Suicide: Whodun it?
Why do people kill themselves? In case of celebrities, is it about the star lifestyle, or could the quiet obsessor at the bus stop be as susceptible to taking his life as William Shakespeare’s Romeo was?
The mention of suicide has two very diverse responses from us depending on the context and the narrative. The little boxes of news tucked away neatly in national newspapers announcing the death of some poor bloke evoke a moment of passing pity over the bowl of morning cornflakes. But the larger-than-life narratives of suicide by a public figure — like Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams, Ernest Hemingway, or closer home, Guru Dutt, Jiah Khan, Nafisa Joseph or the District Magistrate of Buxar Manish Pandey more recently — evoke a sense of deep tragedy, and sometimes even a cult following, which hero-worships the departed — as role models who turned their back on the world.
This often gives one the impression that the rockstar lifestyle, which popularity brings in its wake, creates the dangerous precipice legends go over, that these larger-than-life gods among us are more susceptible, somehow, than the average Joe, to giving up on the world.
But is that true? If not, then what is? And if it is true that wealth and fame are somehow connected to a life turning on itself, then what is it in the Faustian agreement which causes this downslide? Is it about the star lifestyle? Or could the quiet obsessor at the bus stop be as susceptible to take his life as Shakespeare’s Romeo was?
Creative Genius, Money, Or Poverty?
Stories and myths about troubled and tormented geniuses abound. Artist Van Gogh, writer Sylvia Plath, singer Chris Cornell, and actor Robin Williams — all creative minds, all suffered from mental health problems, and all, eventually, succumbed to their struggles inside. One is led to speculate if the creative vein in them, somehow, was also the vein that unhinged the mind.
Researchers and doctors are not so sure. They remain sceptical about the links between creativity and mental health issues that lead to suicide. Studies suggest that money or the lack of it may have more to do with suicides than creative genius or a decadent way of life.
A recently released publication by UK’s Office of National Statistics (produced in partnership with David Gunnell, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Bristol) that analysed death by suicide among various occupational groups for people aged 20 to 64 between 2011 and 2015 suggests that “the risk of suicide was elevated for those in culture, media, and sport occupations for males (20 per cent higher than the male average) and females (69 per cent higher)”.
But it concluded surprisingly that “suicide is highest amongst men involved in lowest-skilled occupations (44 per cent higher than the national male average there) and low-skilled male labourers (three times higher than the male national average); amongst women, it is the health professionals like carers and nurses that are at risk of committing suicide (24 per cent higher than the female national average)”.
The research also mentions three job related factors — low pay and low job security, having access to or knowledge of the methods of suicide, people with predefined characteristics or having a predisposition to alcoholism selectively choosing lines of work (like media) with easy access to alcohol and drugs — that may act together in an occupation making it prone to carry a high risk of suicide.
A closer look at the data shows that the study does not establish any clear links between creativity and poor mental health whereas the link between “poverty and mental health is better established”, states Professor David Gunnell of Bristol University, who co-authored the research with the ONS as quoted in The Telegraph, UK.
Closer home, in India, the 2014 data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) also shows that there is a direct link between suicides and poverty. Extensive data compiled by the NCRB segregates suicides under various causes. However, lack of money seems to be the most common one, with almost 70 per cent of suicides committed by those who had an annual income of less than Rs 1 lakh. Those earning between Rs 1-5 lakh comprised 27 per cent of victims, those who earned between Rs 5-10 lakh accounted for 2.8 per cent of suicides. Improved economic prosperity meant lesser chances of suicide with those earning Rs 10 lakh or above annually made up just 0.6 per cent of victims.
There are no conclusive studies to demonstrate that there is a link between creativity and suicide either. In 2016, in what is perhaps reportedly the largest study in the US to compare suicide rates among occupations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that it is the “farmers, lumberjacks and fishermen who kill themselves most often followed by carpenters, miners, electricians”. Artists, designers, entertainers, athletes and those in media ranked seventh on the suicide occupational list.
The findings of Senior Economist Daniel Wilson and two co-authors of a 2012 research by the San Francisco Federal Reserve, published in its newspaper, also established that if everything else was kept equal, there is a higher risk of suicide in wealthier neighbourhoods, often a result of the morbid mistake of trying to “keep up with the Joneses”. The study underlines how the happiness point of most people is largely based on their self-assessment in comparison with others. Suicide rates, according to the Fed study, were elevated in lower income level but become more pronounced if the victims are living in comparatively more affluent neighbourhoods. Those who were unemployed were at 72 per cent greater risk of crossing the line.
“Mental health and suicide are certainly linked but not creativity and suicide. There is no substantial data to support the argument. There are many creative people out there —living and extremely successful. Then there are also people who are battling mental disorders and are unable to cope up,” says Dr Roma Kumar, Senior Consultant and Clinical Psychologist based out of New Delhi.
