Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The epidemiology of suicide – human only?

Olivia Judson claims no other animal commits suicide. I wonder about cetaceans …

A Long, Melancholy Roar - Olivia Judson Blog -

… Suicide rates have risen dramatically over the past 50 years. Worldwide, deaths from suicide now outnumber deaths from war and homicide together: the World Health Organization estimates that each year around one million people — predominantly men — kill themselves. The true number is probably higher, because for many countries there is no data. In some countries, suicide is now among the top ten causes of death. For the young, worldwide, it’s in the top five.

A huge effort has rightly been devoted to trying to understand the particular causes of suicide in different places — unemployment, drug addiction, relationship breakdown, intelligence, predisposing genes, what your mother ate while you were in the womb and so on.

But here’s another way to look at it. No other animal does this. Chimpanzees don’t hang themselves from trees, slit their wrists, set themselves alight, or otherwise destroy themselves. Suicide is an essentially human behavior. And it has reached unprecedented levels, especially among the young.

I’m not sure what this means. But it has made me think. We live in a way that no other animal has ever lived: our lifestyle is unprecedented in the history of the planet. Often, we like to congratulate ourselves on the cities we have built, the gadgets we can buy, the rockets we send to the moon. But perhaps we should not be so proud. Something about the way we live means that, for many of us, life comes to seem unbearable, a long, melancholy ache of despair.

Bite the apple, know despair.

I think of the human brain as a great pile of frantic evolutionary hacks, barely holding together at the best of times, a million years from getting sorted out. It’s a matter/antimatter drive bolted on to a goat cart. So it’s not surprising that it breaks in all kinds of ways.

The more surprising assertion is that rates are rising. I wonder first if that’s really true – historic data must be very hard to find. I also suspect that many suicide prone persons would die young in times of high external mortality, and that we’d expect suicide rates to rise as a population lives longer (suicide is much more common in the elderly).

One might speculate about growing awareness of the bleak realities of the material universe and suicide rates but I honestly don’t see any connection. Few people are as fond of bleak realities as I am.

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