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Jumping From Heights: More on Gender Imbalance, and on Suicide Contagion

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In a story related to model Ruslana Korshunova’s suicide, Emily Friedman interviews Adam Kaplin, an assistant professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who has this to say about jumping from heights as a suicide method:

“When people don’t have access to firearms and get it into their head that they don’t think pills are going to work, they think there is something about the finality of [jumping] and think ‘If I just do this it will be over,'” said Kaplin, who told that while men and women are equally likely to attempt suicide by jumping, women are less likely to die after the fall because of their lighter body weight. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s interesting and unusual to see a non-psychological reason posited to explain the difference between the success rates of men and women who attempt suicide. According to this story, suicide by jumping from heights accounts for only a small proportion of total suicides. But the high (perceived and actual) lethality of the method, coupled with similar rates of attempt and a plausible physical explanation for differential lethality, must make us a bit more skeptical about psychological explanations for the difference in gender rates of suicide success. I feel this lends some support to my hypothesis that women may attempt suicide more, but succeed less, because they have less access to and familiarity with guns.

And, later in the story, “clinical psychologist and suicide expert” Madelyn Gould challenges the idea that suicide contagion affects people who aren’t really suicidal:

“[44-year-old New York attending physician Douglas Meyer, who committed suicide by jumping from heights shortly after Korshunova] could think that the model definitely accomplished what she was trying to accomplish and then that method could be seen as an option for him, even if he hadn’t readily thought about it before,” said Gould, who said this sort of copycat syndrome isn’t seen in people who are not already severely depressed or contemplating suicide, and usually only affects those who have already mapped out a plan for their death. [Emphasis mine.]

Of course, this sort of statement, backed up by precisely no evidence, should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s interesting and rare to see any sort of statement challenging the idea that suicide contagion causes people to kill themselves who are not already inclined to do so.


Written by Sister Y

July 2, 2008 at 8:09 pm

Men, Women, Suicide, and Guns

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The generally accepted figure is that American women attempt suicide about twice as often as men, but men actually commit suicide about four times as often as women. The disparity between male and female suicides is often explained in terms of psychological sex differences:

“Women process their experiences with friends. They discuss their feelings, seek feedback and take advice,” Murphy says. “They are much more likely to tell a physician how they feel and cooperate in the prescribed treatment. As a result, women get better treatment for their depression.”

And the usual story to explain the disparity between female suicide attempt and female suicide success goes something like this:

“An attempted suicide is not really an attempt at suicide in about 95 percent of cases. It is a different phenomenon. It’s most often an effort to bring someone’s attention, dramatically, to a problem that the individual feels needs to be solved. Suicide contains a solution in itself,” he says.

In attempted suicide, both men and women tend to use methods that allow for second thoughts or rescue. Murphy says that when people intend to survive, they choose a slowly effective, or ineffective, means such as an overdose of sleeping pills. That contrasts to the all-or-nothing means like gunshots or hanging used by actual suicides.

Those are the numbers, and that is the traditional story: more men want to kill themselves, so they choose more lethal methods. More women are just being dramatic, so they choose pills.

Now consider the data from my previous post. When lethal methods are more known and available to women (physicians, chemists, veterinarians), they commit suicide more often (as do men, but not as much). And consider the most lethal, most frequently used method of all for suicides: the gunshot. Couldn’t the fact that women successfully commit suicide less frequently than men be explained by the fact that women, by and large, own fewer guns?

How big is the disparity in gun ownership? Based on Gallup polls and census data, a man is about three times as likely as a woman to own a gun. Women are, of course, not prohibited from gun ownership as a group, but they are much less likely than men to be exposed to guns and learn how to use a gun. A factor of three difference in gun ownership may go a long way to explaining the disparity in suicide success compared to attempt, rendering the psychological explanation largely unnecessary. Of course, women who choose gunshot as a method of suicide frequently succeed; but we should not be so quick to claim that those who choose other methods that don’t succeed just don’t really want to die. Perhaps large numbers of them do not know enough about gun acquisition and use to feel comfortable choosing this method.

This brings up another issue, which is how we tell when a suicide or attempted suicide “really wanted” to commit suicide. Just because someone refuses to use a method available to him, should not in and of itself make us suspect that he “doesn’t really want” to kill himself, any more than someone’s rejection of a particularly nasty medical intervention should tell us that person “doesn’t really want” to live. Suicides face different barriers, legal and practical, in achieving their ends. It’s ridiculous to use willingness to overcome one particular society’s set of barriers as the litmus test for whether someone wants to die enough. Many people do not wish to die by gunshot wound, but definitely wish to die, and would gladly die if better means were available – easier to accomplish, more comfortable, more certain, less ghastly for discoverers, and less likely to result in sequelae. Just because someone will not, or cannot, shoot himself in the head or slit his jugular vein should not entitle us to presume that he does not really want to die.

Edit: In Bangalore, India, more women commit suicide than men. The most common method is to use the extremely lethal industrial poisons available in India but not in the United States. This casts doubt on the theory that fewer women commit suicide because fewer women want to, and inclines one to think about the alternative hypothesis that women and men prefer different means, which are differentially available in the United States.

Cultural factors are, of course, not ruled out, but neither are they ruled out in the case of fewer female suicides in the United States.

Written by Sister Y

April 13, 2008 at 3:28 am