Category Archives: suicide

The Basics of Mass Suicide

Mass suicide is not as uncommon as you’d think nor is it a modern phenomenon or even an event confined to crazed cults. Mass suicide is defined simply: when a large amount of people kill themselves at the same time. There are several different types of mass suicide events that can occur, each for a different reason and for different goals. The most infamous events of mass suicides are those that are related to religious groups or cults. These predominately occur when the group is being threatened and is close to being defeated causing them to resort to mass suicide instead of being captured. Another common reason that mass suicide can occur is due to a suicide pact being agreed on by a small group of people who are depressed or hopeless. Most times, the people participating have thought of committing suicide outside of the group setting and chose to do it with others for moral support. The third reason that people may choose to participate in a mass suicide is due to wanting to create a political statement or protest.

Regardless of the circumstances, mass suicide creates a shock factor. They are not, however, always seen in a negative light as one might assume. A societies’ attitude towards mass suicide may change depending on the time, place or circumstances in which it took place. For example, people who chose mass suicide rather than giving into an oppressive regime or person are often seen in a heroic light. In comparison, mass suicides that take place because of a cult leader’s request are often seen in a more negative light.

Mass suicide has been recorded in a magnitude of different cultures and under a variety of different circumstances. One of the earliest reordered examples of mass suicide is that of the people of Astapa in 206 BCE. They killed themselves and burned down their city knowing that they would inevitably be captured and their city destroyed by the Roman General Publius Cornelius Scipio. There is also a stereotype that mass suicide is performed at the request of or because of the leadership of a man, however history has shown this is not always the case. When the Turkish ruled Greece, the women in the town of Souli threw their children off a mountain and jumped after them in order to escape the Ottomans who were pursing them in event now known as the Dance of Zalongo.

In some cultures, mass suicide has also been known to hold a ritual status. In Balinese culture, it is called puputan which means finishing or ending. It is symbolic and is often tied to theatre where it is seen as the ‘last act of a tragic dance-drama’.

While it is easy to speculate what drives a large amount of people to commit suicide together, often times there is no one reason and many components play a role in driving the event.

Zalongos Dance by Claude Pinet depicts the mass suicide of the women of Souli.

 

Death Machine

Right to die groups over the year have tried to portray death as a positive experience. They want to desensitize the general public to death, removing the negative connotations of assisted suicide. Dr. Philip Nitschke is looking to revolutionize the controversial topic of euthanasia with his death machine, the Sarco.

In 1997, Nitschke founded Exit International, a nonprofit that advocates for the legislation of euthanasia. This followed him administering the first legal, lethal, voluntary injection to a terminally ill patient in history. This occurred under the short-lived Australian Rights of Terminally Ill Act, but it shifted his perspective of self-inflicted suicide. Rather than being a concept reserved for the terminally ill, he believed that any rational adult should be allowed to experience a “good” death. Modern medicine can keep individuals alive for far longer than previously possible, leaving people in deteriorating states.

The majority of Exit Internationals members are the elderly, providing them with information on how to die with dignity. What Nitschke is currently striving for is to provide individuals with a death that is more than just “dignified.” He wants the passing into the afterlife to be a euphoric experience. Therefore, the Sarco was designed to have a spaceship-like aesthetic to make it seem as if an individual is “journeying to the great beyond.” This would remove the stigma that was often associated with the doctor’s prior machines. The previous inventions tended to reinforce the macabre stereotype of death, which served to put people off. Rather than dying strapped to a plastic bag, an individual can choose where and when to initiate the procedure.

The main draw behind the Sarco is that in concept it can be transported anywhere. No longer will people be restricted to hospitals to administer the euthanasia, they will have the opportunity to take into account the critical factor of where you die. The process is also painless and provides one of the most soothing feelings before death. The machine euthanizes individuals through hypoxia, where the oxygen level is lowered to the point that a person can still breath easily to receive the intoxicating sensation. The user then subsequently looses consciousness and dies.

