Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/June 1897/Suicide and the Environment


IN the discussion of the increase of suicide in the United States, a great deal has been said in the consideration of the act as a crime, but little, comparatively, in reference to its causes or to those preventives which society has power to enforce. Dr. D. R. Dewey, who some years ago made a careful study of the question as it related to the New England States, declared that since the year 1860 suicide had increased in those States to the extent of thirty-five per cent. This percentage, with but slight variations, will probably apply to all other States of the Union where there is great industrial and commercial activity.

Suicide is so violent a reversal of that strongest instinct of Nature—the instinct of self-preservation—that its causes and preventives will always be the subject of deep and careful investigation. If it is on the increase, there must be causes for its increase, and these causes being ascertained, it is then our duty to devise means for its prevention. Insanity, heredity, financial reverses, and domestic complications may be direct incentives to suicide, but back of them all is the real cause—the growth of a nervous, disordered temperament in the American people. The steady habits of our colonial ancestors no longer satisfy us, and, as a consequence, those amusements, those ventures and schemes which excite the mind and nervous system to the highest degree are becoming more and more prominent. This, no doubt, is the fundamental cause of all suicide. But it is only with the direct incentive that society is capable of dealing, and these direct causes are so numerous and varied that it is almost impossible to classify them with any degree of accuracy. The individual may be impelled to self-destruction by circumstances, by an innate craving or instinct, by an uncontrollable impulse, by the unhealthy reasoning of a disordered intellect, and by many other influences. Suicides may therefore be divided into two great classes—those in which reason is called upon to decide between life and death, and those which are due to impulse or insanity. In the former class the self-destroyer has, after reasoning upon his condition, come to the conclusion that death is the most acceptable of impending evils. In this class may be placed all those suicides due to sickness, financial embarrassment, ungratified ambition, the desire to escape justice, and causes of a like nature.

Among the second class, or those self-murders which are the direct or indirect outcome of insanity, may be included all cases of persons who are impelled to destroy their lives when insane, of those who commit the act on some trivial cause or provocation or from imitation, of those who while sane give way to sudden impulse, and of those who, after a longer or shorter struggle, succumb at their own hands to a growing impulse. Civilization, drunkenness, imitation, and hereditary propensities are accountable for much of the self-destruction prevalent; and so, to a greater or less extent, are age, sex, the state of health, and daily occupations of the victim.

Attempts have been made to prove that climate has an effect upon the rate of suicide, but these attempts have never done more than show that the temperate regions have the highest ratio. This, of course, is not due to the climate, but to the more complicated civilization, the greater physical and mental wear, and the more extensive interference with natural laws met with in the temperate regions. While it is true that climate exerts but little influence over the rate of suicide, the seasons, on the contrary, do strongly affect it. The popular belief is that suicide is more frequent during the months of winter and spring. This, however, is incorrect. Cold, wet, damp weather does not, as so many people suppose, promote despondency and suicide. Strange as it may seem, at that period of the year when the sufferings of the poor and the sick are least, when employment is most readily obtained, when the pleasure of living should be at its highest, suicide is most frequent. May, June, and July, the months of song and sunshine in all countries, give the greatest number of self-murders. For this there is no satisfactory explanation, unless we accept that of the medical fraternity, which is that during the period of early summer the organism is working at a higher tension, every function of mind and body is more active than at any other period of the year, and consequently there is greater liability to sudden physical and mental collapse.

The sad fact that suicide and education increase at an equal rate is now generally admitted. Civilization does not free humanity from grief, disgrace, and disappointment; but wherever civilization is highest the struggle for existence is fiercest, life is most artificial, and there the most failures of the human race are met with. There was a time in Roman history when suicide was almost epidemic. It was when the great republic had reached its acme of civilization—when poetry, art, and eloquence were triumphant. It is probable that the proportion of suicides due to mental derangements is increasing, but how rapidly can never be exactly determined. Morselli says that about one third of all suicides may be attributed to insanity.

