The Suicide Paradox (Ep. 40)

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Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Socrates (Photo: Wally Gobetz)

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 Freakonomics Radio podcast, “The Suicide Paradox.” This is the third of five hour-long podcasts we’ll be releasing over the coming weeks. Some of you may have heard them on public-radio stations around the country, but now all the hours are being fed into our podcast stream. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript here.) 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.

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.

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:

LESTER: When I go to Hungary, it’s very interesting. They talk about suicide all the time. You know, they’ll be pointing out a statue and say look at that statue, oh the sculptor committed suicide. I’ve actually played to my students all the national anthems of Europe and the Hungarian national anthem was one of the most depressing national anthems. So there seems to be something about the Hungarian culture that is depressive, and suicidogenic.

In Hungary, you’ll hear from the psychiatrist Zoltan Rihmer, who is consumed with understanding Hungary’s high suicide rate, and from Ágnes Rácz Nagy, a psychiatrist in a town called Kiskunhalas, which used to be the suicide epicenter of Hungary. But in recent years, an intensive suicide-prevention plan, including the distribution of low-cost anti-depressants, helped drive the rate down.

The final segment of the suicide hour explores the question of when, or whether, suicide is a rational act. You’ll hear Freakonomics blog contributor Dan Hamermesh discuss his 1974 paper “An Economic Theory of Suicide”:

HAMERMESH: I was always very bothered by the notion that suicide’s a problem of rich people. And that always struck me as an economist as being really stupid since I believe rich people are generally going to be happier, utility is higher, income goes up, you should be less likely to kill yourself.

You’ll also hear the philosopher Margaret Battin talk about how the view of suicide as a rational act has evolved substantially over history, especially since the time of the Stoics, and Margaret Heilbrun, daughter of the Virginia Woolf scholar Carolyn Heilbrun, talking about the maddening, puzzling decision her mother made about taking her own life.

It will be interesting to see the response to this radio hour. As we started producing it, several people told me they were uneasy at the notion of even addressing a topic as loaded as suicide. I empathized with them, especially since so many people have lost a loved one to suicide. But the fact that the topic hasn’t been explored and explained in proportion to its importance only heightened my interest. I’d like to thank the many people who helped produce this episode, particularly Suzie Lechtenberg and Bourree Lam, as well as the many wise and kind people who did interviews. Although I’ve never been deeply affected by a suicide, I’ve gained a new appreciation and empathy for the many who have, and wish you all the comfort possible.



Just finished listening to the podcast and found it fascinating (as usual, love your podcast in general!). The very last segment had stunning background piano music and I was wondering what it was called? AS a piano player myself (just a hobby) I would love to get my hands on the sheet music.


Phil LeStein

Hi Marie,
The music you're referring to is by Philip Glass, from his soundtrack to the film version of "The Hours", which was initially a novel by the same title based on another novel by Virginia Woolf "Mrs. Dalloway".


Just finished the podcast and it was interesting, but I would prefer if the Levitt/Dubner ratio increased. I think Levitt spoke for like 20 seconds in the whole podcast, which is far too low.


Perhaps nit-picking, but illustrating this with "The Death of Socrates" is hardly appropriate, since Socrates was executed.

Ben Z

Don't you remember that his friends offered him an out via escape (I heard in a lecture that this was actually even a well known out, that he just had to exile himself and most people would've known about this way) but he argued for the penalty. Thus, not technically suicide, but almost indistinguishable.

Miley Cyrax

"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... 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."

Yeah, whites commit suicide at higher rates due to white privilege! Higher white suicide rates are just another symptom of ubiquitous and nefarious white hegemony!

Funny how I don't see anyone demanding that we narrow the white-black suicide gap...


she's not talking about white privilege here. She's talking about how we are "socialized to believe that our disadvantages are based on our surroundings".


Is this a repeat? I thought I heard this podcast already?


I think it was an earlier blog post


Actually, to correct myself and answer your question; yes, Freakonomics radio did do a podcast titled "Gambling with your Life" about suicide.


