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August, 2016


by Larry

"To be or not to be, that is the question..." I used to think only humans commit suicide. It turns out, though, that even rats occasionally contend with this issue. Forced to sink or swim, in a flood for instance, some rats will keep on swimming almost indefinitely, at least till no longer able physically to do so. Others, for whatever reasons, give up much earlier and drown. Dolphins, oddly enough, must be ready for quick dives and so do not possess our natural buoyancy and have to voluntarily swim to the surface to breathe. Under stress, some of these seemingly always smiling creatures simply do not swim up to take a breath, and so suffocate. To avoid this fate while sleeping, dolphins keep half of their brains awake at a time during sleep periods and are then gently swimming at the surface for easy access to air.

Humans do perhaps have the distinction of being the only creatures that take decisive actions to kill themselves. And lately over 41,000 a year of us choose to do so in the United States. Firearms injuries, suffocation (for instance, via the relatively slow strangulation of a typical do-it-yourself hanging), and poisoning, in that order, are the leading causes of suicidal deaths in this country, with gunshot suicides by far the largest number, nearly 22,000 annually. In the poisoning category are things we might not generally think of that way, especially overdosing on sedatives or opiates. In fact, a possible reason for the rise in suicides in recent years may be the ease of access to such means of offing ourselves as pistols, rifles, and drugs. Arguably another big cause is that our economy has been challenging lately, with a large proportion of us feeling we are treading water, even falling behind, or going under financially, compared with prior years when it felt easier to get ahead and see real and lasting improvements in our circumstances.

Men are three times as likely to kill themselves as women. Men in their fifties are the most likely of any age and gender classification to do themselves in. Recently discharged veterans, though, have four times the chance of committing suicide as is true for the average U.S. civilian. Among employed folks, farmworkers, fishermen, lumberjacks, or others in the agriculture or forestry fields have the highest incidences of suicide. Next are carpenters, miners, mechanics, electricians, construction workers, installation specialists, and workers in the maintenance and repair trades. Following those are factory and production workers, then architects and engineers. Beneath those in suicide frequency are a couple categories that for some reason are thought of first: police, firefighters, corrections workers, and others in protective services. Figures for these are high but not nearly as close to the top of the list as those involving agricultural and forestry jobs. This is also true of the next group down having higher than average numbers of suicide: entertainers, artists, designers, athletes, and folks employed in media fields. Though not cited in the most recent stats found online, in prior years both dentists and veterinarians have sometimes been noted as having more than twice the average rates of suicide among white-collar positions. Lowest in likelihood of killing ourselves are teachers, other educators, and librarians.

Though men in their fifties carry out more acts of self-destruction, men and women of most all age categories can become suicidal and do not have to be "crazy" to do so. In fact, evidently the majority of us at one time or another have at least fantasized about ending our lives. Perhaps it is simply a function of our higher relative intelligence and having good imaginations. If things do not seem right to us, we are feeling quite badly, and the appeal of oblivion seems preferable, a logical next step is to consider how we might achieve that.

Fortunately, for many more than not, that is as far as it goes. Yet, a variety of factors, such as great fatigue, illness, humiliation, pain, disappointment, loss of a love, sense of failure, financial reversal, influence of drugs or alcohol, and easy access to the means of lethality can increase the chances a person might assure his or her own demise. I know of a teenager who took his life this month. He might still be alive except when depressed he found a grandparent's hospice medications and promptly swallowed them all.

Other related conditions include incarceration, a family history of mental illness, drug addiction, prior suicide attempt(s), or being a victim of sexual assault. In our country, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest ethnic group suicide rates, followed by non-Hispanic Whites. It should be taken seriously, not treated as though it were merely a bid for attention, if someone attempts suicide. As a group, those who try to kill themselves once are far more likely than the average person to carry out this intention later.

On the other hand, recently a 61-year-old fellow, alone and without a life jacket, William Durden, stayed alive in the ocean for 20 hours, never giving up, and finally was pulled aboard a Coast Guard vessel, still in good condition. (See his story at "Florida Man Rescued After Treading Water for 20 Hours," by Andreas Preuss, June 3, 2016.) Others have had similar tales and good fortune. So they lived, though the odds would seem to have been stacked insuperably against them. How can we too have in our day-to-day experiences more of that keenness for life plus the richness and joy it entails? I am no expert, but it might come down to a few basics:

1. Recognize that to yield to a temptation toward suicide is to confuse the temporary with the permanent. We feel badly, yet like the weather this is fleeting, no matter how black it appears or how down we may think we are right now.

2. Get plenty of rest.

3. Also assure good nutrition.

4. Cultivate friendships.

5. Regularly exercise enough for good circulation and muscle tone.

6. Forgive others if we think they have done us wrong. Avoid self-blame too!

7. Stay engaged in useful, genuinely interesting, and productive ways.

8. Perhaps take up or continue daily yoga, Thai Chi, or meditation routines.

9. Practice noting and appreciating what is worthwhile in oneself, others, and in the surroundings.

10. Consider being part of a support community.

11. Have a pet. A dog can be a source of both affection and extra activity.

12. Look for the funny side of situations.

13. Be curious!

14. Take things a bit more easily.

15. Focus on this very moment, obsessing about neither past nor future.

A much more concise way of putting it is a quote I like from Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike):

"Use common sense; don't magnify the importance of insignificant details; don't worry about bygones; and keep it simple. 'Remember that Napoleon's battle plans are among the simplest that history records.' " Jean Edward Smith Eisenhower in War and Peace, page 73. New York: Random House Trade Paperback Edition, 2013.

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