The Suicide Paradox

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Season 1, Episode 3

If I were to ask you what’s more common in the U.S., homicide or suicide, what would you say?
Homicide is certainly a lot more prominent; it’s constantly in the headlines and in our public consciousness. But the fact is that suicide is more than twice as common as homicide. The preliminary numbers for 2009, the most recent year for which we have data, show there were roughly 36,500 suicides in the U.S. and roughly 16,500 homicides.

So why don’t we hear more about suicide? In part because it is a very different type of tragedy. Murder represents a fractured promise within our social contract, and it’s got an obvious villain. Suicide represents –- well, what does it represent? It’s hard to say. It carries such a strong taboo that most of us just don’t discuss it much. The result is that there are far more questions about suicide than answers. Like: do we do enough to prevent it? How do you prevent it? And the biggest question of all: why do people commit suicide?

Those are just a few of the questions we address in our latest hour-long Freakonomics Radio program, “The Suicide Paradox.” (You can listen or download via the link above or read a transcript here. This program and four more hours are being broadcast on public-radio stations across the country this summer, and they’ll all wind up in our podcast stream in short course. And you can subscribe to the Freakonomics Radio podcast on iTunes or via RSS.) I have to say, many of the answers we found were surprising. And the topic in toto, while obviously a difficult one, is fascinating.

David Lester, a suicidologist without peer.

You’ll hear a good deal from David Lester, a professor of psychology at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey who is considered the dean of suicide studies. He has an astonishing 2,500+ academic citations in total, more than half of which concern suicide. He is also president-elect of the American Association of Suicidology. His interest in the death goes back to his childhood in wartime England:

LESTER: The classic bomb that came over was called a buzz bomb because it was buzzing and that meant that the engine was going. Once it stopped buzzing it meant it would drop and maybe hit your house. My mother says that even as a toddler I was very concerned about them, I would listen for them. And actually she said that I would hear them before the air raid warnings went off, and I would warn everybody about a buzz bomb, and I would rush into the air raid shelter.

So, you know, as a graduate student in America, I started doing work on the fear of death and suicide without thinking of the genesis of it. And then ten years ago I remembered this picture of this little toddler who’s very worried about buzz bombs and hiding from them probably without a material concept of death, but obviously perhaps, laying the seeds of some interest that manifested itself later in life. And I’ve become a thanatologist in general, and a suicidologist in particular.

Lester may know more facts about suicide than just about anyone alive – and you’ll hear lots of them — but he is humble in the face of its causes:

LESTER: First of all, I’m expected to know the answers to questions such as why people kill themselves. And myself and my friends, we often, when we’re relaxing, admit that we really don’t have a good idea why people kill themselves.

The episode also features Steve Levitt, wondering why there aren’t more suicides than there are, and a fascinating story from the linguist Dan Everett, author of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, who tells us about the Pirahã tribe’s feelings about suicide.

An Amazonian tribe called the Piraha has all kinds of problems, but suicide is unheard of. (Photo courtesy Dan Everett)

Matt Wray

The Temple sociologist Matt Wray, whom you may remember from a podcast about the high suicide rate in Las Vegas (see his related paper here) discusses the American “suicide belt”:

WRAY: The American suicide belt is comprised of about ten western states, this sort of wide longitudinal swath running from Idaho and Montana down to Arizona and New Mexico. … So, yes the inner mountain west is a place that is disproportionately populated by middle-aged and aging white men, single, unattached, often unemployed with access to guns. This may turn out to be a very powerful explanation and explain a lot of the variance that we observe. It’s backed up by the fact that the one state that has rates that is on par with what we see in the suicide belt is Alaska. If Alaska were contiguous with the U.S. it would really have to be considered part of this western suicide belt.

Veralyn Williams

And Veralyn Williams reports on places where there’s a paucity of suicides: African-American communities. As it happens, blacks are only about half as likely to kill themselves as whites. (When it comes to murder, meanwhile, blacks are nearly six times more likely than whites to die.) There are just three places in the U.S. where the overall homicide rate is higher than the suicide rate: Louisiana, Maryland and the District of Columbia. It’s not a coincidence that these are also places with large African-American populations. Donna Barnes, who founded the National Organization for People of Color Against Suicide, tries to explain why there’s such a huge black-white suicide gap:

BARNES: Okay, it’s very easy when you are stressed and you don’t want to live anymore and put yourself in harm’s way and somebody will take you out. We get angry. We get irritable. We do things, we engage in reckless behavior more so than say, the dominant culture. And those are signs of depression. And many times we will externalize our frustration meaning that we’re going to take it out on other people. And then you might have more folks maybe from the dominant culture who internalize their frustration and take it out on themselves. We have been socialized to believe that a lot of our disadvantages are based on our surroundings — racism, discrimination and all of that. So it’s really easy, for us, when we become frustrated and we look at what’s going on around us, to take it out on the environment and other people rather than ourselves.

