In my last post, we saw how suicide rates differ by gender. But when it comes to the myriad ways to terminate one’s subjective existence, there’s far more diversity across cultures than there is between the sexes. Much of this really is about access. Switzerland has the most developed railway travel system in Europe. It also has one of the highest railway-suicide rates, with more young people throwing themselves in front of trains there than elsewhere on the continent. If you’re in a low-income, agricultural region of Africa or Latin America, by contrast, you’re more likely to poison yourself with a common pesticide than with Prozac.
In regions where guns, trains, medications and pesticides aren’t ever-present means to one’s end, there’s always hanging, the “default” method constituting the majority of the planet’s suicide fatalities. In one Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic about a decade ago, there were so many hangings among teenage boys that the local housing authority decided to remove the closet rods from every home. “Hanging in most cases took place at home during the night when the family was asleep,” explained the psychologist Michael Kral, who studied this group of indigenous people. “[It was] from the closet bar with the clothes pushed to the right and the noose tied on the left side … with the victim facing the wall.”
Suicide-proofing the home environment this way might sound too simple, some would say impractical, to be very effective. But it worked. According to Kral, the town went from having the highest rate of suicide in the region to zero suicides four years running. Restricting access to a given method is a proven strategy, actually. Adding catalytic converters to the standard vehicle exhaust system has made the old closed garage-door suicide method almost obsolete. In European countries where suicide by drowning was a major problem, mandatory swimming lessons for young children in the 1980s has correlated with fewer such adult deaths in recent years.
The point is that when you make it a pain in the ass for people to die by their “first-choice method,” they don’t necessarily just find another way to go about it, as you might expect and as these discussions tend to go. Instead, many will abandon their death wish altogether. This is especially true for impulsive, unplanned suicides, the type most often found among children and adolescents. “Many young suicide attempters report that they spent only minutes between the decision and the actual attempt,” explains the psychiatrist Urs Hepp. “As impulsive suicide attempters use more violent methods, such as firearms, hanging and jumping, this [shows] the importance of restricting access to highly lethal methods.” In the time it takes a young person to sort out an alternative game plan, his or her emotions may level out enough to stall that overeager Grim Reaper for another fifty years or so.
Evidence for the effectiveness of restricting access to all-too-accessible methods is plentiful. At the Ivy-League campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, iconic old bridges overlook two-hundred-foot drops in some places, the scenic remnants of massive ice sheets raking the landscape during the Pleistocene. There’s a history here of stressed-out students spontaneously leaping into the abyss en route to class. “Gorging out” is what the locals call it. Back in the 1970s, after a rash of such deaths, an ethnography instructor had his students stand on these bridges and ask random passerby to freely associate while looking down. Many people spoke of feeling a strange, hypnotic pull towards death. “I want to jump,” said one sad young woman. “It’s just such a thing about these gorges … it’s so far down. And it’s water, you know, and somehow it seems a beautiful way to die. To go out with it.” “I look down and that pulls me out,” said another. “Like, against my will it could pull me over the railing. If I looked down too hard, it’d really do it.”
A series of safety nets and the erection of an ugly, iron-wrought suicide barrier around Ithaca’s historic suspension bridge soon after didn’t sit well with many residents and faculty members. “A few weeks ago one lingered across the bridge’s light airy openness as an intimate part of the beauty of [the] gorge,” a professor from the law school wrote at the time in an editorial. “Now the serried ranks of close-spaced bars make a prison corridor … a claustrophobic channel with a honky-tonk garishness worthy of Las Vegas.” Today, the city’s suicide barriers remain uncomfortable eyesores in what is otherwise a setting of striking natural beauty. They’re rusty now to boot. Yet decades on, they’re still sentinels for despair; studies there and at other fashionably jumpable hotspots worldwide clearly reveal that such barriers do in fact lead to fewer suicides. Those who would have jumped, in other words, don’t always just simply move on to the first unsecured gorge up the road.
When a previously unknown suicide method is introduced to a society, the problem of social contagion makes restricting access to the means an urgent priority. In Hong Kong, the busy forests of skyscrapers and the deep-water ports claim their share of jumpers also. It’s been that way for a long time. Some have even taken an uncomfortable jab at the city’s name (which means “Fragrant Harbour” in Cantonese), given all those, you know, decomposing bodies floating just offshore. But ever since that part of the world found out about Jessica Choi yuk-Chun, officials have been scrambling to restrict the public’s access to charcoal, of all things.
In November of 1998, alone at her home in an upscale suburb of Hong Kong, the young insurance executive meticulously sealed off all of the openings to her bedroom, tossed a lit match into the charcoal grill that she’d carefully set up in the middle of the room and crawled under the sheets of her bed to die of carbon monoxide poisoning. To this day, nobody knows how the quiet businesswoman came up with this unusual manner of death. Few had ever heard of such a thing. Some reports suggest she had chemistry background. Whatever her inspiration, once the Chinese media published detailed accounts of her suicide’s staging, implicitly glamorizing the method as a painless, discreet, swift new way to die for those so inclined, “charcoal-burning suicide” became a highly contagious affair. Within a few short years, it was one of the most common ways to kill oneself in all of Hong Kong (only after jumping); by the end of the next decade, it had become a full blown epidemic, and today charcoal-burning is a leading cause of death in many other Asian societies, too, including Macau, Taiwan, and Japan.
In many of these areas, it’s not so easy to buy packets of charcoal anymore. Even if you’re just planning an innocuous barbeque with the family, the clerk will look at you askance as he unlocks the cabinet from behind the counter and then warily hands the charcoal over to you, gently tapping the government’s warning message that now comes printed on every box: “Cherish your life. We’re here to listen.”
A few customers probably wish they’d spoken up about their intentions beforehand. It comes with a high rate of fatality, so there aren’t many folks around who can say they’ve survived an attempt at charcoal-burning suicide. And those who are may not even realize they’re around anymore, given the probable brain damage. Yet among those who are luckily still lucid, there are mixed accounts of just how unpleasant the experience was. Many indeed say they felt no discomfort at all, while others were surprised to find that it wasn’t quite as serene as they anticipated. “It is a suffocating experience which is extremely unpleasant,” according to one expert. “The process involves displacing oxygen, almost like being strangled.” That’s something to think about the next time you’re standing in line at an Asian supermarket at the end of a bad day, fishing around for enough yuan to pay for that shiny new block of charcoal.
Or dollars in America, for that matter. When it comes to the spread of popular new methods, sociologists have noticed a worrying trend of suicide contagion across cultural borders. The Internet has eroded what were once informational boundaries due to language and geography, and now we must grapple with global online buzz among the lugubrious. Consider the suicide death of Boston lead singer Brad Delp, for instance, who almost certainly heard about charcoal-burning suicide on the Web before lighting two charcoal grills in the bathtub of his New Hampshire home in 2007. When first-responders arrived at the scene in response to a frantic phone call from Delp’s fiancé, they found Delp lifeless on a pillow. Affixed with a paperclip to the collar of his shirt was a simple note: “J’ai une âme solitaire. I am a lonely soul.”
That his final words resonate with so many of us, in our own personal ways, reveals a sad irony. We’re all lonely souls. But that tragic, existential fact is also where the solution to our deepest despair so often lies. We’re all in this fleeting life together.