Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp;
Guns aren't lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
---Dorothy Parker, Resume --1926
This book describes, in sometimes-gory detail: (1) methods people use to commit suicide; (2) the
medical consequences of suicide attempts; (3) how to carry out a safe suicidal gesture; (4) how to
commit suicide as non-traumatically as possible.(1f)
You may find parts of it disturbing. But the consequences of ignorance are more disturbing:
botched suicides, accidental deaths and maimed survivors, slow and painful deaths,
Every 18 minutes someone in the United States kills himself.(2f) A few are younger than ten years
old; others over ninety. Between seven-and-a-half and sixteen percent take more than a day to
die.(3) An estimated 300,000 to 600,000 survive suicide attempts, but suffer varying degrees of
injury. Nineteen thousand are permanently disabled each year.(4)
Only about one in ten or twenty suicide attempts is fatal. Given the easy availability of
highly-lethal methods, it seems that most suicide attempters don't want to die.
Yet some people who didn't intend to die kill themselves. Many lack knowledge of drugs and
may unknowingly take a lethal overdose. Some expect rescuers to save them. Others, who are
really trying to die, live through their attempts. Many survive five-story jumps or
head-in-the-oven gassing. Few have an accurate idea of how dangerous their chosen method is,
or the consequences of its failure. Throughout the book, I try to provide evidence of the medical
effects of each suicide method so that you can make more realistic decisions, whether you're
thinking about killing yourself or hoping to get help and attention. I also cite my information
sources so that you can look at the original data unfiltered through my interpretations, biases, or
Statistics, though informative, diminish the impact and reality of death. While this book is filled
with figures and abstractions, behind each of the numbers is a real person, with a history,
personality, and pain that is both particular to each and common to us all. They are not just
numbers; these are our friends, and neighbors, and families, and selves. I include some of their
words to give a sense of the quality of their lives, and the thinking that led to their choice of
"I was really upset and depressed. My life just seemed to be in total chaos. My boyfriend just dumped me flat, and he said he loved the other girl and didn't love me at all. My parents and I also just got into another fight again about some really dumb things, so I just went into my room and closed the door. There was this bottle of sleeping pills my mother was using, and I had them with me. I sat and stared at it for a long time, weighing out the good and the bad things in my life. The bad things came out ahead. I poured some of the pills in my hand, and figured ten or fifteen ought to be enough to do it. Those pills...they all looked so innocent and peaceful, like they couldn't do much to hurt anyone. Well, I put them in my mouth and held them there for a long time, wondering if I should or shouldn't. I took a glass of water and swallowed. At first nothing happened, and then they all hit me at once. The room started to blur and spin, small sounds were going on in my head. The last thing I remembered was trying to move and not being able to. I woke up in the hospital. They were pumping out my stomach, one of the worst things you can have done to you. My mother came into the room, and she apologized for the fight we had."(5)
The material here is intended both for those who want a quick and relatively painless death, and
for those who want to carry out a suicidal gesture as safely and non-injuriously as possible. If it
convinces some potential suicides to seek other solutions---suicide should be an absolutely last
resort and mistakes may leave you crippled---so much the better. But the fact remains: there is no
way to limit this knowledge to those whose aims we agree with.
To make my premises explicit: (1) Decisions concerning your death should be, ultimately, yours
to make; (2) Most--but not all--decisions to commit suicide are due to temporary problems, and
My position comes from two principles: (1) self-determination and (2) mercy. The more
fundamental, self-determination, says that each competent person may decide and act on (subject
to non-interference with the rights of others) his or her own views of what constitutes a good life
In practice, I think that temporary suicide intervention is appropriate when there is other reason to
believe that someone's thinking is impaired (e.g. by depression), though both the nature
(reversible) and timecourse (brief) of the intervention should be limited.
The principle of mercy holds that no one (or thing) should be made to suffer unnecessarily. This
is necessarily the subordinate principle; one may choose to suffer for some perceived higher good.
While mentioned in this book, these ethical and philosophical issues are treated in much greater
detail elsewhere. (See suggested readings.)
