One night about a year ago, I was hanging out on Facebook when I got a frantic instant message from a good friend of mine, Jake. (Not his real name.) A long-time female friend of his, Lisa (not her real name, either), was on the phone with him and she was threatening to commit suicide. Alarmed, Jake pinged me and asked what he should do. He knew that in January of 2009, I lost my brother Tom to suicide, and that I had spent an entire year in grief counseling to better cope with the loss. Jake and I spoke often about it, so I was Jake’s go-to when Lisa was in crisis.
Once I determined that Lisa had not yet actually hurt herself, I had to get Jake to calm down to the point where he could accept my instructions. He did so pretty quickly; Jake’s a smart guy with a good head on his shoulders. I told him to keep Lisa on the phone and to continue talking to her while I got on my phone and called the National Suicide Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255. As soon as I had an operator on the line, I identified myself and informed her I was not in crisis. I was calling on behalf of a friend who had a problem, and I made sure to explain that I really did have a friend with a problem; I was not merely using that old saw of talking about myself through an imaginary straw man.
I explained to the Lifeline operator, whose name I forget (but let’s call her Brenda) what Lisa was telling Jake and asked for advice on what to tell Jake to tell Lisa. The whole thing was a weird social media and mobile telephone daisy chain in which Lisa, in crisis, was getting help from the Lifeline through two different intermediaries without even knowing it. Together, we determined what signs of imminent suicide Lisa was exhibiting. She was basically ideating her own death and expressing feelings of hopelessness, and we got her to verbally commit to not hurt herself that evening and to agree to get some counseling.
Meanwhile, I helped Jake track down Lisa’s actual location. He knew she once lived in the same city he did, but as with so many friendships in the Facebook era, their relationship had largely become a virtual one, and Jake did not know Lisa’s current ground address. That’s the downside of life on the Internet; the typical points of contact you take for granted with people are not always there. The upside of the Internet is that it is populated by about a billion amateur detectives, and so Jake’s own friends who also knew Lisa soon were on the case, and within minutes were able to provide him with her location. Jake contacted the local emergency services, who stopped by to make sure Lisa was alright. Lisa was angry and embarrassed that other people knew she had been in crisis, but Jake’s take on it, as well as mine, was that this was somebody’s life at stake. Mental health is nothing to be embarrassed about, but I would rather embarrass somebody than let them slip through the cracks. You can always apologize for needlessly calling 911 on a friend in need. It sure beats spending the rest of your life wondering what more you could have done.
Eventually, Jake let me go; he was staying on the line with Lisa, but he was confident things had calmed down, and things would be under control. Indeed, they were. Lisa agreed to go into counseling, and she has not been in crisis since. As for me, Brenda at the Lifeline said I probably saved Lisa’s life. I don’t know about that. Jake did all the heavy lifting, not me. What I do know is that when I lost my brother, there had been warning signs a-plenty that he was heading toward suicide, signs that only became clear to me after the fact, when it was too late. I just don’t want to be too late ever again.
By the numbers
Up-to-date suicide figures can be tricky to come by since they are often compiled differently by different local county, state and national agencies, and more importantly, national results are, like insurance industry figures, at least a full year behind, if not more. Perhaps some of the most reliable numbers come from the John L. McIntosh, Ph.D, a leading suicidologist, whose statistics are published by the American Association of Suicidology (AAS). According to McIntosh, 36,909 Americans took their own lives in 2009. Of them, 29,089 were men; just 7,820 were women – underscoring the longstanding fact that men are at least three times more likely to commit suicide then women.
Now, nearly 37,000 people seems like a lot and a little at the same time. Compared to the nearly 600,000 people who died in the U.S. in 2009 from heart disease, suicide is not exactly a huge toll. But compared to the 15,241 homicides and non-negligent manslaughters that same year, suicide becomes quite a large problem indeed. Even larger still when considering that suicidologists estimate that for every successful suicide attempt (i.e., one resulting in death), there are some 25 unsuccessful ones; in 2009, there were an estimated 922,725 attempts. What’s more, the average suicide event is estimated to impact six people. The AAS projects that the total U.S. suicide toll of 787,681 from 1985 through 2009 has resulted in some 4.73 million suicide survivors (those who lose one to suicide, not those who try to commit suicide and fail). Put another way, one out of every 65 Americans is estimated to be a suicide survivor.
