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US expert's three suggestions to help cut the rising suicide toll

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Understanding suicide is the specialty of psychology professor Thomas Joiner.

Sometime in the next few months, the Ministry of Health will release the new national Suicide Prevention Strategy. Understanding suicide is the specialty of Thomas Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University, whom I heard speaking in Orlando last month. He is concerned that the number of US deaths by suicide is rising, and speculates as to why.

First, he says, the US is characterised by a “particularly rugged” brand of individualism. Individuals get to own not only their successes, but also their losses and weaknesses. In a society of individualists, people are going to find it harder to feel connected to others, and that is not only a failure, but also damages one of the fundamental pillars of democracy.

Why is a wishy-washy notion such as connectedness a big deal? Does it really matter if you’re given the cold shoulder, or ostracised by others?

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In our prehistory, the answer was yes. If the tribe turned its back on you, you could freeze or starve to death. Although such a fate is unlikely to befall you these days, our drive to connect has been ingrained for far longer than it hasn’t mattered so much. Prescription No 1: we need to make it easier for people to feel part of something.

Second, Joiner points to changes in the kinds of media we view. In the 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho qualified as a “scary” movie. (It even showed the first flushing of a toilet – sending torn-up pieces of paper gurgling – on US cinema screens, for goodness’ sake!) These days, Psycho looks pretty tame, and instead we get to watch such movies as 2017’s remake of IT, based on the Stephen King book – admittedly not an apples-with-apples comparison.

But Joiner suggests a diet of increasingly desensitising horror and violence is lowering our shock thresholds and making it easier to contemplate stepping from thought into action. Prescription No 2: we aren’t going to turn back the tide, but we can control what we (and our children) see and think of as “normal”.

Thomas Joiner. Photo/Supplied

Third, booze. New Zealand experts such as Annette Beautrais and Sarah Fortune have argued that we’re going to have to grapple with alcohol reform if we’re serious about lowering our suicide rates. Although we don’t know exactly how many local deaths by suicide involve alcohol, because we don’t have a consistent toxicology record, many of those for which there is a toxicology report involve alcohol.

Joiner has a subtly different spin. Alcohol, he says, is bad, but the issue is more nuanced. He points to data for blood-alcohol rates from suicide and homicide deaths in Stockholm: homicide victims routinely have more alcohol in their systems.

Before using this to argue that we don’t need to worry so much about booze as a contributor to deaths by suicide, in my mind this really just strengthens the two-birds-with-one-stone argument for making it harder for people to get their Dutch courage. Prescription No 3: I don’t think I need to spell it out.

If there’s one thing the experts agree on, it’s that death, like life, is complicated. I’m looking forward to seeing whether the Ministry of Health strategy would get Joiner’s nod.

Where to get help with mental health

Need to talk?: free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor, anytime.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757

Samaritans: 0800 726 666

Youthline: 0800 376 633  or email talk@youthline.co.nz

Healthline: 0800 611 116

This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.