For those who are religiously, philosophically, or ethically opposed to suicide under any
circumstance, this publication will be of little comfort; those who believe that it is each person's
right to decide, insofar as possible, when to die may find some answers to their questions and
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Just as I shall select my ship when I am about to go on a voyage, or my house when I propose to take a residence, so I shall choose my death when I am about to depart from life. "
--Seneca, Epistulae Morales
I place suicide attempters in one of four groups: (1) Rational people facing an insoluble problem,
generally a fatal or debilitating illness; (2) Impulsive people, frequently young, truly but
temporarily miserable, sometimes drunk, who wouldn't even consider suicide six months later; (3)
Irrational people, often alcoholic, schizophrenic, or depressed; (4) People trying to make a safe
gesture as a "cry for help" or to get someone's attention.
The first group---and most of us will eventually be in it---has, in my view, the right to decide the
time, place, and manner of their death. It is clear that a competent person who really wants to kill
himself can usually do so. However, seriously ill or physically impaired people often have both
the greatest interest in, and least ability to carry out, suicide. They ought to have medical help to
die peacefully and without pain, but this, while sometimes surreptitiously done, cannot at present
be relied on.
Many of us have known people who have suffered long, agonizing deaths because they became
too ill to kill themselves and their physicians were unwilling to act on their request. I will not
mince words by calling it "euthanasia" or "self-deliverance": if you're terminally ill, I hope to
provide you with information that will help you determine the best way to kill yourself, if that's
your well-considered decision.
What about the young and impulsive, particularly teenagers? At the moment, they seem to have
the worst of all worlds, where: (1) lethal and not-so-lethal suicide methods are readily available;
(2) neither they, their parents, nor their teachers are likely to know how dangerous particular
methods are; (3) personal ("Are you thinking about...?) or practical ("How would you go
about...?) discussion of suicide is largely taboo.
While many schools now teach about AIDS and its transmission, more teenagers will attempt or
commit suicide next year than will become HIV-infected. The ignorance, stigma, and fear about
suicide would decrease if that topic were added to the curriculum and treated honestly.
A case will be made that people shouldn't commit suicide and that, therefore, a manual telling
them how to go about it is pernicious.(6f) This is like one of the arguments against sex education:
"If they know how, they'll do it." Well, they do it anyway. Thirty thousand suicide deaths a year
in the U.S. should make this clear. In the absence of knowledge about suicide methods---and the
consequences of failed attempts---people will continue to act in desperation and ignorance, as
they have throughout recorded history, with gun, rope, blade, poison, and anything else
available.(7f) That is the reality. And the methods people use all too often leave them neither dead
nor fully recovered, but maimed and permanently injured: paralyzed from jumps, brain-damaged
from gunshots, comatose from drugs.
But for anyone considering suicide (or even "safe" suicidal gestures; nothing is 100 percent
reliable), I urge you to try every alternative first---and then try them again. These include a
variety of anti-depressant drug therapies, various flavors of psychotherapy, electroshock, and
"reality therapy"---helping people worse off than you. Each of these will work for some; no
single solution will work for everyone. That's why it's vital not to give up if one or two or three
don't do much to decrease your pain. How do you know that suicide is the best solution if you
haven't tried everything else first? You can always kill yourself later.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Every person's fight with death is lost before it begins. What makes the struggle worthwhile,
therefore, cannot lie in the outcome. It lies in the dignity with which the fight is waged and the
way it finds an end." ---Joseph Fletcher
I've known several people who have killed themselves, and others who intended to, but waited
too long. Three have been significant influences in writing this book:
One man had a series of small strokes and specified that if he had a major one he did not want
so-called "heroic" measures used. Soon afterwards, he did suffer a massive stroke and was
reduced to a vegetative state, kept alive contrary to his written instructions. His son, a physician
himself, was appalled by the contravention of his father's instructions in a medically hopeless
situation. Nevertheless it took weeks of argument and delay before the hospital agreed to act in
accordance with their wishes.
Another man, 80 years old, entered a hospital intending to kill himself (he said) if he didn't get
better. After four months and a series of operations, he became too weak and disoriented to act
on his intention. He "lived" another four months in the hospital, progressively deteriorating both
physically and mentally.
One young woman took a drug overdose, expecting that her housemates would return soon.
