Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
For years as a literature teacher, I guided students in examinations of this brief, yet powerful poem by 20thCentury American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. Robinson’s direct prose allowed students to easily discover the main themes expressed – appearance vs. reality; the relationship among success, money, and happiness; the tragic costs of isolation; and the inherent irony in life. The topics suggested by the poem invariably prompted wide-ranging discussions of suicide and its causes and effects.
I was thinking a lot about “Richard Cory” and its meanings last week following the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both of whom, like the fictional Cory, would classify as members of the famed-and-seemingly-favored club.
Spade, 55, was a fashion designer whose handbags carried many women into adulthood, while the 61-year-old Bourdain was a larger-than-life figure — a gifted chef and storyteller who used his popular books and TV shows to explore culture, cuisine, and the human condition.
Ironically, the deaths of Spade and Bourdain provided a dramatic personal highlight to a report, released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that shows rates of death by suicide in the United States have risen by roughly 25 percent in the past couple decades. For example, in the last year of the study (2016), nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives.
Here are three key demographic findings from the report:
- There is a gender factor that really shows in the CDC study. While the suicide rate increased in women, it’s still 3 to 5 times higher in men.
- Veterans are also a key part of the demographics; while veterans make up only 8.5% of the population, they are 18% of adult suicides.
- Middle-age adults had the highest increase in suicides. Though it’s not clear why, there are some hints that the economic effects of the Great Recession of 2008 could be partly responsible.
“These findings are disturbing. Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the US right now, and it’s one of three causes (the two others are Alzheimer’s and drug overdoses) that is actually increasing recently, so we do consider it a public health problem—and something that is all around us. Our data shows the problem is getting worse,” says Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC.
Though the reasons for the increase are not completely clear, in past studies experts have pointed to an increased sense of isolation among Americans, as well as economic factors and a rise in mental illness.Others claim it stems from the rise of technology, which has replaced important face-to-face interactions. But in the end, all these explanations are speculative as scientists struggle to find the still evasive answers.
Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24 in the U.S. For that cohort, suicide is often connected to bullying, sexual violence, or child abuse, according to the recent studies.
However, as troubling as that may be, many researchers see an even more alarming rise for aging Baby Boomers, especially for males born between 1946 and 1964. Currently, Bourdain’s age group – those between ages 55 to 64 – have the third highest rate of suicide, at 18.71 per every 100,000 Americans and it is steadily increasing.
One of the most disturbing findings in the new CDC report is that more than half of the deaths happened among people who had notbeen diagnosed with mental illness. And here gender and age do make a difference.As a group, older men are particularly wary of seeking treatment, as they perceive a stigma around depression and mental illness as a whole.
Then too, the manifestation of the disease is often different in men than in women. For the men who do seek help, experts say the indicators of depression are often ill-defined such as a propensity to substance abuse or violence, which means proper mental health treatment can be delayed.
“For anyone, but especially for men, it is very brave to be able to say, ‘I feel horrible and I need to reach out’. You are revealing your vulnerabilities and our culture does not really respect vulnerability,” says Susan Lindau, a practicing therapist and adjunct professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in suicide.
One male figure who has been especially forthcoming with stories of his ongoing battles with depression is Bruce Springsteen. In both his best-selling biography Born to Runand in each of his sold-out performances on Broadway, Springsteen talks freely about his disease.
Now 67, Springsteen has been suffering for 15 years from a private darkness – recurring serious bouts of chronic depression which he says opens “a terrifying window into mental debilitation,” leaving him with “an agitated depression” that feels “dangerous and brings plenty of unwanted thoughts.”
But while there are those like Springsteen who have sought and are responding to treatment, in the next few months, health experts are concerned about ripples from Spade’s and Bourdain’s suicides from people who aren’t in treatment.
When comedian Robin Williams killed himself in 2014, there was a 10 percent increase in suicides in the four months that followed. That syndrome is now called “the celebrity suicide effect.”
“The celebrity suicide effect is the consequences of a celebrity suicide in the digital era.” You have to wonder — worry — whether that might happen now, too,” says David S. Fink at Columbia University, who was a central figure in a CNN story this past February describing Williams’ death and its aftereffects.
So, what can, and what should you do if you notice a family member or friend exhibiting signs of depression you fear could end in tragedy? In a recent article in the New York Times titled“What to Do When a Loved One Is Seriously Depressed,” writer Helen Murphy catalogued some of the best advice from mental health experts on that question. Here are seven points addressed in more depth in her article:
Don’t underestimate the power of showing up.
Don’t try to cheer a sufferer up or offer advice.
It is O.K. to ask the sufferer if he or she is having suicidal thoughts.
Take any mention of death seriously.
Help make any first professional appointment as easy as possible for the sufferer.
Take care of yourself and set boundaries.
Remember: People do recover from depression, but it takes time.
Finally, Booming Encore offers a list of sources of help for anyone coping with the deadly issue of suicide: