In suicide season, hold fast to the tree of life

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Trying to stem the tide of passengers who kill themselves by leaping in front of trains, Metra began posting the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. About 18 people a year die this way. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

A Northwestern student was found dead at his home two weeks ago. Twenty-two years old. The immediate question: was it suicide?

“Who kills themselves at the end of May?” I said, reflecting the public’s astounding ignorance about suicide, where much of what everybody believes is wrong. And at 22? It turns out, May is the peak month for killing yourself. Evanston police are treating the death as a suicide.

And suicide is the second leading cause of death for those under 24.

Neither fact makes sense. The weather is finally warm. A young person with his entire life before him.

But as with so much about this ignored but important topic, it does make sense, only the sense is hidden. You need to dig it out and work at understanding. That’s why most people don’t do it. It’s easier to be afraid of sharks.

Those who study suicide view the warm weather increase — true all over the world, May in the Northern hemisphere, November in the South — as stemming from the same springtime invigoration that causes some to clean their garage.

“It is a harsh irony that the partial remission which most depression sufferers experience in the spring often provides the boost of energy required for executing a suicide plan,” British public health expert Chris Thompson told The Guardian. “Spring is a time for new beginnings and new life, yet the juxtaposition between a literally blooming world and the barren inner life of the clinically depressed is often too much for them to bear.”

Suicide breeds more suicide. It spikes after a prominent person dies — suicides were up 10 percent in the months after actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life in 2014.

Which puts me in a bind. Write about suicide and risk spreading the idea. Or ignore it and allow ignorance, dangerous in all cases but particularly perilous here, to go unchecked.

Err on the side of knowledge. The suicides of prominent people, like the pair last week — first beloved handbag maven Kate Spade, then globe-trotting food writer Anthony Bourdain — are at first glance inexplicable. They enjoyed everything we assume would make us happy: money, fame, interesting work, love, family. Both had young children.

We see all that and are dumbfounded. If Anthony Bourdain can’t muster the will to live, what hope have we?

But look closer, past the trappings, and we see these two were prime candidates.

Both were into late middle age. Suicide rates for people 55 to 64 are 40 percent higher — 18.9 per 100,000 — than the American average of 13.5.

Both were white. Suicide is another white privilege: whites kill themselves at three times the rate as blacks. For whites, the average is 17.1 per 100,000, compared to 6.3 for blacks and 6.7 for Hispanics.

Why? That’s a puzzle to unpack. Some blame reporting error — suicide has an even greater stigma in minority communities than in white society, and survivors acknowledge it less. Plus coroners expend less effort determining the cause of non-white deaths.

Some believe it has to do with community cohesion — dynamic cities versus the loneliness of wealthy suburbs. Or the life affirmation of struggle. The racial differences could be akin to why suicides dip during wartime: people struggling just to live tend to struggle to stay alive, while those who reach the mountaintop look back and realize their success is not the balm they anticipated, and they dread the slide back down.

To be puzzled by the success of celebrities is to fail to consider mental illness. Spade had a history of depression, Bourdain of addiction. The rise in suicides — up 25 percent since 1999 — has to be related to the growing opioid epidemic, as death is too often seen as a welcome escape from the degrading trap of addiction.

A glamorous life does not mean a sound brain. Keep in mind what Satan observes in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Exactly.

It’s June — the second riskiest month for suicide. The issue won’t go away because we ignore it. There’s a beautiful line in Proverbs that says, “It is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it.” Note the “holding fast” part, apt, because it implies grasping tight. It suggests diligence, effort, work.

But life is worth the struggle. Hold on.

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