They were delayed. I would like to believe that, had she known about less lethal methods, she
would be alive today.
Chapter one: A brief overview of suicide.
"Most people, in committing a suicidal act, are just as muddled as when they do anything important under emotional stress. Carefully planned acts of suicide are as rare as carefully planned acts of homicide." --Erwin Stengel(8)
is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well."
--Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus
"It seemed like a good idea...at the time."---Anon
Throughout the world, about 2000 people kill themselves each day. That's about 80 per hour,
three quarters of a million a year.(9) In the U.S., there are more than 80 deaths from suicide every
day, 30,000 every year.(10) This is the equivalent of a fully loaded jumbo jet crash every fifth day.
From another perspective, you are more likely to kill yourself than be killed by someone else.(11f)
Another estimated 300,000 (or more) Americans a year survive a suicide attempt.(12f) A majority
have injuries minor enough to need no more than emergency room treatment. However, about
116,000 are hospitalized, of whom 110,000 are eventually discharged alive. Their average
hospital stay is 10 days; the average cost is $15,000.(13)
"...without knowledge of proper dosages and methods, suicide attempts are often bungled, leaving the victim worse off than before. Many intended suicides by gunshot leave the person alive but brain-damaged; drug overdoses that are not fatal may have the same effect. One eighty-three-year-old woman obtained an insufficient number of pills and lost consciousness but did not die; her daughter ended up smothering her with a plastic bag."(14)
Seventeen percent, some 19,000, of these people are permanently disabled---restricted in their
ability to work---each year, at a cost of $127,000 per person.(15) Such injury is tragic, either if
someone were trying to kill herself and failed, or, perhaps even sadder, if the suicide attempt was
intended as a "cry for help".
About 1.4% of Americans end their lives by suicide.(16) This is the eighth leading cause of death in
the U.S., and ranks fourth in years of lost life. The largest increase in the last 30 years has been
among people between 15-24 years old, but the highest rates are still among the elderly. Men kill
themselves at about four times the rate for women (19.8/100,000 vs 4.5/100,000 in 1994).(17f)
Around 3% of adults make one or more suicide attempts.(18)
There are more suicides than the official numbers show,(19f) but there is no general agreement as to how many more. Estimates of under-reporting range from around 1% to 300%.(20) Reasons for under-reporting include:
(1) families or family physicians may hide evidence due to the stigma of suicide. For example,
"Physicians and surviving relatives have told me in confidence of many deaths which were
suicides, but which had been certified as natural or accidental deaths by a physician, either through
error, misinformation, or deliberate falsehood....My own estimate is that there were an additional
10,000 deaths yearly [in the U.S.] which would have been certified as suicides if there had been
complete and impartial investigations."(21)
(2) the determination of cause-of-death is judged by local standards, which vary widely. In one
egregious instance, a coroner would cite suicide only in deaths where a suicide note was
found---and suicide notes are only found in around one quarter of known suicides.(22)
(3) there are lots of ambiguous situations, some of which are suicides, but which almost always
end up classified as "accidental" or "undetermined" :(23) the single-car "accident"(24f) with no skid
marks; the "fall" off the night ferry; the "stumble" in front of the train; the "inadvertent" overdose;
the gun-cleaning "mishap".(25f)
(4) compared to the "accidental" or "undetermined" motive categories, there is a much larger
number of deaths officially classified as "ill-defined and unknown causes of mortality,"(26f) where
even the actual cause of death is uncertain, and some of which are undoubtedly suicides.
(5) the frequency of physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill is unknown, but, based on
anecdotal evidence, is probably both substantial and increasing. More on this in "Assisted Suicide
and Terminal Illness".
