Saturday, March 4, 2017

A conversation about suicide part II: who commits suicide?

There are approximately one million suicides every year, equating to a suicide every 40 seconds. In the US, it is one every 13 minutes. If you read my piece on Kurt Cobain and suicide, I wanted to add a little more to that discussion because I had some additional thoughts about the culture around suicide. My mind as a teen was captivated by stories of tragic artists like Cobain. I listened to his music growing up, and listened to Soundgarden and Linkin Park as a kid--all of which had a lead singer commit suicide. I'm troubled by it, and was deeply sad to hear about Chester Bennington. I had no idea that he had six children. I looked to see how many kids Chris Cornell--he had three children. These children are young as well, and honestly, it makes me mad when I think about their families left behind so early.

On the other hand, knowing some of the personal background of these musicians provides the context of their suicide. For instance, all had a history of depression, some level of psychosis due to past trauma, substance and alcohol abuse. Even the comedian Robin Williams, who committed suicide three years ago, had a history of depression and substance abuse. Williams also left behind three children. Of course, don't forget women who have committed suicide, and left behind young children. In fact, Sylvia Plath the poet left behind two children--one child that committed suicide by hanging when he was older. If there is a history of suicide in the family, there is a higher chance of suicide.

Besides Cobain, all men mentioned committed suicide by hanging. Suicide by hanging is the most common method and has the highest mortality rate. Note that every artist mentioned so far is a white male. White males account for 72% of all suicides, and 90% of suicide related deaths account for both White females and males. And even though males commit suicide at a higher rate than females, females attempt suicide at a higher rate than men. According to Chang, in the United States suicide is higher among White men older than 80 years although younger people more frequently attempt suicide.

When you factor in occupation, however, those with the highest rates of suicide among physicians, male and female commit suicide at the same rate. Interestingly, the highest rates of females committing suicide is in South Korea according to Värnik. China is also one country where women have a higher rate of suicide than men. Strikingly from 1980 and 1995, the rates of suicide  increased by 120% among white youth and 223% among black youth between the ages of 10-14. Between the ages of 15-19, suicide increased by 126% for Black youth and 19% for White youth.

This is us. This is our culture. And when I refer to this phenomena as "culture" or 'cultural', I mean to make the distinction that the most (three quarters) suicides that occur worldwide are those in the developing world. Alaska and Montana in the US have the highest rates of suicide, with my state of Kentucky not too far behind. Alaska has high rates where Alaskan men make up a higher portion of the suicides of other races of men in the US. I imagine there is a trend here where the poorest of populations are the most affected by social and environmental factors that would lead to their suicide.

Actually I have to admit, I continue to remain captivated by the many stories of artists, actors, actresses, singers, and the like that died at my age of 27 called 'the 27 club.' I do not mean to romanticize these instances, and I find that the media often sensationalizes the stories as it is. And I worry that the romanticism of suicide and depression influenced me growing up. When I recollect back to the narratives of those lost souls, the hopelessly hopeless, I think: this is me too. I remember reading about Elliot Smith's suicide, and asking myself the question that many of us have asked: will I have a breaking point? I can't tell you of a particular song, band, movie, story, or image, but in my past when I watched people living aimlessly, I was drawn to those images. The drugs, the drinking, smoking, dancing like no one is watching, and living manic and reckless looked like people were just having fun to me. The kind of I imagined myself smoking and drinking, writing and painting, and going mad in my own house. I could only imagine myself as those young artists that lived in style, carving out their own space,  rejecting the mainstream, rebelling against the system. But what I got out of that, was more of the same feelings of sad and loneliness that I also saw in the artists I admired, or the characters I saw in movies. I predicted for myself that I was like these characters that go mad to the point of ending their lives. I, too, felt that. I, too, noticed these same characters of this world, were those who had a breakdown or meltdown, and I felt that too.

I cannot complain about my childhood, I suppose. However, there are parts of me that have drove my mind to torture myself. I, too, had moments in my life as an artist when I was drinking in the woods, or smoking dope in an abandoned car, or going to class at 8 in the morning after doing shrooms all night; and I felt like a piece of shit nobody that will never get anywhere in life. I remember once I ran to the woods and climbed to the top of the hill and asked myself: how would I do it? how could I do it? There's no cliff or edge to fall off of, there's no gun to end it all, there's no sleeping pills, there's no heroin to OD on. My mind still tortures me. I felt the privilege of the world that which my culture gave to me, and because I found it all to be distasteful, I refused to participate in the system.

