Amer­i­can writer and re­search psy­chol­o­gist Jesse Ber­ing was con­sid­er­ing tak­ing his own life be­fore he was of­fered a job in New Zea­land. Here, his de­sire to die has sub­sided, but the spec­tre of sui­cide still emits a “low hum” in his life. His new book ex­plo

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - PSYCHOLOGY -

“Never kill your­self while you are sui­ci­dal.” It’s 2.30pm on a Wed­nes­day and Jesse Ber­ing, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Otago Uni­ver­sity, is quot­ing ad­vice from renowned sui­ci­dol­o­gist Ed­win Sh­nei­d­man over the phone. Among his myr­iad achieve­ments, Sh­nei­d­man co-de­vised the “psy­cho­log­i­cal au­topsy” – a tool used by coro­ners to de­ter­mine whether a death in am­bigu­ous cir­cum­stances was a sui­cide or an ac­ci­dent. His most fa­mous case was that of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.

Sh­nei­d­man died aged 91 (of nat­u­ral causes), hav­ing writ­ten about 20 books on the sub­ject of sui­cide and its preven­tion. In one, he coined the phrase “psy­chache”: the un­bear­able, un­com­pro­mis­ing feel­ing of want to die.

Ber­ing, 43, is well ac­quainted with the feel­ing. The re­search psy­chol­o­gist turned award-win­ning pop science writer made a name for him­self in his na­tive US writ­ing about sex­ual de­viancy, and the af­ter­life. He held teach­ing po­si­tions at univer­si­ties in Arkansas, Belfast and New York. But when he left academia to be­come a full-time writer, his money – and per­cep­tion of sta­tus – started dry­ing up. So did his will to live.

Ber­ing found him­self fan­ta­sis­ing about a tree near his house in up­state New York, which had a par­tic­u­lar bough “crooked as an el­bow” that seemed a per­fect place from which to hang him­self.

So goes the open­ing anec­dote in his lat­est book, A Very Hu­man End­ing: How Sui­cide Haunts Our Species. Hav­ing writ­ten about God, and about sex, Ber­ing now turns to death, ex­plor­ing the­o­ries from fields of psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy and evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­ogy as to why peo­ple kill them­selves – or want to. In the book, his fourth, Ber­ing weaves his own ex­pe­ri­ences with in­ter­views with sci­en­tists, preven­tion cam­paign­ers, rel­a­tives of the dead, and those who are ac­tively sui­ci­dal. He also quotes philoso­phers, poets and sui­cide notes.

He re­lates some sur­pris­ing, and sober­ing, facts. Only 30 per cent of those who kill them­selves leave a note, which av­er­ages 150 words in length and of­ten favours mun­dane facts over ex­is­ten­tial ex­pla­na­tions. An­other rev­e­la­tion: through­out his­tory, sui­cide has ac­counted for more deaths than all wars and homi­cides com­bined.

Some of the stats re­quire a strong stom­ach. We learn meth­ods for sui­cides in the US armed forces of­ten align with the de­ceased’s mil­i­tary branch: “guns were

“I think of the book as, this is me hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with my fu­ture self – to talk me out of this.”

most fre­quently as­so­ci­ated with army per­son­nel sui­cides, hang­ing and knots for those in the navy, and fall­ing from heights were more com­mon for those in the air force”.

Ber­ing has lived on the pic­turesque Otago Penin­sula with his long-term part­ner, Juan, and their two arthritic dogs and cat for four years. They re­lo­cated when Ber­ing was of­fered a job head­ing a then-new en­tity at Otago Uni­ver­sity: the Cen­tre for Science Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. (It is now a de­part­ment.) With some trep­i­da­tion, he writes, he’s cur­rently happy with life.

And what of sui­cide’s “low hum” he says he still lives with? Med­i­ca­tion goes a de­cent way to mut­ing it.

“On the other hand... we’re go­ing to die soon enough any­way one day. Eighty, 90 years – it’s still the blink of a cos­mic eye. So if you treat life as sort of an ex­per­i­ment, and you’re here ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dif­fer­ent things – there’s no such thing, in­her­ently, as a failed ex­per­i­ment. Or ex­pe­ri­ences that can’t be put to use in some mean­ing­ful ways.”

His per­sonal his­tory notwith­stand­ing, Ber­ing ap­proaches the sub­ject of sui­cide as a sci­en­tist. The process of un­der­stand­ing sui­ci­dal mech­a­nisms is ther­a­peu­tic in its own right, he says. And, “as any good sabo­teur will tell you, you can’t dis­rupt the func­tion­ing of a de­vice un­til you know what it’s meant to do”.

Ber­ing hopes the book will be help­ful for peo­ple who find them­selves in a sui­ci­dal state of mind – one he is con­scious he could re­turn to.

The book is “an emo­tional in­sur­ance pol­icy”, of sorts.

“The best pre­dic­tor of fu­ture be­hav­iour is past be­hav­iour, and un­for­tu­nately that’s the case with sui­ci­dal think­ing and es­pe­cially sui­cide at­tempts. The like­li­hood of me be­ing in that state again is pretty high... I think of the book as this is me hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with my fu­ture self – to talk me out of this.”

