If the way in which we live our lives is shaped by a combination of nature and nurture, then the way in which we end our lives is shaped by the very same combination. Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the United States and the eighth leading killer of men. According to some estimates, for every successful self-annihilation, there are eight to 25 unsuccessful attempts at suicide. And although depression has been found to be the biggest impetus for attempting suicide, there is another powerful and underreported risk factor for acting on a death wish: having a parent who has committed suicide.
This past weekend, the body of writer-actor Spalding Gray, 62, was pulled from New York's East River. In a 1993 interview, Gray who made at least two unsuccessful suicide attempts before his disappearance two months ago told io magazine, "I was darkly convinced that at age 52 I would kill myself because my mother committed suicide at that age."
Sadly, like father, like son and daughter
A 2002 study in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that children whose parents had attempted suicide were six times as likely to try taking their own lives. Indeed, the list of famous men who sealed their own fate could well be riddled with asterisks denoting those with a parent who did the same:
When guitarist Jeff Buckley died after mysteriously wandering into a river in 1997, many pointed to the overdose death of his father, musician Timothy Buckley, as an example of the apple not falling far from the tree.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning author J. Anthony Lukas strangled himself in 1997, obituaries casually mentioned that his mother also had died by her own hand years before.
When Ernest Hemingway brought his favorite shotgun to his head, he'd already lost his father to suicide; his brother and sister also would take their own lives. Thirty-five years after Hemingway's suicide, his granddaughter, Margaux, followed suit.
In part, the hereditary aspect of suicide can be attributed to the genetics of emotional imbalances. Ninety percent of suicides have depression or another diagnosable mental or substance-abuse problem. (Lifetime suicide rates among alcoholics, for example, are five times higher than for the population as a whole.) Depression and alcoholism, among other mental disorders, widely have been acknowledged to have a genetic link.
The worst of examples
Depression, passed from parent to child, may infuse the next generation, but the act of suicide, and the example that it sets, informs that younger generation. Like smoking, drinking or physical abuse, suicide is a behavior that's passed on through example. It takes an extreme course of action out of the realm of the theoretical and makes it feasible.
Yes, my stepfather fought recurring bouts of depression, chronic back pain and alcoholism, three demons I've never personally battled. Yes, we were related by marriage, not blood. But who among us hasn't, in his darkest moments, pondered if 'twas better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or if it might not be a better option to go softly and pleasantly into the cocoon of eternal immunity?
For myself, my brother and my stepsiblings, the unconscionable has become legitimized. I wish I could have been there on that clear April night on the side of that desolate road in Upstate New York to give my stepfather one last reason to go on living: because attempting suicide can be fatal, not only for you, but also for your children.
David Zinczenko is editor in chief of Men's Health.
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'Guidance on action to be taken at suicide hotspots'
A new guide has been published giving advice on how to prevent suicides at local 'hotspots', such as railway bridges or cliffs. 'Guidance on action to be taken at suicide hotspots', produced by the Department of Health, provides advice on how to identify potential hotspots and suggests measures, such as installing telephone helplines, to deter people who want to kill themselves.
This guide was published on the same day as new figures revealed that the national suicide rate continued to fall last year and now stood at its lowest ever level. The three year average is now 8.5 deaths per 100,000, down from a baseline of 9.4 deaths per 100,000 in 1995.
In 2004, there was over 300 cases of suicide involving jumping from a height or people throwing themselves in front of vehicles. Evidence suggests that lives can be saved when local agencies work together to deter suicide in high-risk locations. The guidance offers suggestions such as:
Erecting physical barriers at well known 'jump points'
Placing signs urging people to contact the Samaritans, or installing telephone helplines at hotspots
Having dedicated 'suicide patrols' of volunteer or paid counsellors to patrol the area.
The new publication is available for download from the website of NIMHE (National Institute for Mental Health in England).
Guidance on action to be taken at suicide hotspots (PDF, 1.5MB)
By Neil Ansell
12 May 2005, 10:00am
A jury has returned a verdict of death by misadventure following a three-day inquest into the death of Nariman Tahmasebi, a 27-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who was found hanged in Lewes prison in February 2002.
Nariman Tahmasebi fled to the UK following a period of detention in Iran for his political beliefs. Refused asylum in this country and fearful of being deported back to Iran, he attempted to flee to Canada using the same forged travel documents that had brought him here. He was arrested at Gatwick airport, charged over false documents and sentenced to six months imprisonment.
He arrived at Lewes prison in East Sussex on 14 February 2002; less than a week later on the 20th he hanged himself from the bars of his cell with a bedsheet.
The jury heard that in the few days he spent in Lewes prison, Nariman was interviewed three times by prison staff; a risk assessment at the first night centre, an induction interview the following day at the induction centre, and finally a healthcare interview conducted by a healthcare officer. Although Nariman had limited English, no interpreters were available and the interviews were all conducted in English.
All three officers who interviewed him considered that he wasn't at any risk of self-harm, even though Nariman told them that he had taken an overdose in Iran after he had been beaten by prison guards while in detention there. When asked if he would contemplate harming himself, he said only if he was to be returned to Iran. As a failed asylum seeker, he would have been liable to deportation at the end of his sentence.
Nariman was then placed in a single cell where he was found hanging the following night. Attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful, and he died in hospital five days later without regaining consciousness.
The inquest was attended by Nariman's elder brother Sam, 32. His parents had also intended to come over from Iran, but were too distraught and decided instead, that they would come to visit their son's grave on his birthday.
Speaking through an interpreter, Sam said that his brother had come to this country seeking freedom of expression, freedom to live the way he wanted, but he couldn't find it here. 'When he told us that he wanted to come to this country we couldn't have believed that such a thing could happen to Nariman in Britain, which is known to all as a civilized country.' Sam said that he was disappointed by the verdict. 'There are still too many questions without answers', he said.
There were three deaths in Lewes prison in 2002, and three in 2001. Three of these six deaths were of foreign nationals with English as a second language.