An artist refuses and rejects this routine sort of life like an office space, which is why I wondered if artists that struggled were more likely to be driven to suicide. Probably not, considering there are all types of people that take their own lives because of mental illness, substance abuse, financial crisis, homelessness, aging veterans with PTSD, etc. As I have said, physicians have one of the highest rates of suicide among other professions, but according to Business Insider, artists, sculptors and painters are 2.12 times more likely to commit suicide than average. This does not include photographers who are 2.50 times more likely to commit suicide than average; nor does this include authors who I also consider artists. Authors are 2.60 times more likely to commit suicide than average. Dancers and actors/actresses have higher rates of suicide than authors and other artists; but that doesn't compare to musicians who are 3.60 times more likely to commit suicide than average. The truth of the matter is that the research still concludes that rich people and rich countries are happier which facilitates the assumption that happiness does not lead to suicide. Mattimore of ChinaDaily says however the correlation between income and happiness gets weaker in wealthier countries. Fairchild of Huffington post states "Although people making less than $10,000 are 50 percent more likely to commit suicide than those with incomes above $60,000, the San Francisco Federal Reserve paper shows that comparing yourself to those around you might have a larger impact on happiness than personal net worth" which supports one study that found for  “higher earnings of neighbors were associated with lower level of self-reported happiness.”

With this in mind, the idea that a starving artist may be more likely to commit suicide versus a wealthy artist may become tricky to explain. One thing is for sure though, you can be a rich or poor artist, but it is a dangerous gamble to be an artist that also abuses drugs and alcohol when they're depressed. And yet, the artists I watched dabble in drugs and alcohol to cope with the daily torment of the mind, I still find them much more intriguing because they were elusive in some way. 

Growing up, Vincent van Gogh was my favorite artist, and later when I found out that he was just another struggling artist that ended it for himself, I felt that too. Someone wrote that he was "the quintessential misunderstood genius, the artist 'where discourses on madness and creativity converge.'" I have reflected on this many times in my childhood where if I ever did receive recognition, it would be if I am dead and gone. These are the common thoughts I had growing up where my idols were artists that killed themselves or would later take their lives because they didn't fit into this ugly world.

What people don't tell you about Vincent van Gogh is that he painted when he was medicated. He was actually institutionalized and painted his psychiatrists. So this narrative that we need pain to create art will only be the one we hear until we do the research ourselves. Because to make art, we need our mental health, we need to treat mental illness in order to do our work.

As I said in part I of this essay, I have heard of men that do despicable acts of violence will kill themselves before ever taking fault or before ever going to prison so they are not punished. But I am not focused on these people and I am only to focus on the youth that is troubled by struggle; and perhaps conversations like this can prevent suicide. Although I have spent much time asking why it matters so much to prevent death when it inevitably happens anyway; I still go back to my own way to coping by asking how my life can be impactful rather than my death. A couple months back when 45 was elected as the POTUS, someone told me that her daughter's friends that were in a same-sex relationship killed themselves the night after in fear that progress for LGBTQ people will be reversed, and that there will be more backlash for LGBTQ youth.
From here I consider those youth that take their life because they're bullied. Or the gay youth that fear disapproval from their family, friends, community. According to many researchers, LGBTQ youth have the highest rates of suicide attempts in comparison to the general population, especially in areas where homophobia and social stigma is blatant. Besides bullying as the contributing factor for suicide or suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth, there is also high rates of substance abuse associated with this. It is not so much being LGBTQ that puts a person at risk of suicide, but the associated factors like anxiety, social stigma, verbal/physical abuse from bullying, substance abuse, elevate the risk of suicide. This induces minority stress, which is especially true for persons of color in the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ youth that are homeless after coming out are greatly at risk of suicide as well.

Once again, I am at a loss for final words on this discussion of a dark topic. I have reflected on suicide at the intersection of art, substance abuse, and LGBTQ youth. I suppose I focused on these intersections because I too have felt this waning gloom over me as an artist who abused drugs and alcohol, that had thoughts of suicide, and for someone that identifies as a queer woman. I wanted to convey my own experiences because I can personally dive into my past thoughts and emotions to relate to others. I believe in several of my previous posts, in addition to part I on this discussion of suicide, I have mentioned that the forms of art I create have helped me cope with this life-long strain of depression. Just because you're an artist doesn't mean you're tortured; even though our society tells us the more tortured the artist, the better the art; and I have heard several times from people that musicians only write and perform good music when they were sad and penniless.

Although, some of my greatest thoughts, writings and paintings come from a place of bliss and happiness. So I realize as someone that is an artist and someone that has depression, there is a usefulness of turning depression into art. I turn my pain into art, and I write out my pain. And this is the best advice I can give because I am at a time and place in my life where I am still at a young age, and I don't have answers to how and why we should prevent suicide. When we have a culture that romanticizes (or at least normalizes) suicide and depression while simultaneously fetishizing fame and fortune mixed with drugs and alcohol, what are we asking out of the youth of today? And, who are going to be the role models of this generation that will be an uplifting voice in the darkness? What spaces can be created for those looking for understanding, safety, and security? What can you or I do today to make just one other person, or yourself, feel that life would be uninteresting without them?

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