On the other side of the ledger, some doubtful cases are classified as suicides. These usually
occur in institutions, such as prisons, hospitals, religious orders, and the military, which control
their populations more-or-less completely. For such institutions a verdict of suicide is likely to be
the least embarrassing (after "natural") cause of death: homicides must be investigated and a
murderer sought; accidents may be the basis of negligence lawsuits.(27)(28f)
The number of suicide attempts is also subject to dispute. Based on a range of studies, there are
probably between 10-20 attempts for every suicide,(29) or roughly 300,000-600,000 attempts per
year in the U.S. Yet more than half of suiciders kill themselves on their first try.(30) The overall
3-or-4-to-1 male-to-female suicide ratio in the U.S. is reversed for suicide attempts. Between
70% and 90% (studies differ) of suicide attempts are by medicine/drug overdoses, roughly 15%
by wrist cuts.(31)
For adolescents, the attempt-to-fatality ratio may be 50:1;(32) but this average masks the fact that
the death rate for boys is a hundred times higher than for girls: around 10 percent and 0.1 percent,
respectively. About 11% of high school students have made at least one suicide attempt.(33)
Ninety percent of adolescents' suicide attempts occur at home, and parents are home 70% of the
What is Suicide?
The numbers above refer to acts formally classified as suicides, but the more one thinks about it,
the less clear the boundaries become. Should we include refusing medical treatment in a terminal
illness? What about a suicidal gesture gone awry? How about martyrdom? And what of the
"little suicides": the high-speed drag race, the drunk drive, the picking of a quarrel in a bar?(35f)
Among adolescents the combination of reckless (and inexperienced) driving with alcohol/drug use
may be more dangerous than overt suicide attempts.(36)
In Man Against Himself Karl Menninger compiled some 400 pages of self-destructive behavior,
ranging from war to nail-biting. He divided these into three groups: "chronic" suicide includes
alcoholism, martyrdom, psychiatric illness, and antisocial actions; "focal" suicide targets specific
parts of the body, as in self-mutilation, or deliberate "accidents"; and "organic" suicide, where
people supposedly lose their will to live and die of illness and disease that they would otherwise
overcome. His list, and subsequent additions to it, has been called "slow suicide" or "suicide on
the installment plan".(37)
And there is the daily suicide of depression and apathy:
"A thousand people are `officially' dead of suicide every day, but they are not the only ones who are faced with the constant choice between life and death. We all are....We might lack the nerve to commit the final act, and we might not recognize our `sinful' tendencies for what they are, but day in and day out we confront the problem of our innate attraction to self-destruction. We live in a world that encourages the small daily acts of negation that prepare us for the great one. There are meanings of suicide that neither the courts nor the dictionaries admit, but that make it impossible for us to regard those thousand people a day who do themselves in as very different from us. They are not necessarily `sick' or `sinners', but simply our sisters and brothers. And who are we? We are the resigned housewives, the compulsive playboys, the despairing priests, the addicted teenagers, the reckless drivers, the bored bureaucrats, the lonely salesmen, the smiling stewardesses, the restless drifters, the walking wounded....It may be nothing more than the steadfast commitment to sameness. The simplest form of suicide is the act of refusing the adventures and challenges that offer themselves to us every day. `No, thanks,' we say. `I prefer not to,' we murmur, like Melville's Bartleby, preferring to stare at the wall outside the window. Preferring, as I do on especially bad days, to stay in bed." --James Carroll(38)
If you play Russian roulette with a six-shooter, your odds of dying are one in six; if you climb Mt.
Everest they're also about one in six.(39) The former is a generally-condemned form of suicide;
what, then, is the latter?
Yet, "Life is impoverished, it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life
itself, may not be risked. It becomes as shallow and empty as, let us say, an American flirtation."
As you can see, the topic of suicide is almost boundless.
Chapter 2 HISTORY
Death is before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man...
Like the longing of a man to see his home again
After many years of captivity...
---Man Disputing over Suicide with his Soul Egypt, ca. 2100 bc
The oldest known reference to suicide is Egyptian; a fragment is quoted above.(41) There are seven suicides in the Old Testament;(42f) none of them are criticized in that document. In the New Testament, the suicide of Judas seems to be implicitly condoned---it's mentioned without comment in Matthew 27:3---as a sign of his repentance; not until much later did the church claim that Judas' suicide was a greater sin than was his betrayal of Christ.
