In a fascinating spate of reading recently, I first delved into a thoughtful essay in the latest Skeptic magazine pondering suicide and the “meaning of life,” which led me to a disturbing 2018 Huffpost news story about religious faith’s too-often-lethal effect (by suicide) on LGBTQ youths.
It all circled back to the same conclusion: down-to-earth humanity, not divines, are both the cause and cure of Homo sapiens’ chronic psychic struggles.
The Skeptic essay by John Glynn, titled “Why People Die by Suicide: Jeffrey Epstein and the Allure of Self-Murder,” concluded that although it seems clear why some people choose to purposely end their own lives prematurely — as in convicted pedophile Epstein — most victims, even though they think they know their motivations, actually don’t have a clue. Their deadly demons are subconscious.
Glynn noted that once high-flying Epstein, who was previously convicted of pedophilia and human trafficking and had been briefly “imprisoned,” recently found himself in federal custody again for similar charges from new accusers. It appeared the prosecution had a solid case against him, and his many connections among the super-rich and famous, such as Donald Trump and England’s Prince Andrew, could not save him this time. He seemed likely doomed to appearing in open court to squirm while his accusers laid out an avalanche of purportedly damning evidence against him.
Before he hung himself apparently with a bedsheet earlier this month, he was surely aware he might never have gotten out of prison after trial, and that the trial itself promised to be shaming and humiliating beyond human endurance.
Considering such a scenario, most people would probably view suicide, although a sniveling coward’s way out in this instance, profoundly rational.
But Epstein’s final exit seemed to have little to do with the “meaning of life,” except what essential value or purpose his life might have if he were imprisoned for the rest of his days in a dense black cloud of shame and public disparagement.
A private hell
Everyone’s private hell is as different as their DNA. Although she died of natural causes eventually, the sainted Mother Teresa long endured depression over losing the sense in her youth of having talked directly with God. Brittany Maynard, 29, moved to Oregon to die by legal physician-assisted after she was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer; she didn’t want to suffer or be a burden on those she loved. An American man whose name I can’t remember legally committed suicide in The Netherlands because he was terrified of losing his mind to Alzheimers and burdening loved ones with a long, difficult demise; at the time, the U.S. offered no legal suicide options. Beloved globe-trotting TV chef/traveler Anthony Bourdain and fashion mogul Kate Spade were each carried away this year by debilitating depression.
But many people who think about, attempt or commit suicide are just emotionally ravaged by one of the endless causes of human misery in the world. Often they are physically healthy but mentally at “death’s door” in a figurative sense.
It’s (partly) in our DNA
Gynn, a psychology professor at the American University of Bahrain, an island state adjacent to Saudi Arabia, points out that why people end up suicidal is far from celestial. He says the pull to death is often less about the circumstances of their lives than the configurations of their genes.
He quotes University of Otago (New Zealand) psychologist and author Jesse Bering, who concludes in his book, Suicidal: Why We Kill Ourselves, that “Around 43 percent of the variability in suicidal behavior among the general population can be explained by genetics, while the remaining 57 percent is attributable to environmental factors.” So, “nurture” is an important causative agent in self-killing, he believes, but not very much more than “nature.”
“The specific issues leading any given person to become suicidal are as different, of course, as their DNA—involving chains of events that one expert calls ‘dizzying in their variety,’” Bering concluded from a broad review of relevant literature.
Bering explains the neuroscience behind this, Glynn writes, pointing out that a class of brain-cell structures known as “spindle neurons” have been found in increased density in suicide victims compared with control subjects in scientific studies. He says these neurons are involved in “processing negative emotions like shame and self-criticism.”
These particular neurons appear to have “dramatically increased in density over the course of human evolution,” Glynn notes. Bering stresses that such clusters, if abnormally dense, can create in individuals “a hypervigilant concern with what others think or will think of us,” which can “stoke a deadly fire.” Such a capacity is seen only in certain notably social animals such as humans and great apes.
Watch out when religion is involved
But, whatever leads people to suicide, worries about the divine don’t appear to be a major driver — except for LGBTQ youths.
The Huffpost article, titled “Chilling Study Sums Up Link Between Religion and Suicide for Queer Youth,” references a University of Texas study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (“Association of Religiosity With Sexual Minority Suicide Ideation and Attempt”).
Religiosity may be connected to negative emotions among youths with non-“straight,” heteroxexual gender identities — “including increases in suicidal behaviors” — the study indicates.
“Religious groups who stigmatize LGBT people should be aware of the potential damage they can do to an individual and families, and honestly the damage they do to themselves as an organization,” John R. Blosnich, a study co-author, told Huffpost.
Sex and sin
Indeed, a number of mainstream Christian denomination, notably the Catholic and Morman churches (and others), officially view homosexuality and alternate gender stances as inherently sinful, pushing LGBTQ members to suppress their sexual natures or feel extreme guilt, and hide their natural proclivities from fellow congregants.
The Huffpost explained the risks:
“Analyzing this data, the research team found that while 3.7 percent of heterosexual young adults reported recent thoughts of suicide, the percentages were significantly higher among queer youth. Those questioning their sexuality had the highest rate of recent thoughts about suicide at 16.4 percent, followed by bisexual individuals (11.4 percent) and lesbian or gay individuals (6.5 percent).
“Five percent of heterosexual youth reported attempting suicide in their lifetimes, compared to 20 percent of bisexual youth, 17 percent of questioning youth and 14 percent of gay or lesbian youth.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seconded the Texas study in its own research, finding that lesbian, gay and bisexual youths “seriously contemplate or attempt suicide at higher rates than heterosexual youths.”
But the faith aspect can be a powerful extra negative factor.
“It can be very scary to be caught in a space where your religion tells you that you are a ‘sinner’ just for being who you are,” Blosnich told Huffpost. “Sexual minority people may feel abandoned, they may experience deep sadness and anger, and they may worry what this means for their families — especially if their families are very religious, too.”