Many people, however, anxious to stamp the act with reprobation, declare that every suicide is insane. This is wrong. While those who bring about their self-destruction may have acted wrongly or unwisely, we have not the right to declare them all insane. It is true that many persons brood over their troubles until everything loses proportion, their minds become unbalanced, and in such a state they kill themselves. In such cases the act may be correctly attributed to insanity. But what are we to say of those who are to all appearance rational and yet are the victims of sudden or growing impulses? Such people are not voluntary agents, and yet they can not be called insane. They are abnormal. There is a fatal defect in their organization which is incompatible with their survival under natural conditions. This defect may give rise to sudden impulses or may cause a growing gradual propensity which terminate in the final tragedy. Instantaneous impulses are often brought about by the slightest circumstances. Thus, gazing steadily at the wheels of an approaching train or looking down from some great height may produce a delirium, a distention of the blood-vessels of the brain, that instantly paralyzes the will of the victim.

In the consideration of those propensities which are of gradual growth we are confronted with an extremely difficult problem. We know that a great many of those who ultimately destroy themselves fight for years against the impulse. How are we to account in such cases for the persistence of the tendency toward suicide, which seems to be a part of their nature, a part which draws them instinctively to death just as the normal creature is drawn to a desire to live? For such cases heredity may be in a great measure responsible. It is clear that hereditary influences may reveal their force in the suicidal impulses as in many other of the problems of life.

Whole families have been known to kill themselves. There are a great many human beings who by nature are predisposed to self-destruction, and only wait through life for a calamity sufficiently great to prompt them to the act. They are victims of their own faulty organizations.

Individual temperament may have a great deal to do with the question of suicide. In America the population is largely composed of the various European races, and although these are living under the same conditions, each nationality retains its own peculiar rate of suicide. Drink and crime are responsible for a large proportion of the daily self-murders. Drunkenness, the most active agent of degeneration known, is directly responsible for those which occur during a period of nervous depression following a debauch. Among the criminal classes suicide is quite common, but it is among the petty and not the grave offenders that it occurs. Poverty and disease are also strong incentives to self-destruction. Suicide is often regulated by the price of bread. Life has few pleasures for the homeless and friendless. Death to them is often a welcome friend, a happy relief from walking the streets hungry.

How many suicides are directly attributable to disease can not be stated with exactness, but it may be said, nevertheless, that at the present time, with our advanced skill in surgery and medicine, suicide from disease is undoubtedly on the decrease. Of all suicides there are none to be pitied more than those who kill themselves to escape the racking pain of an incurable illness. For the victim of this sort there is no hope. Another class of suicides, which closely resemble those caused by disease, includes those due to infirmity. Often persons smitten with blindness, or who have met with some terrible accident, in a fit of discouragement kill themselves. Those blind or deformed from birth, however, seldom resort to suicide. Not knowing the pleasure of sight or limb, they go through life contented.

The theory that we hold more strongly to life as we approach its natural conclusion is contradicted by statistics, which everywhere show that the last half of life exhibits a great increase in the rate of suicide. And here it may be pointed out that as to the age of greatest frequency, suicide and crime are diametrically opposed. While suicide attains its highest rate after the prime of life is past, crime, on the contrary, reaches its highest point between the ages of twenty and thirty years. We remark, further, the alarming increase in late years of what is called child-suicide. It is here that education strongly asserts itself as a true and exciting factor, for it has been shown that in those countries where what we are pleased to call education is rigorously forced upon children, there child-suicide is most frequent. And for this system of forced education there is no excuse. It is terrible in its consequences. To increase the strain to just below the collapsing point is not to educate. It only serves to fill the world with nervous, neurotic, morbid beings.

Another cause of the increase of child-suicide is the fear of physical punishment. Instances of children destroying themselves because of punishment or the fear of threatened punishment are constantly recorded in the public prints. Repeated cruel punishments will often extinguish, even in the healthy child, the love of life so characteristic of youth. What, then, are we to expect of poor, devitalized children subjected to the cruelties of barbaric parents?

