Doctors, athletes and prostitutes: the deadly common denominator

[ Sun. Jan. 29. 2006 ]

FIRST CAME the Beethoven concert, the boat trip on a lake and the fine dinner; then the tearful goodbyes and the barbiturates. On the eve of her 67th birthday, surrounded by her adoring children, Dr Anne Turner finally ended a life that would have been cruelly curtailed by progressive supranuclear palsy, an incurable degenerative disease. “I don’t think death has ever held any fear for me,” she once said.

Suicide is a horribly arresting phenomenon. Remember the photograph of the lawyer teetering on a window ledge in West London before jumping to her death? Remember the footage of the young Indian woman who threw herself and her two young children under the Heathrow Express?

Taking one’s own life goes against one of our strongest urges — the instinct of self-preservation. The deterioration of this instinct, says Thomas Joiner, Bright-Burton Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, should be regarded as a symptom of disease. “There’s an idea that suicide is a mode of death that stands apart from others, but there are clear reasons why people die by suicide,” he says. “Just like heart disease, if you understand it, you can prevent it.”

His theory, outlined in Why People Die By Suicide (Harvard University Press), published this month, is that it happens when severely depressed people acquire fearlessness. How do people become fearless? Through practice and learning, he says. This explains the bouts of self-harm or failed suicide attempts that are not cries for help so much as rehearsals for a deadly finale.

He also points out that certain groups who are exposed repeatedly to pain and suffering — anorexics, doctors, athletes, prostitutes — have higher rates of suicide than other groups. Their acquired immunity to fear and pain is the extra crucial ingredient that, combined with a perception of being a burden and a feeling of not belonging, can have a fatal outcome.

Joiner, whose father killed himself, adds that anti-suicide campaigns may be counterproductive because they serve as a reminder of the act. He says that the most effective way of preventing suicide is to improve a person’s sense of belonging and contribution to society. Since killing oneself requires fearlessness, shouldn’t we revise the portrayal of suicide as the ultimate act of cowardice?

  • ON TO cheerier matters. When people turn up to a dinner before the appointed 7pm start, you know it’s going to be fun. And so it was on Tuesday when the literary agent John Brockman hosted a gathering in Soho. I showed up at 7.10pm, depriving myself of ten minutes of serious schmoozing.

    Brian Eno was there, as were Richard Dawkins and Simon Baron-Cohen, the autism researcher. Colin Blakemore, the head of the Medical Research Council, came along, joining the authors Olivia Judson, Matt Ridley, Armand Leroi and David Bodanis (the fastest talker I’ve ever met). Ian McEwan dropped by. The editors ofNature, New Scientist and Prospect mingled amiably.I ended up sharing a pudding plate with Craig Venter, the Celera Genomics entrepreneur who helped to unravel the human genome and in whose honour the dinner was held. Venter feels aggrieved at his portrayal in the British press as a ruthless, money-grabbing maverick (I’d be a bit miffed, too, if my enemies compared me with Hitler, as happened to Venter in a book extract in The Guardian). He points out that he owns fewer patents than Francis Collins, the publicly funded American scientist who was another leading figure in the Human Genome Project.

    But when you’re clever enough to start your own research institute, rich enough to drive an Aston Martin and famous enough to have inspired several unauthorised biographies, surely you can rise above it? “Underneath, it still hurts,” says Venter, with endearing honesty. I await his autobiography, due out next year, with eagerness.

  • TRUST Ken Livingstone to come up with another original political idea. At a debate in City Hall to mark the paperback publication of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, the Mayor of London suggested that anyone believing in the afterlife should be barred from public office. If politicians thought they had only this life, he argued, they would make a better fist of it. The audience clapped with delight. I don’t think Ken was joking.

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