One thing that's barely touched on; I don't know what the data's like anywhere else, but here in Australia male suicides outnumber females 4:1 (plus possible underreporting; there are a lot of single vehicle car crashes involving young, or even not so young, men where the coroner is implicitly under pressure to rule accidental death). If the ratio was the other way there'd be a huge campaign; something like what happens for eating disorders, perhaps. Is this an example of men's lives being valued less than women's?


I don't think that under reporting suicide is undervaluing the person who commits suicide. I think it is probably just the opposite. Most people feel shame when a family member commits suicide. They want to deny that it happened if at all possible. I have been interested in suicide for over forty years, because I am suicidal myself. Men have always succeeded in committing suicide more often than women, even though women are depressed more than men. Part of the reason is because men use more irreversable means of taking their life, such as shooting and hanging. My nephew committed suicide at age 37. I was not ashamed of his act. I believe that if a person is suffering, suicide can be a rational choice.


How do patterns of behavior such as kamikaze and suicide bombings play into the discussion?

Peter Thom

Why no reference to Emile Durkheim, who I believe was the first to author a sociological study of suicide in Europe in the 19th century? His findings clearly showed that poor people, those with no expectation of escaping their lot, consistently had low suicide rates while wealthy people, especially those who lost wealth and standing, had significantly higher suicide rates. As I recall he noted a lower rate of suicide in Catholic countries than in Protestant countries. Based on the fact that African Americans in California are, as a group, wealthier than African Americans in Washington, DC and Mississippi, I wondered whether suicide rates differed amongst these three subsets of the ethnic group with a lower overall suicide rate than the general population. Sure enough government stats indicated California blacks had a higher rate than their counterparts in Washington, DC and Mississippi. This was according to stats gathered in the 90s.



I am a detective - in New Orleans LA as it happens, and I've always felt that firearm related suicide should be tallied as a type of violent crime in the U.S. and suicide statistics should be considered in discussions of gun control.

Generally, a gun in the wrong house lends itself to an eventual suicide (just as courts have long established that certain felons with access to firearms leads to crime). I see widespread access to firearms by mentally unstable people in Louisiana with few control mechanisms - and believe me, the federal controls designed to prevent access to firearms by anyone who has been involuntarily committed are essentially worthless - this function rarely prevents a firearm purchase.


I watched this TV program just minutes ago about the existence of a suicide cult within an Amazonian tribe called Suruwaha. I left me thinking how easy it is to fall into the trap of making broad generalisations about aspects of human activity within or among different groups of people - especially ones based on anecdotes.

I do not personally lean either way. I think just happen to be independent phenomena.


On the subject of style and not content, I didn't care for this podcast. It lost some of that great punch Freakonomics humor and edginess and sound it more like the dull NPR reporting that I shy away from. Keep it the Dubner and Leavit show and lose the other guys doing your interviews.

Chris M.

Is there any correlation between high suicide rates and low birth rates? Is a low birth rate a large scale suicide? If so, are the influences driving each related?


The quality of life being higher where we find higher qualities of life, makes sense. The higher the quality of life, the higher the education. The higher the education, the more likely you are to be an atheist. The more likely you are to be an atheist, the less likely you are to be morally predisposed to the act of suicide (no wrath of a deity to fear). Therefore the more likely for the rigors of life to outweigh the personal fallout from committing suicide.

Part of me also wonders how they measured quality of life. It seems to me that it could be a chicken and the egg scenario with some of the disparity in suicide numbers we see across race.

Brian Clark

I wanted to hear more about Japan, and maybe Korea too. Both were in the Top 5 according to the WHO in 2008, and I've been reading about Japanese ritualized suicide (seppuku, part of the samurai's code, bushiko) since I was a kid. Too much Mishima, I suppose.

You mentioned that the Aokigahara Forrest in Japan is one of the world's most frequented locales for the suicidal, but not much more. I'm not supposing that today's suicides in Japan are directly related to a long-removed samurai ethos, but it's a historical and cultural feature that doesn't seem to have parallels in many other cultures. I'd like to have heard some deeper exploration into Japan, something like how you dug into Hungary.

Speaking of the Hungarian section, was that the beguiling gypsy violin of Roby Lakatos in the background?