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Archive for November 2010

…But It Probably Won’t

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From the Boston Globe, “A world of misery left by bullying“:

Childhood bullying is an old problem, one that has produced generations of victims. And while many of those bullied as children move past it and thrive in adulthood, a surprising number say they have been unable to leave the humiliating memories behind. Their accounts are supported by a growing body of research suggesting that the bullying experience stays with many victims into young adulthood, middle age, and even retirement, shaping their decisions and hindering them in nearly every aspect of life: education and career choices; social interactions and emotional well-being; even attitudes about having children.

Unfortunately, it does not appear to affect attitudes about having children nearly as much as it should.

Written by Sister Y

November 29, 2010 at 6:32 pm

It Might Get Better

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It is dishonest and cruel to prime children to expect better things from the future than the future in fact holds.


From itgetsbetter.org:

Many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like, [sic] let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them.

The It Gets Better Project is a creative, non-coercive suicide prevention project directed at gay youth, who are at a highly elevated risk for suicide attempts. Folks are invited to make a pledge:

Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family and neighbors. I’ll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I’ll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and other bullied teens by letting them know that “It Gets Better.” [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Dan Savage, the creator of the project, says:

‘When a gay teenager commits suicide, it’s because he can’t picture a life for himself that’s filled with joy and family and pleasure and is worth sticking around for,’ he declared.

‘So I felt it was really important that, as gay adults, we show them that our lives are good and happy and healthy and that there’s a life worth sticking around for after high school.’

I find many things to be supportive of here:

  • It acknowledges how sucky life is for many gay kids;
  • Non-coercive methods are advocated;
  • It’s pro-gay and pro-freedom;
  • It’s kind of heartwarming and encourages people not to be ashamed of something it’s stupid to be ashamed of.

However, as much as I approve of these aspects of the project, I would not be able to make the above-printed pledge. “It gets better” is an empirical statement, and it is one I don’t think can responsibly be made so unequivocally. I think there is a great deal of evidence that it does not, in fact, get better. It is dishonest and cruel to prime children to expect better things from the future than the future in fact holds. We do it, I think, to feel better about the wrongs we allow or commit against children, both as parents and as a society that can only function with a high rate of reproduction. We are here told to tell the gay kids and the bullied kids that it gets better. But what we need to ask first is: does it get better?

For Kristin and Candace Hermeler, the Australian twin sisters who attempted to carry out a suicide pact (with limited success) in Colorado, “it” does not seem to have gotten “better.” An article in the New York Times indicates that the 29-year-old sisters were bullied as children, and chose to die at a shooting range in Colorado because of its proximity to the site of the Columbine massacre. For the Hermeler sisters (no word on their sexual orientations), being bullied in high school was not, apparently, followed by a happy life of contentment and adventure. It was followed by a mutual wish to die.

One question we need to answer empirically is whether gay suicide attempts in fact decrease dramatically with age. If they do, that’s some evidence that youth is just a tough period to get through. I haven’t dug up any data either way (let me know if you find some); the only study I’ve seen found that “first attempts” tend to cluster at young ages, but I don’t think that has anything to say about later-in-life suicidality.

“It Gets Better” makes the assumption that children are committing suicide because they irrationally think life is crappy and won’t get better. Many attribute the high rate of teen gay suicides to bullying and homophobia:

Beth Zemsky, director of the University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office, said [a 1998 study indicating an increased risk of suicide for gay youth] is consistent with previous research. She also said our culture’s intolerance of homosexuality, which can often be violent, leads many to take their own life [sic].

“Suicide attempts are often caused by the stress of a homophobic society,” said Zemsky. “The study is in line with the American Psychiatric Association. People are not killing themselves because they are gay, but because they are dealing with a society that discriminates.” [Bolded emphasis mine.]

I have never seen the evolutionary psychology side of things considered with regard to the high rate of suicide among gay kids, but that nasty idea seems to require serious consideration here, if only to make better models to understand suicide. This may help us understand why gayness is a risk factor for male suicide attempts, but not female. (Personally, I took way more crap in high school for being a cheerleader and being on the math team than I ever have for being bisexual.)

The idea that youthful suffering is short-lived is an empirical proposition. There is some evidence that as people age, their ability to cope with life’s suffering increases. But not always. If the organizers of the It Gets Better Project cared about intellectual honesty, they’d call it the “It Might Get Better Project.”

But that wouldn’t be as catchy.

Written by Sister Y

November 22, 2010 at 8:55 pm

At Last We Know What Causes Suicide

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It’s not personal agency. It’s not mental illness. It’s mixing booze and caffeine:

A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against Phusion Projects Inc. after a Florida man got drunk on Four Loko, a controversial alcoholic energy drink, and shot himself in the head with a pistol.

The family of Jason Keiran, 20, filed the Four Loko lawsuit in Orange County Circuit Court on Friday, less than a week before the FDA issued warning letters to Phusion and other energy drink makers that it considers caffeine an unsafe additive for alcoholic beverages, which will shut down the entire alcoholic energy drink industry. [Bolded emphasis mine.]

Does this mean I can sue the bar for serving me Irish coffee or Continental Airlines for serving me DVRs?