The 2009 figures are interesting because they are the first ones that reflect a concern among suicidologists that the severe financial strain the Great Recession put on many people may have contributed to an increase in suicide itself. Joblessness, especially prolonged joblessness, is a common contributing factor to suicide. And even though the AAS notes that there is no clear correlation to periods of economic recession and rising suicide rates, it did mention in a press release issued during the early days of the current economic crisis, entitled “The Economy and Suicide,” it noted that that suicide rates did peak in 1933, one year after the U.S. hit its highest rate of unemployment during the Great Depression, at 25%.
“There is a clear and direct relationship between rates of unemployment and suicide…At the individual level, unemployed individuals have between two and four times the suicide rate of those employed,” the AAS writes. It adds that “economic strain and personal financial crises” are common precipitating events to deaths by suicide, especially in those whose coping mechanisms are compromised by mental disorders, drug or alcohol use, psychiatric symptoms or other risk factors.
Not long after the Great Recession got under way, several deaths among high-profile business figures underscored the correlation between suicide risk and financial stress. Two days before Christmas 2008, French aristocrat and investor money manager Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet struggled with deep feelings of guilt and responsibility after losing his entire savings as well as more than $1 billion of his clients’ money to the $50 billion Ponzi scheme perpetrated by fraudster Bernard Madoff. After writing to his brother Bertrand that he had to accept responsibility for the losses, de la Villehuchet locked himself in his Manhattan office, swallowed a dose of sleeping pills and slashed his wrist with a box cutter. He was found by police the following morning.
Barely two weeks later, 52-year-old Steven L. Good, CEO of Sheldon Good & Co., one of the nation’s largest real estate auction firms, was found dead in his Jaguar from what authorities believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A month earlier, Good had described in an industry outlook news release that the rapidly deteriorating market conditions had become “very challenging.”
A third prominent business suicide that same month was 74-year-old German billionaire Adolph Merkle. In 2008, Merkle was worth some $9.2 billion through a business empire based on generic pharmaceuticals manufacturing, pharma wholesaling and cement making. But he lost hundreds of millions of dollars on bad investments in Volkswagen stock, and as the Great Recession got underway, credit shortages threatened to break up his business empire. Distraught, he stepped in front of a train.
But it isn’t just tycoons who are suffering. College grads with huge loans and no job prospects are increasingly at risk, as are those in the middle and lower classes who have lost their job and have been unable to replace it. Compare the cities with the highest suicide rates in the country with those that have suffered the worst economically in recent years as identified by Brookings’ 2010 report, “The Great Recession and Poverty in Metropolitan America,” and a short list of potentially economy-driven suicide hot spots emerges.
The data does not match perfectly, as the latest nationwide survey of suicide statistics by city comes from the Big Cities Health Inventory, last published by the National Association of County and City Health Officials in 2007. It only tracks data to 2004, well before the economic crisis hit. But even then, some cities clearly stand out as having suicide rates well above the national average of 12.0 per 100,000 people, and in some cases, having shown substantial increases in those rates since 1990:
• Las Vegas, NV (34.5; +20.7%)
• Colorado Springs, CO (26.1; +40.9%)
• Tucson, AZ (25.0; +21.2%)
• Sacramento, CA (22.7; -10.6)
• Albuquerque, NM (21.0; -0.1%)
• Miami, FL (17.1; -21.3%)
• Denver, CO (16.2; -35.5%)
• Jacksonville, FL (15.6; -6.3%)
• Pittsburgh, PA (15.2; +3.1%)
• Wichita, KS (15.2; +1.7%)
• Portland, OR (15.1; -12.9%)
• Tulsa, OK (14.5; +50.1%)