The process to utilize the machine is also very personal, limiting outside interventions. A user has to fill out a survey which declares if they are mentally fit to make the decision, and they then receive a 24-hour access code to use at any Sarco machine in the world. When the code is entered at a device, the process commences. It’s an exciting concept, providing individuals with a possible alternative that could make their experience more personal and unique. In the end, it allows individuals the opportunity to achieve what they could consider being a “good” death on their own terms.

References:

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sarco-death-philip-nitschke_us_5abbb574e4b03e2a5c7853ca

Meet the Elon Musk of Assisted Suicide

 

 

Death of the Northern White Rhino

This week, the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, finally died from age-related complications along with a newly developed infection on the back of his right leg. To prevent the complete death of the species, Sudan had been kept under the protection of armed guards at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Conservationists expected his death, but regardless, his passing still shocked the world.

Though most news outlets have reported that Sudan died at the age of 45, most chose to omit the fact that he was euthanized. Would it be that the news agencies are trying to steer the public perception of Sudan’s death away from the conceptual “bad” death? The problem with this is that according to Michael C. Kearl, Sudan died according to the predetermined scripture. By definition, his passing should be considered good as it was an “on time” and those closest to him had felt the warning of his death. This serves to bring up the idea that his putting down might have been left out of major news stories due to the negative stigma associated with human euthanasia. The putting down of animals is something that has garnered near universal support over the past couple of decades, even receiving approval from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Though Sudan is not considered a human being, the status he had garnered before his death on social media and in the news granted him the title of essentially a celebrity. Therefore, due to the social stigma associated with assisted suicide and euthanasia for human beings, certain news outlets might have chosen to omit this information due to Sudan’s transcendence of status.

The dismay felt by the world is not solely directed at his death but the “death” of the northern white rhino species as a whole. The issue that arises with Sudan’s death is while it should serve as the species’ death warrant, the intervention of medical practices and technologies are complicating the process. Similar to an extent to the case of Terri Schiavo, developing technologies are making individuals question whether this truly means the end for the species. The Schindler’s experienced the same confusion when doctors provided information on unproven therapies and treatments that could restore brain function to their daughter. What the general public is currently dealing with is the initiative by scientists to attempt to take sex cells harvested from northern white rhinos and use them through the method of IVF (In Vitro Fertilization) to impregnate southern white rhino surrogates. Though the technology is experimental, it leaves the general public in a state of uncertainty similar to that of Terri Schiavo’s parents, unsure of whether to mourn the death of the species or not.

References:

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/northern-white-rhino-male-sudan-death-extinction-spd/

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43468066

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/euthanasia-for-animals-what-can-it-teach-us-about-assisted-suicide-in-humans-10405840.html

 

The Death of a Dog

Old black lab whose fur is beginning to grey

“Wise old man” by Shaun Hopkinson is licensed under CC by 2.0

In our society, it is common practice to euthanize dogs in old age either with or without chronic medical conditions. However, physician assisted suicide for human beings is controversial and only legal in some parts of the United States. Now, I understand that the comparison between the death of a dog and the death of a human may appear insensitive or tactless, but I think it is one that deserves attention. I frequently hear dog owners, myself included, say that they love their dog as if they were their own child. If this love is so intense and comparable to the love we give other humans, why do we, as a society, condone and even promote the euthanasia of dogs while we shudder at the idea of euthanizing humans?

Pet owners often decide to put a dog down because they are in apparent pain, or the family believes that they should not suffer any longer. The family makes this decision based on the observed quality of life, but they have no idea of the dog’s wishes. Dogs cannot speak for themselves or express their will, but humans make the decision to end their life for them. It is never an easy decision, but it is one that our society supports.

The euthanasia of humans is a much more divisive topic in our society. In recent years, physician assisted suicide has become legal in some states. The idea is that those with chronic conditions may choose to die with dignity. Yet, many regulations are in place, for example, the patient must request to die at least three times, twice verbally and once written, and the person requesting to die must be able to administer the drugs themselves.