Ber­ing was not aware, when he ac­cepted the job here, that he’d be re­lo­cat­ing to a coun­try with some of the OECD’s high­est sui­cide rates.

He believes so­cial cir­cum­stances largely de­ter­mine whether we be­come sui­ci­dal, ir­re­spec­tive of where one lives.

“I do think a lot of peo­ple are shocked to hear how high the sui­cide rates are in New Zea­land... A lot of Amer­i­cans just as­sume it’s some sort of par­adise.”

Be­tween June 2017 and July 2018, 668 Ki­wis died by sui­cide – the high­est fig­ure since records be­gan. Māori sui­cides are also at a his­toric high, as are the num­ber of sus­pected sui­cides. A 2016 re­port pub­lished by the Min­istry of So­cial De­vel­op­ment showed be­tween 20092012, New Zea­land fe­males had the fifth high­est sui­cide rate of the 34 OECD coun­tries, while males had the 13th high­est. New Zealan­ders aged 15-24 had the high­est sui­cide rates in the OECD in that age bracket.

There are, as Ber­ing notes, le­gal re­stric­tions on de­tails me­dia can re­port in the case of a sui­cide, or a sus­pected sui­cide. Still, the sub­ject fre­quently makes head­lines ac­com­pa­nied by calls for in­creased gov­ern­ment fund­ing of ap­par­ently un­der-funded, un­der-re­sourced men­tal health ser­vices, and pleas for oth­ers plagued by sui­ci­dal thoughts to seek help.

On the cam­paign trail be­fore the 2017 elec­tion, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern de­liv­ered var­i­ous speeches on the topic. “The tar­get’s gotta be zero,” she said, echo­ing the Men­tal Health Com­mis­sion’s re­quest that the gov­ern­ment adopt a zero tol­er­ance pol­icy re­gard­ing sui­cides of peo­ple al­ready ac­cess­ing men­tal health and ad­dic­tion ser­vices.

And yet Ber­ing says: “I hadn’t re­ally thought about the po­lit­i­cal di­men­sions of this, to be hon­est.”

Sui­ci­dal­ity is not nec­es­sar­ily a sign of a diseased mind, he ar­gues, but part of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence and in some cases, pos­si­bly bi­o­log­i­cally adap­tive.

“Plenty of sui­cides are linked to ma­jor psy­chi­atric con­di­tions (in which the per­son has a ten­u­ous grasp of re­al­ity, such as in schizophre­nia), but plenty aren’t,” he writes at the be­gin­ning of his book, stat­ing later:

“So­cial prob­lems – es­pe­cially, a hy­per­vig­i­lant con­cern with what oth­ers think or will think of us if only they knew what we per­ceive to be some un­palat­able truth – stoke a deadly fire.”

While he thinks a man­dated men­tal health cur­ricu­lum “couldn’t hurt”, zero sui­cides?

“Prob­a­bly un­re­al­is­tic.”

Ex­perts and health pro­fes­sion­als are abysmal at pre­dict­ing whether some­one will take their own life, he says. “I think it’s such a ter­ri­ble bur­den to put on other peo­ple: to be able to de­tect who’s sui­ci­dal and who’s not. A lot of the book is to il­lu­mi­nate for read­ers when they are at risk... a lot of sui­ci­dal peo­ple don’t even re­alise they’re sui­ci­dal – they don’t iden­tify as sui­ci­dal – un­til it’s too late.”

Ber­ing has not penned a guide to sui­cide preven­tion, though he would – and has – at­tempted to dis­suade his read­ers from end­ing their lives. Nor is he call­ing for sys­temic change.

“I would like to see more self-aware­ness of what it feels like to be sui­ci­dal, rather than plac­ing all the re­spon­si­bil­ity on oth­ers help­ing you.”

That’s where Sh­nei­d­man’s shrewd ad­vice comes in. Even if the act of killing one­self could be con­sid­ered ra­tio­nal the “tremen­dous urge” to do so rarely lasts for 24 hours.

Ber­ing ex­plains that the sui­ci­dal mind is cog­ni­tively dis­torted, and un­re­li­able when it comes to in­tel­li­gent de­ci­sion-mak­ing. As such, wait­ing out a dark night of the soul – es­pe­cially if you’re a teenager, a de­mo­graphic more likely to kill them­selves im­pul­sively – can yield a brighter to­mor­row.

“If you could just some­how re­mind your­self that while you’re in that state that it will pass, and it won’t be very long, the next day you will prob­a­bly see things dif­fer­ently.”

Ber­ing’s book might not be a sui­cide preven­tion guide, but he high­lights some science-based strate­gies that may help mit­i­gate the risk. Don’t keep a gun in the house. Teach your kids it’s OK to fail. Be a friend. Get a dog.

“For women, hav­ing chil­dren has long been a well­known pro­tec­tive buf­fer against sui­cide,” Ber­ing writes, adding more re­cent find­ings in­di­cate that this ap­plies only to moth­ers whose kids still live at home with them.

Pets, there­fore, can act as an ef­fec­tive proxy.

“Al­ways have a dog at home. I would def­i­nitely ad­vo­cate that.”


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