds!
Statistics, however, cannot tell the whole story. In many cases family members deny that a death was a suicide. Moreover, it is estimated that for every completed suicide, between 10 and 25 are attempted. One survey found that 27 percent of high school students in the United States admitted that during the previous year, they had seriously considered suicide; 8 percent of the group surveyed said that they had made suicide attempts. Other studies have found that from 5 to 15 percent of the adult population have had suicidal thoughts at one time or another.
The way people view suicide varies greatly. Some view it as a crime, others as a coward’s escape, and still others as an honorable way of apologizing for a blunder. Some even consider it a noble way to further a cause. Why such different viewpoints? Culture plays a major role. In fact, The Harvard Mental Health Letter suggests that culture may even “influence the likelihood of suicide.”
Consider a country in central Europe—Hungary. Dr. Zoltán Rihmer refers to the high suicide rate there as Hungary’s “sad ‘tradition.’” Béla Buda, the director of Hungary’s National Institute for Health, noted that Hungarians commit suicide all too readily, for virtually any reason. “He has cancer—he knows how to end that state” is, according to Buda, a common reaction.
In India there was once a religious custom known as suttee. Although this practice, in which a widow throws herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, has long been prohibited, it still is not quite extinct. When one woman reportedly committed suicide in this way, many of the local people glorified the tragedy. According to India Today, that region of India “has seen nearly 25 women burn themselves on their husbands’ pyres in as many years.”
Remarkably, in Japan suicide claims three times as many lives as do traffic accidents! “Japan’s traditional culture, which has never condemned suicide, is known for a highly ritualized and institutionalized form of self-disembowelment (seppuku or hara-kiri),” says Japan—An Illustrated Encyclopedia.
In his book Bushido—The Soul of Japan, Inazo Nitobe, who later became the under-secretary-general of the League of Nations, explained this cultural fascination with death. He wrote: “An invention of the middle ages, [seppuku] was a process by which warriors could expiate their crimes, apologise for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity.” Although this ritualistic form of suicide is generally a thing of the past, a few still resort to it for the sake of social impact.
In Christendom, on the other hand, suicide was long viewed as a crime. By the sixth and seventh centuries, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated those who had committed suicide and denied them funeral rites. In some places, religious fervor has bred strange customs regarding suicides—including hanging the dead body and even driving a stake through the heart.
Paradoxically, those who attempted suicide could incur the death penalty. For trying to kill himself by cutting his throat, a 19th-century Englishman was hanged. Thus the authorities accomplished what the man himself had failed to do. Though the punishment for attempted suicide changed over the years, it was not until 1961 that the British Parliament declared that suicide and attempted suicide were no longer crimes. In Ireland it remained a crime until 1993.
Today some authors encourage suicide as an option. A 1991 book about assisted suicide for the terminally ill suggested ways to end one’s life. Later, an increased number of people who were not terminally ill used one of the recommended methods.
Is suicide really the answer to one’s problems? Or are there good reasons to keep living? Before considering these questions, let us first examine what leads to suicide.
[Blurb on page 4]
In a single year, about a million people worldwide take their own lives. That amounts to one death almost every 40 seconds!