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Notes on the Mystery of Suicide

By:Hugh Rosen

Albert Camus, the French philosopher and novelist, opened his treatise, “The Myth of Sisyphus” with the following statement, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” He found no meaning or purpose in life and believed that we were born into an absurd world. Yet, he concluded that we should go on living, nevertheless.

I believe suicide is a mystery because to live is a basic instinct of the humans, while to self-destruct runs counter to that drive to survive. Even animals seem to share this instinct with us. Therefore the act of self-destruction, barring exceptional circumstances, appears incomprehensible, shocking, and irreconcilable to those left behind.

It is also especially baffling when there is no apparent or imaginable reason. Others are left only to speculate. Those closest to the person who has committed suicide are left not only with puzzlement, but also with a burden of guilt, especially parents. They, understandably, ruminate over what they might have done to prevent the tragedy and berate themselves for not having anticipated its coming. Friends who had been told by the person of an intention to commit suicide, but who did not take it seriously experience guilt for not having done so and for not having taken some preventive action.

While psychiatrists and psychologists have identified several possible advanced signals, such as giving away in abundance things that are ordinarily of value to the person who subsequently carries out the act of suicide, it is not always the case that there is any evidence to be observed. Some of the aftermath of shock comes from the very fact that the suicidal person may seem to act so normally before the suicide. We have learned of popular football heroes on campus, who seemed happy and appeared to have everything to live for, taking their own lives.

Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem, Richard Cory, first published in 1897, exemplifies the above. Cory was a rich man living in an average to low-income community. Yet the people of the neighborhood all admired him. He was seen as “regal, a gentleman, good-looking, imperially slim, well dressed and humane” whenever he waked the streets. Nevertheless, Robinson’s poem goes on, “And Richard Cory one calm summer night, went home and put a bullet through his head.”

Some of the most famous authors have committed suicide. A sampling includes Hart Crane, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima, Arthur Koestler, Jerry Kosinski, Jack London, and William Inge. Even psychiatrists are not exempt from this terrible ending, an exemplar of which would be Bruno Bettelheim. Many famous pop culture stars have taken their own lives. TV and movie stars have done the same, perhaps the most famous of all being Marilyn Monroe. It is clear that fame, fortune, and success do not inoculate one against the will to die.

To deepen the mystery, there seems to be a phenomenon that some have labeled “the copy cat effect,” alternatively referred to as “the contagion effect” Goethe’s novel, “The sorrows of Young Werther.” (1774), illustrates this. The protagonist shoots himself over a doomed love affair at the end of the book. It has been reported that over two thousand people used the same method to kill themselves shortly after reading the novel. The same phenomenon, perhaps without such elevated numbers, is still reported today when a teen-ager, for example, commits suicide. It is not uncommon for several of his friends or other members of the same school system to follow suit over the next few days and weeks. When celebrities commit suicide we see another trigger leading to a heightened number of suicides that follow.

From a psychiatric perspective the most common psychological problems that serve as a prelude to suicide are depression, bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depression) and substance abuse. Most people who commit suicide are, in fact, depressed. However, this is manifest to varying degrees and there are people who are skilled at masking their mood when in public. This is particularly sad since depression is treatable through the proper medication and psychotherapy or a combination of both. Much more often than not it is transient. The depression is often induced by a loss of some kind, such as the death of a loved one or a ruptured relationship. Feelings of guilt and shame, failure, great stress, and the loss of a fortune have been known to lead to suicides. Modern psychiatry attributes much of depression to chemical imbalances in the brain, although the interaction between mind and biology are difficult to disengage, as they appear to be interrelated. During America’s economic “Great Depression,” many men jumped from tall building to their deaths when they lost their fortunes in the economic crash. Suicide has been described, ironically, as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

Unfortunately, those who are successful at taking their own lives are no longer available to be interviewed in order to obtain information about the specific thoughts, feelings, and motivations they experienced. This can only be garnered by what is referred to metaphorically as a retrospective autopsy. Some, however, leave letters that provide those left behind and those who study suicide with insights. There are letters designed to relieve family members of any guilt they may have, while others have a hostile tone, hoping to hurt those at whom they are angry for perceived offenses and abuses. Still others merely leave instructions about how they wish their funerals to be conducted. Retrospective autopsies are also aided by diary entries, e-mails written within the preceding weeks, interviews with family, friends, teachers, colleagues, lovers or former lovers, and counselors or therapists.

Fortunately, many attempts at suicide are failed ones and information has been gained by speaking with survivors. People representing failed attempts are often relieved and with the proper care and treatment have gone on to live full, productive, and satisfying lives. Nevertheless, the mystery of suicide lives on.

Article Source: http://www.redsofts.com/articles/

Hugh Rosen is the author of Silent Battlefields. Visit his Web site http://www.hughrosen.com to learn more about his novel of second generation Holocaust survivors.

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