These requirements are not necessary for euthanizing dogs. The consent of the dog is not obligatory, and the fatal concoction is administered by a veterinarian, not the dog. While it may seem silly to expect anything of that nature from a dog, I think in some situations it is also ludicrous to expect it from a chronically ill human. Quadriplegics with a poor quality of life and the desire to die are not eligible for physician assisted suicide despite their request because they would not be able to submit a written request nor administer the drugs themselves.

This post is by no means an extensive analysis of euthanasia nor is it an argument in favor of physician assisted suicide or one against the euthanasia of family pets. I simply found it to be an interesting perspective on the matter. An article from the New York Times, titled The Death of the Doctor’s Dog offers a more detailed account of the moral questions that arise when discussing the euthanasia of any living being.

 

References:

https://www.deathwithdignity.org/learn/death-with-dignity-acts/

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/well/live/death-dying-doctors-dog-euthanasia.html

Waiting to Die

There is an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Dr. Meredith Grey has a patient have a close call with death. Yet when she delivers the happy news that her patient has survived to the family, she is met with groans and disappointment. When I first watched this episode, I remember being appalled. How could beating death not bring about anything but celebration?

But after re-watching that episode, I realized that the family had every right to be disappointed. The woman had been fighting an illness and had previously had many ‘close calls’ with death, which left her exhausted and drained. She wanted to die and her family wanted to let her go, but medicine kept bringing her back. My question changed when re-watching this episode, and I wondered: when does our fear of dying become less of a fear and more of something to look forward to? And is having nine lives worse than having just one?

https://ichef-1.bbci.co.uk/news/304/media/images/67084000/jpg/_67084239_euthanasia-spl.jpg

Looking forward to death is not just a plot twist in a TV show or something new for patients being sustained solely by medical advancements. Traumatizing injuries such as paralysis from the neck down or illnesses that deteriorate a person’s body such as ALS have lead to excruciating mental and physical pain for many patients. Yet medical advancements have allowed for patients conditions such as these to live on, with severe side effects such as suffering and keeping the person ‘trapped’ inside of their failing body.  This balance between medical advancements and patient comfort has initiated a discussion on assisted suicide, bringing up the debate of if patients have the right to die.

The argument for allowing a patient to die, or giving their physician the right to assist them if they are physically unable to, is one that focuses on giving patients the right to die with dignity. Being brought back to life multiple times by having ‘nine lives’, having drug after drug pumped into your system or feeling your  body deteriorate while still mentally cognizant of it is a terrible fate. These treatments can turn the will to live into a preference to die, showing that saving body at all costs does not solve everything. It is necessary to let patients have the option to die because it gives them the option of quality of live over quantity of life.

Although some argue that letting a patient die by their own choice, or assisting in their suicide, is against the Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm”, I believe it is the opposite. Allowing or helping a patient die when there is no hope of getting better is a way of reducing pain and suffering.  Once a patient has been labeled as having no hope for recovery or given a warning that they will die in however many months, I believe that the patient should have every right to organize their death on their own timetable.

From Heathers to 13 Reasons Why: Romanticizing Suicide

The 1998 film Heathers follows the life of Veronica Sawyer, the witty and contemplative protagonist who is disillusioned with the shallowness of high school and her ultra-popular, conventionally beautiful, and wealthy friends: the “Heathers.” The film became a cult classic for its use of sardonic, dark humor to illuminate issues of teen-bullying, sexual violence, and apathy.  Heathers was certainly subversive for its time, but concerningly enough, still provides relevant commentary on society today, particularly with media portrayal of suicide.

In the movie, following the “suicides” of several students in the school, Ms. Fleming, the school’s guidance counselor, gathers the student body in an assembly to publically mourn and express their feelings while local news reporters broadcast the event.  It’s a thinly veiled exploitation of the emotional vulnerability of the students and of the tragedy itself, and Veronica doesn’t hold back on pointing it out:

“These little programs are eating up suicide up with a spoon.  They’re making it sound like it’s a cool thing to do!”

