Is Suicide a More Present Danger Than Murder?

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With the recent deaths of model and former “Bachelor” reality TV star Gia Allemand and actor Lee Thompson Young, suicides are in the public eye again. Allemand and Young are of course only the most recent victims.

Writers Sylvia Plath, Hunter S. Thompson and Spalding Gray killed themselves, as did comedian Richard Jeni, musicians Kurt Cobain, Mindy McCready, director Tony Scott, and countless others with less notoriety.

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Many others have attempted suicide in recent years, including actors Owen Wilson and Stephen Fry; musician Alexa Ray Joel, daughter of Billy Joel; and Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael Jackson.

Suicide Statistics

For as often as we hear about murders, the suicide rate is actually much higher than the homicide rate. Nearly a third more people die at their own hands than at other people’s  (the murder rate in America is about 6 per 100,000; for suicides it’s about 10.8).

So for every two murders you hear about, three other people kill themselves. As a recent “New York Times” article noted, “Nearly 20,000 of the 30,000 deaths from guns in the United States in 2010 were suicides, according to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The national suicide rate has climbed by 12 percent since 2003, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teenagers.”

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Many factors contribute to suicide, but experts attribute part of the recent increase to widespread economic woes. A 2012 study published in “The Lancet” found that a country’s suicide rate increases by about 1 percent for every percentage increase in unemployment. Poverty contributes to despair, which contributes to depression and suicide.

Media and Psychological Biases

Why do murders seem so much more common than suicides? Part of the reason lies in what psychologists call the “availability heuristic.” Our judgments of the frequency and probability of an event are heavily influenced by the ease with which we can imagine or recall instances of that event. Thus the more often we hear reports of plane crashes, school shootings or train wrecks, for example, the more often we believe that they occur.

However a news media bias also plays a role. Because the news media emphasizes vivid and emotional events, they seem more dangerous and common than they actually are. That explains, in part, why many people fear flying though they know that statistically it’s one of the safest modes of transport: Though crashes are very rare, the vividness and emotion of seeing dramatic footage of crashed planes drowns out the rational knowledge of statistical safety.

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The media’s bias towards covering homicides far more than suicides is due in part to the sensational nature of a murder. If a person is found killed by another, the story has only just begun. The police must look for the killer, determine a motive, find the weapon, arrest the killer, put him or her on trial and so on. But when the killer is the victim, the story is over nearly as soon as it has begun. There will be no dramatic arrests or jailhouse confessions, just grief and perhaps memorials or a short quest for motive.

There are also strong cultural taboos surrounding suicide. Those who struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts may feel as if they suffer from a character flaw instead of a mental illness.

People who survive suicide attempts may feel ashamed or embarrassed, and of course celebrities have good reason to hide their illness. What movie studio or record company wants to hire a performer who may kill himself or herself in the middle of making a film or an album? Will they lose fans if they seem unstable or suicidal? These are legitimate concerns, but many people successfully overcome their depression and suicidal thoughts.

Some journalists may also avoid doing stories about suicides out of fear that the coverage may inspire copycats. In some rare cases seeing news stories about a high-profile death may trigger a fatal reaction in people who are already considering suicide. But not talking about an issue does not make it go away. As long as suicide is minimized and stigmatized, it will remain a hidden (but very real) public health threat.

Photo: Hans Berggren/Getty Images

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