U.S. media must address real causes of suicide

February 21, 2013

By the end of every 75-minute class, nearly six people in the United States will have committed suicide. Within the same time period, over 120 people will have attempted suicide, the third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24. Suicide ranks right behind homicide and unintentional injury. The media tries to blame external factors, like gun violence, in suicide cases such as singer Mindy McCready’s successful attempt or Aaron Swartz’s so-called martyrdom in the face of the Federal Pontius Pilate. However, these factors are merely distractions that mask more serious problems.

The issues stem from cognitive disorders — clinical and manic depression, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and other abnormalities in the chemicals present in the brain. Of all suicides, 90 percent are committed by people with a diagnosed, treatable psychiatric disorder — emphasis on diagnosed and treatable. Most importantly, those with high IQs or creative capabilities are more prone to suffer from such disorders.

There is a taboo surrounding issues of suicide and psychiatric disorders in the United States. It seems the very idea that people kill themselves because of personal problems is not acceptable. Rather, it seems fit to target other, often unrelated, factors as root causes. Take the recent suicide of McCready, for example. Journalists have labeled the tool of her suicide as the cause, saying that guns are related to the nature of suicide in this country. This idea is ridiculous. Guns are not malevolent entities that spur people to take their own lives, but rather weapons mentally ill or depressed people use to kill themselves to ensure a painless ending.

In the case of Swartz, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the federal government are not responsible for the young man’s suicide. The media sensationalizes the role of certain factors, frequently the least significant ones, to fit a current intellectual trend. If more people started dying because of auto-erotic asphyxiation, the nation would start a witch hunt targeted at the pornography industry in a second.

There is little public discussion about the true nature of suicide. People who are depressed often feel the need to repress their melancholy in public to avoid making others feel uncomfortable. They hold themselves accountable for their own actions when they are in a state where they cannot. It is evident in our language: we call psychiatrists “shrinks” and the psychologically ill “crazy” or “deranged.” We refer to depression as being “sad” even though it is not a mood but a mentality that causes complete hopelessness and drives destructive behavior in individuals.

As a nation, we alienate the suicidal and depressed because we refuse to discuss the issue openly and acknowledge the psychologically ill as victims of their disease. It is not guns or the people who blame them but the individual who pulls the trigger. One cannot help but wonder whether a change would occur if we didn’t associate depression with weakness.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Feb. 21 print edition. Nikolas Reda-Castelao is a contributing columnist. Email him at opinion@nyunews.com.

Print Friendly