Amanda Ripley

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What Makes People Commit Suicide?

17th Mar 2010 posted in General

The recent spate of suicides at Cornell University reminds me of how little we understand suicide—despite how common it is.

As a student at Cornell, back in the day, I remember it as a fabulous place to be if you were feeling good—and a terrible place to be when you were sad. The winters last most of the year. The school is isolated from the rest of civilization. And worst of all, it seemed like you were always walking uphill. I don’t know how that is possible, but it definitely felt that way.

Then there were the gorges. Glorious cuts into the earth, dramatic and, to me anyway, proof of life—not death. When I got stressed out, I used to put on my Walkman (oh yes!) and go running down the slick stone boulders lining the gorge, jumping from one to the next, racing the booming rush of water.

It’s worth noting that Cornell’s suicide rate has not historically been higher than other university rates. But it is also true that way more people kill themselves (everywhere) than most of us realize. For a very thoughtful read on the mystery of suicide—and whether gorges, bridges and other dramatic scenery can in fact tempt people to kill themselves—it’s worth looking back at this 2008 New York Times Magazine story.

f the impulsive suicide attempter tends to reach for whatever means are easy or quick, is it possible that the availability of means can actually spur the act? In looking at suicide’s close cousin, murder, the answer seems obvious. If a man shoots his wife amid a heated argument, we recognize the crucial role played by the gun’s availability. We don’t automatically think, Well, if the gun hadn’t been there, he surely would have strangled her. When it comes to suicide, however, most of us make no such allowance. The very fact that someone kills himself we regard as proof of intent — and of mental illness; the actual method used, we assume, is of minor importance. But is it?”

In the piece, writer Scott Anderson describes a fascinating study conducted in San Francisco. Researcher Richard Seiden got a police list of the 515 people who had been thwarted while trying to kill themselves by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge over the course of three decades. Then he investigated what had happened to these poor souls:

“His report, “Where Are They Now?” remains a landmark in the study of suicide, for what he found was that just 6 percent of those pulled off the bridge went on to kill themselves. Even allowing for suicides that might have been mislabeled as accidents only raised the total to 10 percent.”