Early Christianity was strongly attracted towards suicide, perhaps because the act was often
indistinguishable from martyrdom, and,
"...even the death of Jesus was regarded by Tertullian, one of the most fiery of the early Fathers, as a kind of suicide. He pointed out, and Origen(43f) [another major early Christian theologian] agreed, that He voluntarily gave up the ghost, since it was unthinkable that the Godhead should be at the mercy of the flesh."(44)
While early Christianity accepted suicide, it condemned killing of others, including warfare,
self-defense, and capital punishment. After all, Jesus had taught non-violence: "Do not resist one
who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also....I say to you,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."(45) This was taken seriously by the
early Church Fathers, for example, Tertullian, who asked, "Can it be lawful to handle the sword,
when the Lord himself has declared that he who uses the sword shall perish by it?"(46)
However, as Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman empire, its views on suicide
gradually changed, until suicide became a religious sin and a secular crime in the sixth century. In
533, Christian burial (a requirement for getting into heaven) was forbidden to suicides who killed
themselves while accused of a crime. In 562 this was extended to all suicides, regardless of the
reason or circumstances. In 693 even attempting suicide became an ecclesiastical crime
punishable by excommunication, with civil consequences to follow.
St. Augustine, in the fifth-century book The City of God, was the first Christian to make a blanket
condemnation of suicide. His only biblical justification for the change was a novel interpretation
of the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill"; his other reasons were, as Rousseau noted,
taken from Plato's Phaedra.(47f)(48f)
Ironically, this well-intentioned and humanitarian opposition to suicide eventually degenerated
into "...legalized and sanctified atrocities, by which the body of the suicide was degraded, his
memory defamed, his family persecuted."(49) Suicides were buried at crossroads with a stake
through their bodies,(50f) and their property confiscated by the State. Perhaps the ultimate irony
was the execution of people for the crime of attempting to commit suicide. A Russian exile in
England, Nicholas Ogarev, wrote,
"A man was hanged who had cut his throat, but who had been brought back to life. They hanged him for suicide. The doctor had warned them that it was impossible to hang him as the throat would burst open and he would breathe through the aperture. They did not listen to his advice and hanged their man. The wound in the neck immediately opened and the man came back to life again although he was hanged. It took time to convoke the aldermen to decide the question of what was to be done. At length the aldermen assembled and bound up the neck below the wound until he died. Oh my Mary, what a crazy society and what a stupid civilization."(51f)
We have progressed far beyond such barbarism, and no longer condemn failed suicides. Now, for
example, if a death-row criminal attempts suicide, every effort is made to save him (or, rarely,
her), so that a civilized, state-approved execution can be carried out.
Non-Christian societies had a wide range of views about suicide. Buddhist, Confucian, and
Shintoist ethics accepted suicide and euthanasia in cases of incurable illness. The Vikings felt that
Valhalla, with its perpetual Feast of Heroes and Gods, was reserved for warriors who died in
battle. Suicides were second-best and might get to sit below the salt; people who died in bed
could eat with the kitchen help and sleep in the barn.(52f)
Similarly, the Scythians considered it an honor to commit suicide when they could no longer keep
up on their nomadic travels, while "death, passively awaited, is a dishonor to life."(53)
Various Greek philosophical schools of thought rejected (Pythagoreans, Aristotle), conditionally
accepted (Plato, Epicureans) or approved of (Stoics, Zeno) suicide. The Romans followed the
Greek lead in these matters, particularly that of the Stoics. "To the Romans of every class, death
itself was unimportant. But the way of dying---decently, rationally, with dignity and at the right
The early Christians agreed that death was unimportant, but for entirely different reasons: they
wanted to go to the glory of heaven and saw no good reason on earth to wait. Life was a
gateway, filled with sins, snares, and temptations, all leading to eternal damnation. Thus they
often invited persecution as a path to martyrdom, which automatically wiped the slate of any old
sins, prevented new ones, and guaranteed a seat in paradise. This was carried to its logical
conclusion by a sect known as the Donatists, of whom St Augustine said, "...to kill themselves out
of respect for martyrdom is their daily sport."(55) They were noted for jumping from cliffs, and also
burned themselves to death in large numbers. They are probably best known for their practice of
stopping travelers and either paying them or threatening them with death to encourage them to
kill the, presumably, heaven-bound martyr. The Donatists were eventually declared heretics and
suppressed with a notable lack of Christian charity.(56f)
Much later, the thirteenth-century Albigensian (aka Catharist) heretics in southern France were
slaughtered with incredible savagery, also, in part, because they sought martyrdom. This sin
compounded their damnation for other theological errors---for example, they had the temerity to
believe that religious orders should actually practice their vows of poverty. Not until the late
renaissance---a thousand years after Augustine---did people again dare, very cautiously, to argue
the case for suicide in Christian Europe.