Twenty years later, it seems that Veronica’s important criticism has still fallen on deaf ears: mental illness and suicide continues to be romanticized in the media.  One such example is Netflix’s show Thirteen Reasons Why, which, as the title states, details the protagonist’s “reasons why” she committed suicide through a series of tapes she recorded before ending her life.  The show has been criticized in many aspects: it overlooks the sensitive nuances of mental health and simplifies Hannah’s suicide as a consequence of the actions of 13 people.  It fails to show viewers that therapy and/or medication can be extremely helpful and successful.  Most disturbingly, it shows the graphic scene of Hannah killing herself.  The viewer see everything: the cuts she makes, the agony she is in, and the blood.  Lots of blood.

Because it is well known that media portrayal of suicide has a strong influence in the public psyche, reportingonsuicide.org details guidelines on how to carefully discuss suicide.  It is emphasized to not describe the suicide method and to not glamorize the suicide, both of which 13 Reasons Why blatantly does.  Some have gone as far to say that 13 Reasons is a “suicide revenge fantasy,” in which Hannah gets to live on through her tapes and make her tormenters fully face the guilt and consequences of their actions.  What the show doesn’t show: weeks or months later, when the school moves on and forgets, and Hannah is still gone.  The devastating consequences it will have on her family and close friends for years and years.  The alternative life where she received proper professional help and slowly moved past feeling defined by her trauma.

Does this mean that we should completely refrain from discussing suicide?  Certainly not – Selena Gomez, co-producer of 13 Reasons, may have had the right intentions with raising awareness about suicide and mental health, but failing to consult mental health professionals resulted in a dangerous show that is far from a model of how to thoughtfully address mental health.  With that said, shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend and Bojack Horseman are breaking ground with much more nuanced and honest depictions of mental illness; Crazy Ex Girlfriend displays therapy in a positive light while also exploring the mundane and difficult work that comes with addressing mental illness (and also handles a suicide attempt in a very non-sensationalized manner).  Bojack Horseman doesn’t shy away from the ugliness that wraps around the protagonist’s depression, self-loathing, and self-destructive decisions, while still portraying him as a painfully sympathetic character.  While these shows are certainly not perfect (and sometimes walk a fine line between provocative and problematic), I hope that future producers and directors look to them, and not shows like 13 Reasons, when tackling mental health and suicide in TV and film.

https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/does-13-reasons-why-glamorize-teen-suicide-w476303

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/03/still-very-25-years-later-the-bleak-genius-of-em-heathers-em/359828/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: suicidepreventionlifeline.org

Emory Resources:

Student Counseling Center (mental health concerns): 404-727-7450

Respect Program Hotline (24/7 sexual/interpersonal violence support): 470-270-5360

Southern Christian Mourning

In the fall of my sophomore year, my friend Kalyssa, who attended Georgia State University, killed herself. While suicide is in itself worthy of a discussion post, I was struck by the radical differences in funeral and funerary processes between her culture and mine. Kalyssa Fuentes and I had attended the same middle and high school, we had the same friends, and shared an unrivaled passion for Rihanna. Yet at her funeral, I felt entirely out of place.

I have attended my fair share of funerals for grandparents and family friends, but always from a Jewish perspective. Our funerals, at least in my synagogue’s practice, are short affairs that take place at the cemetery. We tear our clothes and inter the body quickly. Following the burial, we sit shiva for a week and do not work, look into mirrors, or bathe in warm water. For the Fuentes family, the funeral took place at a church, following a viewing with an open casket. It is the casket that stands out most clearly in my mind; I had never seen a body before. Kalyssa’s body was blocked from direct view by a veil, but she was still able to be seen. She looked like she was made of plastic, and she had been dead for two days, so I assume that she was embalmed. There was no smell. 

