Along with individual mental illness, suicides also do reflect social and cultural conditions. Patrice Corriveau, a researcher at the University of Ottawa, has been analyzing and cataloguing every suicide note left by a self-inflicted death in Quebec going back more than 100 years – a project uniquely possible in the province because a coroner’s inquest is mandated for every suicide. He has found, for example, that in the late 1800s, long before “teenagers” were a recognized social category, the young people most likely to die from suicide were unwed girls who found themselves pregnant. In the 1930s, it was young men from Europe who had failed to find their fortune in the new land, or young husbands who had lost their fortunes and killed themselves out of shame.
Teenage suicide is a phenomenon of more recent and, paradoxically, more prosperous decades, coinciding with the invention of teen culture (and its inherent peer pressures), higher divorce rates and declines in religion, though researchers are careful not to blame any one cause. The rate among teenage boys is twice as high as girls, but that’s largely because boys use more lethal means – girls actually attempt suicide more often.
Global suicide statistics are difficult to compare, but Canada falls in the middle of the pack – well below Finland or New Zealand, yet higher than Britain or Brazil. Suicide rates are generally higher in wealthier countries, where, researchers theorize, a failure to measure up in the midst of relative success is more devastating to the human psyche than being poor among the equally poor.
Shockingly, Canada’s youth-suicide rate per capita is nearly triple that in the United States, although our youth homicide rates are much lower – facts partly explained by the high suicide rates in Canadian native communities, particularly in the North, and, respectively, the high rates of handgun violence in American inner cities.
Much of what we understand about suicide is the result of hindsight, finding what was missed only afterward, when it is too late to prevent it. These “psychological autopsies” have got us closer to understanding the population-wide risks, but not much better at identifying individuals.
In about one-quarter of the cases, the families report no signs of trouble until a psychologist goes digging, says Antoon Leenaars, a leading expert on suicide and past president of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. “I spend a lot of time with families who say, ‘We never saw anything.’ But people simply are not taught what to look for.”
A psychological autopsy of Jesse Graham, for instance, reveals a picture of a boy in trouble. After a local paper ran a photograph of Jesse’s suicide note, a leading expert in dyslexia contacted the Grahams to say she believed Jesse had suffered from the reading disability, which would have compounded his frustration at school, adding another possible ingredient to his stress. (Jesse’s 13-year-old brother, Jarred, has since shown signs of the same disability.) Looking back, it seems likely that what his parent saw as teenage angst was a deeper form of depression and anxiety. One close friend, Krystal, who was in Jesse’s grade and lived with the Grahams for months after he died, says he often kicked himself for drinking and doing drugs, and worried he didn’t have time to turn around his grades. “He thought he couldn’t get back up, couldn’t fix things.”
Since his death, other friends have spilled a darker secret – that he had mentioned suicide on several occasions up to a year before he died, which not surprisingly is one of the strongest predictors. But as Krystal explains, “People my age don’t go to adults to talk about things.”
Another friend, Kevin, who was worried about Jesse’s drug use, says, “How can you betray a friend’s trust like that? But at the same time, when does the trust get null and void by the seriousness of the situation?”