WAIT FOR THE SUN
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
“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?
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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