The funeral itself took place in an African Methodist Episcopal church, where the Fuenteses had found a community after immigrating from Trindidad. The word that immediately came to mind during the service was ostentatious — the people did not look, to me, to be in mourning. The women wore large hats, the choir wore bright robes, and they passed around pamphlets featuring Kalyssa’s face. There was a section of the service devoted to a memorial film, featuring Kalyssa singing a solo in our high school choir during a trip to Rome. Despite this, it was evident that everyone present, for whom this sort of service was the norm, was deeply moved.

Since attending Kalyssa’s funeral, I have been to a handful of others that were christian, all of which also involved a viewing of the body before burial. Although personally I feel a bit disturbed by the practice, I believe that the process of seeing the body prior to burial to be important to some people in order to accept the death of their loved ones. Viewings may not be a part of my own culture, but are an interesting way to explore the grief.

Image

Seppuku – Honorable Suicide

A staged version of the Japanese ritual suicide known as Seppuku or Hara-Kiri, circa 1885. The warrior in white plunges a knife into his belly, while his second stands behind him, ready to perform the decapitation. (Photo by Sean Sexton/Getty Images)

As an anime fan, one thing that I have grown to love and appreciate is the diversity and uniqueness of both modern and traditional Japanese culture. One practice that does stand out to me is the practice of the honorable death known as Seppuku.  Seppuku, death by self-disembowelment, became a ritualized and institutionalized form of suicide among the Samurai in Feudal Japan; and it was seen has a form of honor and courage reserved for the Samurai, the traditional Japanese military. I was interested in learning a little bit more about this practice especially with our recent class discussions of what constitutes a “good” death or a “bad” death.

The deaths of Minamoto Yorimasa, a poet, and Minamoto Tametono, a samurai, describes the earliest known acts of Seppuku. Seppuku, which describes a process of slicing the stomach open, was considered the most courageous, straightforward and bravest way to die because the stomach was considered to be where the human spirit resided. In these practices, witnesses would sit discreetly to the side while the samurai, dressed in white, would kneel on large white cushion. The Samurai would then inflict the fatal injury to his stomach and his Kaishakuin, second in command or assistant, would make sure the Samurai did not experience prolonged suffering and ensured a honorable death.

Seppuku’s adoration and inspiration in Japanese culture has remained even today and can be seen depicted in movies, plays, novels, anime and more. During WWII, in the Pacific Islands, American soldiers witness Japanese militia committing this ritual right before their very eyes. After losing the war, some men and women performed the ritual in order to serve as an apology to the Emperor of Japan.  But for people who are not Japanese the practice has been held with horrid fascination.I think this is because each individual has their own qualms about the topic of death and even more so suicide. So for me, it is interesting to see how understanding death is highly influenced by the culture, the society and the time and how they all play a major role in determining what constitutes a “good” or “bad” death.

References

http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/honorable-death-samurai-and-suicide-feudal-japan-005822

Fusé, Toyomasa. “Suicide and culture in Japan: A study of seppuku as an institutionalized form of suicide.” Social Psychiatry 15.2 (1980): 57-63.

 

 

The 27 Club

the-27-club-musicians-who-died-at-27-years-old-1234932539

There is a group of rock starts whom all died at the age of 27 that perfectly exemplify the idea of a good death or a bad death. Currently, there are 49 members on this list, most famously including Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse.  In a famous quote by Neil Young he stated “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”. This was later cited in the suicide note of Kurt Cobain. The idea behind this quote- and what is thought many of these young rock stars’ deaths is defining the difference between a good death and a bad death.

Here, a good death is one where you die famous, still in the spotlight and doing amazing things, never becoming old and fading away. A bad death is one where you slowly lose your sparkle and your death will no longer greatly influence your fans. When Kurt Cobain killed himself, people went in to mourning. Everyone remembers when they heard Kurt Cobain died, everyone cared when Amy Winehouse overdosed. I remember working at a summer camp for children and everyone screaming about how awful Winehouse’s death was. It is hypothesized that all of these members of the 27 club took their lives so that they could remain their young, beautiful, rock star selves in the minds of their fans forever- leaving a legacy. While there is proof that many of the members committed suicide, there is also thought that many of those that overdosed, did it purposefully. This would support the idea of their strategic deaths.

