How far is it from being to nothingness? I hope it’s a journey you never decide to take, but wherever death by firearm is the most common method of suicide, it’s about half an inch. That’s all the distance that your finger—the very same finger which, when you were still new to this world and in a very different frame of mind, once pointed in breathless wonderment at the stars and the moon above you—must travel to break the trigger on the average 9-mm handgun, shattering irreparably the material you that is your brain.
Nearly all such self-killings involve, in forensic speak, “contact wounds.” This, as opposed to “intermediate wounds,” which means that the weapon was held close enough to imprint the flesh with a gunpowder tattoo but didn’t actually make physical contact, or “distance wounds,” which I think you’d agree is a tricky feat to pull off for a suicide. Consider how astonishing it is. Put a gun to your temple, and getting from here, where the palpable cosmos of your consciousness dwells, to there, where there’s no more you at all, is but the span of a blade of budding grass, the stride of a broken toothpick. And with a copper-point bullet travelling at a velocity of 860 miles per hour, tearing into a skull hopelessly forged over tens of thousands of years of our apish evolution to withstand sundry bumps and bangs, not incendiary high-calibre missiles, this road to your oblivion will be a short one indeed. I’d say you’d be there before you know it, but, if you’re inclined to assume that your brain is what allows you to know anything at all (including whether or not you’ve arrived on the other side), that would be a false promise. For all intents and purposes, the deep reservoir of your being will instantly evaporate with that one click.
There are, of course, more circuitous, and less messy, ways to kill oneself. But if you’ve got your heart set on one that beats no more, they also come with less of a guarantee. One constant finding in suicide research is that men are far more likely to kill themselves than women. Why? It’s mostly because they’re far more likely to use a gun to do the job. In any given year, men account for about 80 percent of all suicides, and the lion’s share of those deaths are gun-related. Not all involve your standard handgun, either. There’s the occasional suicide by the more cumbersome or exotic firearm, too, such as a double-barreled shotgun, an Uzi, or an assault rifle. But you tend to find such “long gun” deaths only among younger men, and almost never in women. Most people who commit suicide were never keen on making Swiss cheese out of folks with automatic weapons, so they probably used a smaller, discreet firearm for their ego’s coup de grâce—one that they’d acquired originally “for protection” against all those other crazy people out there. These statistics on basic handguns being the most common type of firearm used for suicide also make sense from a simple agility perspective. After all, although teen suicides get the most press, it’s in fact the elderly male demographic, the age group with the sort of arthritic joints and Parkinson’s trembles that make handling a military-grade weapon a challenge, which accounts for the highest suicide rate. The same is true for all the setup and effort needed to hang oneself properly, the second deadliest suicide method.
In America, where the chances of finding a gun in the home (the place where, incidentally, most suicides occur) are about as good as finding a carton of milk in the fridge, there’s no better predictor of suicide than simply having access to a firearm. In a year-long study of new California gun purchasers, suicide was the leading cause of death, accounting for 25 percent of that group's fatalities. Although women aren’t as likely to go out and buy a handgun, when they do, they’re more likely to turn it on themselves; for the ladies subset of those deceased California gun owners, for instance, over half of these women were suicide victims.
Again, however, coroners see far more male decedents who’ve died by their own hands than females. This gender disparity has puzzled researchers for years, and it’s more complicated than it appears at first glance. It’s not that women aren’t as suicidal as men. On the contrary, they’re three to four times more likely to try to kill themselves. It’s just that most opt for an exit strategy that isn’t quite as lethal as blowing their brains out. Instead, the bulk of female suicide cases are in the general category of “poisoning.” Women tend to overdose on prescription meds (ironically, often antidepressants), illicit drugs, or some other deadly concoction of homespun pharmaceuticals. And, generally speaking, it’s easier to pump the stomach of an unresponsive patient found lying on the couch with an empty pill bottle in her hand than it is to piece back together a trillion bloody shards of neurocircuitry festooning the walls of a man found with half a head and a Smith & Wesson still warm in his hand. Slit your wrist or OD, and the odds of you living to see another day versus not are about 95 to 5 percent; use a gun or hang yourself, and those odds are 10 to 90 against you … although I suppose that depends on how one looks at the situation.
The most common assumption about this sex difference in the lethality of suicide methods is that women just aren’t as serious about killing themselves as men—that it’s instead a “cry for help” or they’re “just doing it for attention.” They don’t really want to die, goes this line of reasoning. Some researchers beg to differ, pointing out that suicidal women do want to die, at least as evidenced by recent female attempters’ scores on “The Suicide Intent Scale,” a checklist including such items as “did not contact or notify helper before suicide attempt” and “took active precautions against discovery, such as a locked door.” No, it’s not intent that’s the issue, this group of theorists argue. Instead, it’s more that women’s suicidal missions are compromised by their vanity, namely their concerns about their post-mortem visage. Not that anyone will be around to worry about how they look as a corpse, but still. Dead bodies are gross. And a dead body found chomping on a shotgun in a halo of gore, or one twirling semi-decapitated from a rafter with a spider’s web of broken capillaries for a face, or perhaps one washed ashore in all its greyish squishiness after a deliberate drowning are, to many, particularly unattractive. For those concerned about such superficial things, none are very desirable anyway, especially when one believes (wrongly, I hasten to add) that an overdose creates a sultry, supine pose like that of Sleeping Beauty.
A more positive twist on these data is that suicidal women don’t want to leave their mutilated bodies behind for their friends or loved ones to find, anticipating the trauma it will cause others. I don’t know if “considerate” is the word to insert here, but whatever it is, most men who commit suicide don’t seem to possess the quality.
It seems rather odd to be arguing for gender equality when it comes to being really and truly suicidal. But for many, there’s something unfair, even misogynistic, about these standard interpretations of the genders’ de facto methods. Some social scientists think it’s a matter of social learning. In TV shows and movies, men are usually depicted as shooting or hanging themselves, whereas women are shown cutting their wrists or overdosing. It’s not a hard-and-fast formula, but it’s clearly apparent in film. On the male side of the theatre aisle, here are a few scenes off the… well, off the top of my head. In Dead Poet’s Society (1989), sensitive boarding-school student Neil Perry, played by Robert Sean Leonard, uses his domineering dad’s revolver to kill himself; corrupt warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) in Shawshank Redemption (1994) does the trick with a pistol he keeps in his office drawer, while gentle old ex-con Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) climbs a chair to hang himself in an apartment. On the female side of this moribund aisle, troubled young groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) in Almost Famous (2000) overdoses on Quaaludes; and the semiautobiographical Girl, Interrupted (1999) features moody teen Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) in a psych ward after she throws back a fistful of aspirin to “make the shit stop.” You get the idea. “Inasmuch as social behavior mimics cinematic behavior,” note the sociologists Valerie Callanan and Mark Davis, “we should perhaps not be surprised at such differentials.” Then again, cinematic behaviour could just as well reflect pre-existing gender trends and sex differences in the real world, so pinning it all on Hollywood feels a little shaky to me, too.
Maybe it’s more a case of accessibility to the means. What guns are to men, drugs are to women. That’s to say, guns may be a stereotypically male affair, but the data show that women are significantly more likely to be prescribed antidepressants and similar meds. Given this, and with large, monthly batches of these potentially fatal drugs at their fingertips, is it any wonder that emotionally unstable women so often use meds to kill themselves? In some places where neither guns nor prescription drugs are so easily obtained, such as in rural China, other methods lead to the opposite gender pattern, with more completed suicides in women than in men.
And that’s where we’ll pick up next time: on some cultural differences in suicide, and a look at one of the most effective ways to address this all-too-human plague.