Expert makes impassioned call to address the Western suicide epidemic

Xavier Symons
1 Jun 2013
Reproduced with Permission

America's foremost expert in the psychology of suicide this week offered an alarming account of what he calls "the suicide epidemic" in Western nations. In an interview with Newsweek Professor Thomas Joiner of Florida State University drew attention to alarming new data about suicide rates amongst middle-aged adults - the number of suicides in this group has increased by 30% in just one decade. The new figures are even worse when narrowed to white middle-aged men, for whom the rate has jumped by more than 50%. In wealthy countries, suicide is the leading cause of death for men in their 40s and top-five killer of men in their 50s.

Joiner identified a number of factors. One of the main ones is a decline in the sense of community in Western societies. "Low belonging", he said "is [usually the initial cause] of the desire to die". He believed this explains why suicide rates rise by a third on the continuum from married to never been married. It also accords with the fact that divorced people suffer the greatest suicide risk, while twins have reduced risk and mothers of small children have close to the lowest risk.

Joiner called for a paradigm shift in the way society perceives suicide. Currently suicidal tendencies are seen as the product of a weakness of character, he said. This perception produces shame in people which leads them to not seek treatment. "We need to get it in our heads that suicide is not easy, painless, cowardly, selfish, vengeful, self-masterful, or rash," Joiner said. "And once we get all that in our heads at last, we need to let it lead our hearts." Suicide is the rare killer that fails to inspire charity drives and new university research centres for study and treatment. Joiner is convinced that this needs to change.