This reminds me of royal suicide. In some communities, when a king feels he is becoming weak, he will kill himself so that his people will not ever have to see him weak and the royal system can continue on- always having a powerful, strong body in power. While obviously the rock stars of this club don’t have as great of an impact as an actual king- they did call Elvis the “king of rock” and we all know what  the public’s response when he died!

 

Link to 27 club list:

http://ppcorn.com/us/2015/10/16/musicians-members-27-club/

College Students and Suicide

We were in one of Emory’s freshman dorms celebrating my 19th birthday. The surprise party, pink- and-orange  decorations, white lights, and the warmth of my friends made the day pretty memorable. Yet, that day was made unforgettable for a different reason.

It was after everyone left that I began opening my presents. I had opened all of my presents and read most of my cards when I came across a handwritten birthday card that was decorated in red and green marker-ink. Inside the card was a very, very long note. I was going to put the card aside until I realized that the note was from one of my closest friends. I had known her all my life and was fortunate enough to be attending the same college with her – someone who was there to witness every awkward phase of my life as I matured and grew. The card began with the typical birthday wishes and a recollection of some of the best memories we shared as friends. When I reached the middle of the note, my life would never be the same again.

My friend, who I loved dearly and knew so well, confessed that I had saved her life one day. It was the middle of the semester and she had attempted to intentionally overdose on a medication, thinking that it would end her life. She was in the midst of this process when she received a phone call from me. I had called to ask her a question but also to check in on how she was doing. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. She said she was stressed and going through a difficult time. I tried to say something encouraging; however, I don’t recall exactly what I said to her. Nevertheless, I had come to know later that that simple gesture was enough for her to change her mind.

College students are at that point in the semester in which mental illness surfaces the most. There are so many reasons why this makes sense. With midterms, projects, writing assignments, extracurriculars, enrollment and with the added pressure of finding their individual motivation and purpose in life there is no doubt that college students can be subjected to all forms of mental illnesses. However, sometimes colleges or universities are not as understanding when students act on their state of mind.

W.P., a pseudonym for a first-year student at Princeton in 2013, was forced to leave after he attempted suicide for the third time. It is well known that in cases such as these, intensive psychiatric treatment becomes mandated. However, lesser known is that if students don’t voluntarily take a leave of absence after they pose a threat to themselves, they are involuntarily withdrawn from the university such as in the case of W.P. While he suggested other alternatives such as taking a lighter course load or living off campus, he was told that these conditions would “fundamentally alter the nature of a Princeton education.” Additionally, Princeton did not want to be held accountable for W.P.’s suicidal tendencies.

This is not an uncommon process. To keep things in its natural order, many universities require suicidal students to leave campus. Nevertheless, it was the act of leaving campus itself that almost completely hindered W.P’s recovery process. He lost his motivation in life and his self-esteem. According to W.P.’s psychiatrist, “An important aspect of W.P.’s recovery [was] a sense of purpose. Requiring a leave of absence and excluding him from the university community at this time [would] be detrimental to his health and well-being.”

When W.P. was denied an appeal, he filed a lawsuit against Princeton accusing it of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fair Housing Act Amendments. However, Princeton won on the basis that it simply “did not want to gamble with W.P.’s life”

This New Yorker article brings to mind the question of what Emory does when it encounters a student who has had thoughts of ending his or her life. Taking a year off might be beneficial to some but to others like W.P. it does not do much to find that sense of purpose in life. For that whole year, you might feel less resilient. You might feel like you’re wasting time. College is all about discovering yourself and what you are passionate about. It does not always come immediately and it does not always turn out the way you expected or imagined it would. However, what ultimately matters is constantly surrounding yourself by people who you think/know might care. And if you ever sense that someone is going through a rough time, just a simple “how are you doing” might even be sufficient. You never know the impact that your actions might have on someone else’s life as I came to know the day I received that birthday card.

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/suicidal-students-allowed-campus