A bust of Goethe New York City.Photo: Peter Roan

We also look into whether suicide is contagious. Radio veteran Sean Cole filed a fascinating piece on this topic. It includes an account of how an 18th-century Goethe novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther proved to be suicidogenic. You’ll hear from the sociologist David Phillips, whose paper “The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect” can be found here:

PHILLIPS: My students and I were the first to provide modern large scale evidence that there is in fact such a thing as copycat suicide. And we called this, I called it, The Werther Effect.

You’ll also hear from Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, a medical professor and founding member of the Wiener Werkstaette for Suicide Research in Austria, about a recent example of the Werther Effect in Vienna. A related Niederkrotenthaler paper, “The Role of Media Reports in Completed and Prevented Suicide: Werther v. Papageno Effects can be found here.

Budapest, capital city of the suicide capital. But why? Photo: Enrique Castillo

We also travel to Hungary, where suicides have always been more common than just about anyplace else on earth, and try to understand why. Freakonomics Radio producer Suzie Lechtenberg files a report that centers around a song, “Gloomy Sunday,” that’s come to be known as the “Hungarian suicide song.” It was written by Rezso Seress (who committed suicide himself); it’s been performed by everyone from Billie Holiday to Bjork. The suicide scholar David Lester has noted Hungary’s suicide problem:

Ted Pavlic

This seems to be the only special showing up on the alternate freakonomics specials feed:

Is that what is desired? That is, shouldn't that alternate RSS feed include all three specials? (ideally, they'd be incorporated into the main podcast feed... but in the meanwhile, why does this separate feed act so funny?)

Why punish those who haven't subscribed early enough to automatically download the first two feeds? You're forcing those late comers to manually download (and thus also manually sync and manually delete) those MP3's to their devices. Why? Is there an economic explanation?


Suicide doesn't make the 10:00 news. Since we don't hear about it, we must think it isn't that common. Conversely, every death by pit bull makes the 10:00 news so we think it's much more common than it actually is (32 deaths by dog attack in 2010). This is a statement on our assessment of risk: We weight anecdotes - the news - much higher than actual numbers.

Sean P.

I have had issues with depression for the last 20 years (I am 32 now) and at my worst when I considered suicide I came to view it as a form of execution or more like the removal of a useless and diseased limb.

Now lets run with this uselessness idea. If I am in a third world situation I am never really useless. If I die then that increases the chances that people I know and care about will experience some very real physical hardship. If I don't hike down to the river to gather water every day, then my sister or younger brother have to do it and I'm sure there are a myriad of other examples that could be used.

In the first world, if I die, really what real loss is there? My wife probably won't lose the house my kids may even gain scholarships because of their loss there is no real physical hardship. Nobody will starve and die or be forced to take on grievous labor and my position at work will be filled quickly and cheaply especially in this economy.

So in summary, without a very measurable sense of having an effect I think this partially explains suicide patterns at least as far as rich vs. poor.



Great point Sean P., +1


As an African American, I listened with interest to the observations as to why there is very little occurrence of suicide among African Americans as compared with whites. Perhaps the answer to this may be found in the various "coping mechanisms" black people have developed throughout their history in America. Inasmuch as they, as a people, have experienced discrimination and all manner of deprivations, they have survived due to significant cultural outlets such as music: jazz, the blues, and gospel are black-created genres through which African Americans have expressed their joys and sorrows in struggling to cope in a largely hostile racial environment; secondly, religion, by way of what is commonly called the "Black Church," has been a refuge and place of affirmation for African Americans, particularly those from the South. Arguably, were it not for these powerful cultural presences, the incidence of suicide within the African American community might be equal to that of the white.



I think it would be interesting to see how different cultures react to suicide and whether suicide is as addictive in other cultures as it seems to be in this one. For example, in Islam, suicide is seen as the worst sin one can commit and is extremely frowned upon. I would be interested to see if suicide rates in Islamic countries are the same to suicide rates in western countries.

Mike Stutz

A fascinating episode. I've been in the middle of this discussion for quite some time and recently directed a documentary that tries to change the way we talk about suicide. You can see our trailer at We chose to approach the subject by inviting people from different creative fields, dance, theater, animation and yes even comedy, to approach the subject in their own way. We also talked to dozens of survivors and members of my own family (my mother, a writer, killed herself three days before my twelfth birthday) about their experiences and the wide ranging reactions they received both from mental health professionals and their own friends and families. We've been chastised by some for possibly triggering the "contagion" because some folks in the film talk about their attempts. This despite the fact that we in no way glamorize suicide and the entire film is about finding alternatives to suicide. There is a very cautious attitude out there when it comes to discussing the subject and because of that often the only alternative to media sensationalism is boring academic dreck. Neither alternative serves the public well. You guys did a great job dealing with the subject. Nice to see someone looking into it in a way that is both informative and entertaining. Hopefully at least a few folks will get to see our movie and feel the same way.
Mike Stutz
Don't Change the Subject
"Scary subject. Funny movie."