At the present day man is much more prone to suicide than woman. This is true of man in regard to epilepsy, crime, and other marked signs of degeneration. But it has been observed that as woman approaches man in her mode of life she also becomes more familiar with those abnormal conditions which have previously been peculiar to man. The comparative immunity of woman from self-destruction in the past has depended greatly upon the relatively less harassing part she has taken in the struggle for life. To-day it is different. Now woman occupies the fields of art, literature, finance, and even politics, and, as she goes deeper into these vocations, she must expect to suffer the consequences. Already it is noticeable that feminine suicide is not now entirely due to the sentimental causes of disappointed love, desertion, and jealousy, but to those trials of a more material order such as have led men to the act of self-destruction.

Imitation far exceeds any other of what are called "trivial causes" of suicide, and asserts itself more in woman than in man. It is much more common than is supposed. When self-destruction becomes epidemic, as it sometimes does, its prevalence very largely depends upon imitation. It is said that many years ago the wail of Thomas Hood over The One More Unfortunate brought many a sentimental person to a watery grave in the Thames. And in our own day the vivid representation of suicide upon the stage under conditions appealing forcibly to the imagination has been known to be followed by the self-imposed death of persons whose conditions resembled closely those of the suicide in the drama.

The daily papers are largely responsible for this class of suicides. It can scarcely be doubted that the general diffusion of newspaper reports familiarizes too much the minds of the people with suicide and crime. A single paragraph, a chance expression, a cause given which resembles that of the circumstances surrounding the reader, seizes the imagination, and in a morbid excitement the desire to repeat the act is born. Newspaper reports further promote suicide by inflaming the passion for the notoriety which will be conferred upon the perpetrator through their accounts of the act.

Has city life any influence over the proportion of suicides? This question must be answered in the affirmative. Where the population is dense and the laws of health are neglected, where dirt is common and vice flourishes, where the poor are concentrated, and where fortunes are made and lost in a day, will always be found the highest rate of suicide. It is in the poorer districts of our large cities that suicide is most frequent. In these districts the deprivations of light and air, the poverty, the diseased conditions about them, render the poor moody, morbid, and despondent, and raise in their minds a feeling that life is not desirable.

What can society do to prevent suicide among the poor? The obvious method would be to render their conditions more enjoyable by giving them ampler provisions for pleasure and recreation, making their surroundings more cleanly and agreeable, and by faithfully executing thorough, and most effective sanitation. Proper sanitary and hygienic measures have a wonderful effect in renewing the vitality of our people. They are powerful agents for improving morality.

There probably never will be a time when suicide will be unknown in the world, but there are many preventives that are of value to-day. Religion has in the past been a powerful preventive. But this fear dies out as religion becomes broader. The fear of future punishment on account of self-imposed death is not now the preventive of suicide that it was fifty or a hundred years ago. The moral influences of family life naturally have a tendency to decrease suicide. Thus it has been found that in a million of husbands without children there were four hundred and seventy suicides, and in the same number with children there were but two hundred and five. Of a million wives without children one hundred and fifty-seven committed suicide, as against forty-five with children; widowers without children, one thousand and four; with children, five hundred and twenty-six; widows without children, two hundred and thirty-eight; with children, but one hundred and four. These figures are eloquent pleaders in favor of family ties as conservators of life. They prove distinctly that man must love in order to live.

Laws prescribing punishment for suicide are solecisms. If we wish to prevent suicide we must change conditions for the better, not for the worse. Suicide is beyond the reach of the criminal code. Its prophylactic must be founded, not upon a statute, but upon a wise and judicious management, medical, moral, and philanthropical, of those unfortunate enough to attempt their lives. It would be far better and more humane to sweep away all legislation upon the subject so far as it relates to the individual, and even take for granted that every person is insane who attempts suicide, than to punish their attempts by imprisonment. If the victim is insane, efforts should be made to restore reason; and if failure is met with, a sanitarium should be provided. Those who are sane should be reasoned with, calmed, and assisted.

Our hearts should be filled with tender compassion for those whose lives have been such as to become valueless to them. We should pity them. In the gentlest language possible we should condone and not condemn their act; for it is only with a spirit of sympathy and not of vindictiveness that we can hope to study with profit the causes and preventives of suicide.