Music & Misery: The Enduring Myth
So is the rate of suicide among celebrities and artists higher than the rate of suicide among common people? Opinions, views and unverified presumptions fly thick and fast. If nothing else, then the recent suicides of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington may lead us to believe that music, madness, and misery go hand in hand, but clearly, the answer is ‘no’.
If a higher social class and better economic status reduce the risk of suicidal behaviour, what then drives men and women who seem to have the world eating out of their hand go down under? For artists fighting mental disorders long before they became famous, it is easier to dabble with drugs to combat it. The result is a vicious cycle of depression-drugs-addiction-death.
In other cases, it could be pure existential angst that Martin Amis’ novel Night Train beautifully describes. Or it could be the ill-effect of what can be called a ‘rock-star lifestyle’. A way of living marked by excesses (of adulation, sex, drugs, and money), decadence and higher degree of narcissism combined with the pressure to keep up appearances and perform all the time.
Dr Roma Kumar agrees that the pressure of leading a life in the public eye is at times too much for a person to take. “Popularity and excesses could be just one reason. There are people who are unable to handle fame. The lifestyle and the baggage that it brings along changes a person. Dissatisfaction at not having achieved as much as one could have makes them susceptible to depression and ultimately leads to suicide in some cases. No suicide is sudden. In most cases, it is a result of a prolonged internal battle,” she adds.
More often than not, the reasons for suicide are more or less the same for both — the common men and the creative minds. It could be mental health issues, financial debts, failing health, relative poverty, drug abuse, sexual abuse, heartbreaks et al.
Both Cornell and Bennington were battling depression since long just like Robin Williams, who suffered from it through most of his adult life, and writer Virginia Woolf, who embraced death by drowning, fearing she was going to go mad again.
Sixty-nine-year-old musician Butch Trucks, who committed suicide in January this year, was reportedly under huge financial debt. Drummer Cliff Davies, 59, chose to end his life in 2008 because he was distressed over hefty medical bills.
Closer home, heartbreak became the cause that made models Viveka Babajee, Nafisa Joseph, TV actor Pratyusha Banerjee end their lives like their Western counterparts — Gia Allemand, Lucy Gordon, Carole Landis or perhaps even Marilyn Monroe.
Apparently, studies suggest that material wealth, fame and the associated trappings never kill you. It is the lack of it which can. Our impression that celebrity artists, musicians, painters, actors are more likely to give up on the world is a myth. A myth created by the massive coverage that media provides celebrities — in life and in death. A celebrity’s life is appropriated as public narrative and so is her suicidal death. But they who form the ‘public’ are a collective.
The farmer suicides are a ‘collective incident’ and stripped of their personal nature, whereas suicides by District Magistrate Manish Pandey or Robin Williams or Pratyusha Banerjee are replete with personal details, rendering them more poignant and fixing them in the collective consciousness in indelible ways. “This is what money and fame can do” — quip the people.
Celebs are what they are owing to their professions and lifestyle, therefore any incident of suicide amongst them seizes our imagination. Their life, the story behind the death is told and retold. It is this coverage which evokes a sense of tragedy and valourisation of the persona.
Conversations that happen around their deaths make sure that the narratives stay with us and lead us to believe that those who live it up large are more susceptible to suicide. The suicide of a common man does not make a tragic narrative.
‘He was a most peculiar man’
The story about a deeply disturbing song by Simon & Garfunkel goes that Paul Simon read about an old man who lived alone and had committed suicide by leaving the gas open in his house. Somehow, the news piece stayed with him, and was turned into a song that once heard can never be forgotten.
This song ‘A most peculiar man’ is that rare public narrative that stands for hundreds of thousands of unknown common suffering individuals who have committed suicide, giving in. Ironically, it took a rockstar to bring it to us.
Suicide and the complex reasons for using it as the last resort remain similar for most people — creative or lay, rich or poor. The rockstar’s story endures in public narrative, the poor man’s turns into arithmetic, sometimes lingering in an odd song:
“He was a most peculiar man/That’s what Mrs Reardon says/And she should know/She lived upstairs from him/She said he was a most peculiar man... He lived all alone within a house/Within a room, within himself... He had no friends, he seldom spoke/And no one in turn ever spoke to him/’Cause he wasn’t friendly and he didn’t care/And he wasn’t like them.../He died last Saturday/He turned on the gas and he went to sleep/With the windows closed/So he’d never wake up/To his silent world/And his tiny room/And Mrs Reardon says he has a brother somewhere/Who should be notified soon.../And all the people said/What a shame that he’s dead/But wasn’t he a most peculiar man?”
The writer is a new media professional, digital media teacher, and freelance journalist with various media outlets
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