Suicide--much has been written about this subject, and mental health experts study it unceasingly. Yet despite the data amassed and the theories and speculations drawn, ultimate answers, particularly regarding the motives of a particular person, elude even the best professionals. Outside pressures, business reversals, taunting and rejection: all of these can appear to drive even the most well-adjusted person to seek self-annihilation, as George Bailey tried to do after his bank failed in "It's a Wonderful Life." Yet suicide also claims the lives of those you would least expect:
And he was rich, richer than a king / And admirably schooled in every grace
In fine--we knew that he was everything / To make us wish that we were just like him.
And so we worked, and waited for the light / And went without the meat, and cursed the bread
Richard Cory, one calm summer night / Went home and put a bullet in his head.
The poem about Richard Cory was written by Edward A. Robinson in 1897 and in the century since the "why" of a particular person's suicide can remain just as much a mystery. Take for example the Hemingway family. Is there an elusive, destructive gene inextricably woven within their talents, set with an unknown triggering point? Still, despite these grave examples, an opposite viewpoint of suicide--one that contains a certain positive advocacy--has emerged. "During the course of one's professional experiences, dealing with a wide gamut of psychic pain and inability to function," psychologist Kay Tooley of the University of Michigan writes, "the question has to do not so much with why some people crumble under the pressure of human suffering, but rather why it is that so many people do not."
Psychiatrist Aaron Beck's analysis and of depression and hopelessness have given mental health therapists powerful tools for assessing, preventing, and treating suicide. Four decades ago Beck created the empirically-based Beck Depression Inventory and over the course of the ensuing decade discovered that high scores on this test did not necessarily correlate with successful suicide. After further scientific research he discovered that the level of hopelessness is a better (although imperfect) predictor of suicide potential than depression alone. His "Hopelessness Inventory" is used internationally as a triage tool in emergency rooms and many clinical situations. Beck is considered one of the 5 most influential psychologists of all time and he continues to head the center for suicide research and prevention at the University of Pennsylvania.
Suicide prevention has become a specialty, no doubt an effective one, but contrarian thinkers point out with some good evidence that too many suicide prevention programs can actually inspire copy-cat suicides. Yes, suicide prevention has become a cottage industry in some places. (An example of a first-rate and effective suicide prevention program is Paul Quinnett's QPR Institute). Yet despite all the preventative effort, there remains that uncontrollable and immeasurable variable of human choice. But can merciless internal pain annul even free will? Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges this possibility; the church is now sympathetic to those who despair, and kinder to the families in allowing funerals without an inquisition.
There are those too who argue that all human misery resides in biological protoplasm, yet this issue will not be resolved in the near future. So instead let us revisit Kay Tooley, who seeks to identify practices in our daily lives that can help prevent despondency and despair, which she calls "ingredients useful in the treatment of disorders resulting from unhappiness, rootlessness, and the fear of things to come":
What exactly might be the contents of an inner treasury that generates hopefulness? Odds and ends one suspects, perhaps resembling the hodegepodge that every child stores in a carton under the bed: souvenirs and bottle caps and and trophies and photographs and baseball card and sea shells and coin collections--things that have symbolic value in their own right (coins), things that have the capacity for stimulating pleasant memories, and things that reinforce a treasured mythology of the self, things that revivify a former version of a self overlooked in the present self; things that recall a time of happiness obliterated by the weight of current unhappiness; things to be touched fondly, turned over musingly, returned to the box, which is in turn shoved back into storage.
In the past, there was a lovable and interesting person that I do not personally remember but I believe that I was. In the future, which is another great void of unknown possibilities, it seems possible that I could become a person lovable and interesting and totally different from every other human being, even though there seems to be nothing in my current perception of my life or myself that would support that possibility.
Not only the depressed but the developmentally dispossessed--the whole of humankind--show evidence of the need for a portable past, a tangible treasure. The delights of coin collecting hinge not on current value but on the promise of a greater value in the future, a value unsuspected by the unenlightened majority. The 1918 copper penny, the Indian-head nickel, the anniversary minting hold a symbolic promise made by the past directly to the future. Baseball cards hold the records of past exploits and faces not currently visible but undeniably existing. Tokens in romantic literature are unarguable proof that the shepherd's daughter, possessor of the ruby ring, is indeed the long lost daughter of the king, unlikely though it may seem.
While George Bailey and Richard Cory represent the knowable and the mysterious ends, opposites of a continuum explaining the causes of suicide, and Aaron Beck and Paul Quinnett give us first-rate professional tools, it is in Kay Tooley's perception that we travel to a deeper meaning of why despondency occurs, not just in suicidal persons but in our own lives. She offers us a Theology of the Ordinary, emphasizing experiences of nurturing, caring, and loving: fondly recalled through our lives in conversation, songs, art, and even bottle cap collecting. These pursuits bring a buoyancy that can counter the opposite pull of hopelessness, genetics, and severe rejection, and carry a strong re-statement of another command and message given from a mountain in Galilee many years ago.
To readers: Paul Quinnet has made his book, SUICIDE: THE FOREVER DECISION free to everyone. It was a bestseller and classic from Continuum Publishing and may be accessed here: In my review years ago I stated, " "I am in awe of this book. It will be especially valuable to such nonprofessional counselors as teachers, clergy, doctors, nurses, and to experienced therapists. It has already become a classic."
William Van Ornum