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BOOK MARK : To Commit Suicide: Who Can Say Why or Why Not? : On Feb. 14, 1984, a teen-ager named Justin Spoonhour hanged himself. The author, already investigating adolescent suicides, uses Spoonhour's death to explore the psychological and sociological reasons why people kill themselves. An excerpt.

June 02, 1991|George Howe Colt | George Howe Colt is a staff writer for Life magazine

No one knows why people kill themselves. Trying to find the answer is like trying to pinpoint what causes us to fall in love or what causes war. There is no single answer. Suicide is not a disease like cancer or polio. It is a symptom.

"The problem of suicide cuts across all diagnoses," says psychiatrist John Mack. "Some are mentally ill, most are not. Some are psychotic, most are not. Some are impulsive, most are not."

Says psychologist Pamela Cantor, "People commit suicide for many reasons. Some people who are depressed will commit suicide, and some people who are schizophrenic will commit suicide, and some people who are fine but impulsive will commit suicide. We can't lump them all together."

Just as there is no one explanation for the 5,000 adolescent suicides each year, there is no one explanation for any particular suicide. While it is often said that suicide may be committed by 12 different people for 12 different reasons, it may be just as true that one person may choose death for 12 different reasons or 100 different reasons--biological, sociological and psychological factors that tighten around one place and time like a knot.

Although many adolescent suicides are said to have come "out of the blue," the majority of adolescents who kill themselves can be found, on closer inspection, to have had clearly discernible and often longstanding difficulties.

Certainly, although Justin Spoonhour's suicide was unexpected, there were many possible contributing factors that might be emphasized by different experts according to their professional orientations. After his death, some Putnam Valley, N.Y., townspeople said, "He killed himself because he wasn't given a flower on Valentine's Day." Although this is a simplistic response, a psychiatrist might point out that Justin's rejection on Valentine's Day mirrored rejections he had experienced throughout his life by his classmates.

Others observed, "He killed himself because he was different, he was a loner--he liked Beethoven and everyone else listened to Michael Jackson." Although listening to Beethoven is not commonly known to cause suicide, it is one example of Justin's isolation and how that isolation led to ostracism.

Even his few attempts to belong to the mainstream--joining the Cub Scouts, becoming the track manager--were met with scorn. Another psychiatrist might point to the high standards Justin set for himself, standards that were difficult for the rest of the world to live up to.

A third psychiatrist might point to the lack of a stable family life. Although he was the child of an intact marriage, Justin, 14, was often alone at home, both because of his lack of friends and because his parents' jobs often kept them away. Justin seemed, in fact, to be most at home in the fantasy worlds he created.

Other experts would highlight other influences. A sociologist might point out the effect of changing social mores and the difficulties faced by a child of '60s' parents growing up in the conservative '80s. And though much of Justin's isolation seemed to be self-imposed, another sociologist might stress that in rural towns like Putnam Valley, making and keeping friends is especially difficult when they are all a car ride away.

A philosopher might point to Justin's extreme sensitivity to the problems of the world, especially his apparent anxiety over the nuclear threat. A physician or a developmental psychologist would certainly observe that all these influences were heightened by the traditional chaos of puberty, a time when biological changes were shaking up his world, and Justin was beginning to grapple with questions of sexuality.

All these responses might be correct, but separately, no one of them would be the truth. Like the blind men who grab different parts of the elephant and misidentify the beast, suicide experts, exploring suicide from their own perspectives, end up supplying only part of the whole. "Suicide is a biological, sociocultural interpersonal, dyadic, existential malaise," says Edwin Shneidman, a psychologist who has devoted his life to the study of suicide. Shneidman's definition is cumbersome, but it may be the most accurate we have.

Not surprisingly, suicidal adolescents are more apt to come from families where there have been problems: loss of a parent through divorce, death or desertion; constant parental quarreling; physical or emotional abuse; poor communication, frequent moves. But death is not the only way in which adolescents may lose someone close to them. Psychiatrist Barry Garfinkel found that adolescents who attempted suicide came from families who showed more "disintegration." Families of attempters had higher rates of medical problems, psychiatric illness, alcohol and drug abuse, paternal unemployment, and a rate of suicide or suicide attempts eight times higher than normal.

Child psychiatrist Cynthia Pfeffer of Cornell University Medical College found that parents of suicidal children were subject to intense mood shifts, lacked the ability to delay gratification and were extremely dependent and incapable of communicating with their children. They were like children themselves.

In much of this research, science merely confirms common sense. But while many suicides come from broken, disturbed homes, many grow up in intact, loving families. What makes one child grow up liking himself and another child grow up hating himself?

1991 by George Howe Colt. Reprinted with permission from Summit Books.

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