While my inner plaintiff’s attorney loves this (my students will definitely be hearing about this when we cover product liability in a couple of weeks), I think it functions best as an example of how people are willing to elide considerations of causation when the consequence is suicide, as opposed to some other act. Imagine if the decedent in this case had killed, not himself, but his estranged girlfriend or a rival, and blamed his action on drinking caffeine-laced booze. I doubt we would be so quick to attribute causation to the cocktail in that case; voluntary intoxication and other “Twinkie defenses” to real crimes or torts, as opposed to suicide, tend to get laughed out of court.

Why do people get intellectually lazy when it comes to suicide? Why are people unwilling to attribute causation to anything but personal agency for most actions, but very willing to attribute causation to other factors when the action is suicide?

I suspect that part of it has to do with the commonly-held idea that suicide is actually mysterious. Because non-suicidal people find the act of suicide so puzzling, I think, they are willing to accept the shakiest excuse as a “reason” for the suicide, without the skepticism that is normally present when addressing questions of causation for more understandable events. The task is to make suicide less mysterious and to point out problems in the evidence for causation.

Another reason I have considered for this species of intellectual laziness is that it follows from the mental gymnastics required to pretend that suicides are not actually responsible for their actions, but that suicide is a result of mental illness and outside the control of the actor. As I have previously written:

The more an actor is seen as the agent of his actions, the less outside influences are seen as affecting his actions. Therefore, in cases where moral responsibility is strongly attributed to an actor, outside influences are unlikely to be taken seriously as a cause of his actions – and, therefore, it is not necessary to censor these “outside influences” (such as media reports).

It is my belief that the widespread voluntary censorship of reports of suicide – from use of politically correct language to pervasive norms of message content – are the result of the modern trend to exculpate suicides from moral responsibility and redefine suicide as an act of insanity. There is, however, little evidence that suicides are any less morally responsible for their actions than murderers. Certainly, many other behaviors are media-contagious – but they are not censored, nor are many of them even studied.

I think that one possible explanation is that, at a deep level, people understand that suicide is just not that bad compared to actual acts of violence – despite hysterical language describing suicide as “self-murder.” We want to exculpate people from acts to which we are sympathetic. While we often refuse to define acts outside of societal norms as “not wrong,” we may nonetheless refuse to attribute full moral responsibility to these acts. However, this sort of sympathy backfires in our society. People who are “not responsible for their actions” must be “protected,” often in painful and dehumanizing ways; and society is responsible for their “protection,” often to the detriment of freedom.

Unfortunately, policy recommendations are often built on these shaky connections.

Plus, we all know that it’s actually internet video game addiction that causes suicide.

Thanks Chip.

Written by Sister Y

November 18, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Posted in causation, suicide, tort law

United States: Suicide Tourism Destination?

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The United States has relatively liberal gun laws compared to first-world countries, and allows the public to access shooting ranges where real guns may be rented for target practice. Many Americans have taken advantage of this quick access to guns in order to commit suicide (and sometimes homicide-suicide).

On November 15, 29-year-old Australian twin sisters in the United States on tourist visas attempted to commit suicide at a public shooting range in Colorado. One died; the other “was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was in a critical but stable condition after undergoing surgery.” As of November 18, police have not yet determined which sister died.

Free access to guns makes the United States attractive as a suicide tourism destination; however, as this case illustrates, the de facto suicide prohibition makes gunshot suicide in the United States a risky proposition. But apparently it’s better than the options in Australia.

Australians have previously taken advantage of the availability of barbiturates in Mexico. One can only conclude that the suicide prohibition is even worse in Australia than it is in the United States:

Another Australian who purchased the drug in Mexico, Caren Jenning, was convicted in June of accessory to manslaughter because a friend, Graeme Wylie, who had advanced Alzheimer’s disease and had long expressed a desire to end his life, used it to commit suicide two years ago.

Written by Sister Y

November 17, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Further Proof that Psychology is Not a Mature Science

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From The Skeptic’s Dictionary:

Psi researcher Daryl Bem (he of Bem and Honorton fame) has had a paper on precognition accepted by a peer-reviewed publication of the American Psychological Association: the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He’s titled his paper “Feeling the Future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect.” Anomalous retroactive influence is psiency talk for precognition. (Psiency is snarky talk for psi jargon.)

That’s right – a journal published by the American Psychological Association is publishing a paper suggesting that precognition is real.

But we should totally trust what they have to say about suicide:

Suicide is the act of killing yourself, most often as a result of depression or other mental illness.

Sigh.

Written by Sister Y

November 15, 2010 at 6:30 pm

The Most Politically Correct Article on Suicide of All Time

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An article entitled “No surge in teen suicides, but many myths,” by Jeremy Olson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, doesn’t actually say anything, but may be the most politically correct article on the topic of suicide I have ever read. It author carefully follows the questionable “media guidelines” for reporting of suicide, meant both to dampen the (questionable) phenomenon of suicide contagion and to be extra-polite about suicide.

The author carefully refers to the fact that a student “died by suicide” – avoiding the more natural construction “committed suicide.” He states that “[m]ental illness is the most proven risk factor” for suicide; although it is questionable what meaning that statement has, suicide.org encourages the media to emphasize this “fact.”

Most insultingly, the author accuses teenage suicides of shortsightedness. “Despondent teens perceive suicide as an end to their personal pain, but don’t see the torture it brings to those left behind,” he says. On the contrary. I think it is more accurate to say: Parents perceive reproduction as an end to their personal feelings of meaninglessness, but ignore the torture existence brings to their children.

Written by Sister Y

November 2, 2010 at 5:15 pm