By the sixteenth century Roman and Greek philosophy had been rediscovered and the
unconditional condemnation of suicide was being questioned. In Holland, Erasmus wrote In
Praise of Folly (1509), in which he defended suicide which was committed to escape an
unendurable life. Soon afterwards Sir Thomas More, in his fictional Utopia (1516), proposed
suicide for the purpose of euthanasia:
"They console the incurably ill by sitting and talking with them and by alleviating whatever pain they can. Should life become unbearable for these incurables the magistrates and priests do not hesitate to prescribe euthanasia....When the sick have been persuaded of this, they end their lives willingly either by starvation or drugs, that dissolve their lives without any sensation of death. Still the Utopians do not do away with anyone without his permission, nor lessen any of their duties to him."(57)
Shakespeare (1564-1616), always theatrically pragmatic, portrayed fourteen suicides in his eight
tragedies without condemning them, asking instead, "Then is it sin / To rush into the secret house
of death / Ere death dare come to us?"(58)
John Donne wrote the first English defense of suicide, Biathanatos, in 1608, but had second
thoughts (as well as a job, Dean of St. Paul's, that required staying on good terms with the
Church) and found it expedient to wait until after his death to have it published, in 1644. Other
justifications of suicide followed.
In the eighteenth century, the "Age of Reason", traditional beliefs were re-examined from a
rational, empirical, and skeptical perspective. Theological arguments against suicide were
challenged, suicide was claimed to be a human right, and the subject became a secular matter as
much as a religious one.
Of course, the traditional views had many defenders. For example, the renowned religious leader
John Wesley (1703-1791) said, with dubious logic, that failed suicide attempters should be
hanged. Similarly, the eminent legal authority William Blackstone (1723-1780) asserted that
suicide was a crime against both God and King. And the illustrious philosopher Immanuel Kant,
whose writings remain unsurpassed in incomprehensibility, used suicide as an example of moral
error that could be demonstrated with his logical rapier, the categorical imperative.(59)
During this time, the brutal treatment of suicidal people eased in some parts of Europe. For example, the laws against suicide were relaxed in France at the time of the French Revolution; and the Prussian penal code of 1794 (influenced earlier by the "liberal" monarch, Frederick the Great, and then by the French Revolution) did not punish attempted suicide. In England, however, trying to kill oneself remained a felony until 1961 (and was only de-criminalized to encourage people to seek treatment), and anyone aiding, abetting, or counseling a suicide or attempted suicide is still subject to 14 years imprisonment.(60)
The Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Byron, Keats, and Shelley in
England, Lermontov in Russia, Chateaubriand and Lamartine in France, Novalis and Goethe in
Germany(61f)) went further, and glorified suicide as the heroic last act of a free man.
Thus, from antiquity into the 19th century, suicide was mostly a philosophical, ethical, religious,
and legal issue; the concern was: under what circumstances might it be forbidden, acceptable, or
even desirable? Starting in the early 1800s, it gradually became a sociological/statistical inquiry
and a psychological one: who killed themselves and why they did so.(62f) The focus changed from
philosophy and theology to the social conditions and personality traits associated with suicide.
More recently, with the advent of "anti-psychosis" drugs, such as Thorazine, in the 1950s, the
concept of a biochemical basis for behavior has become increasingly persuasive.
One of the effects of these changes has been to largely remove suicide from the category of
"moral crime." Instead, the fault has been shifted onto society, mental illness, or biochemical
imbalance, things for which an individual can hardly be blamed.(63f)
Thus, if suicide is involuntary and beyond an individual's control, rational or moral arguments
against it will be useless. The only moral question, then, will be that of intervention, abstention,
or assistance by individuals or society-at-large.
While today most people still consider suicide an abnormal, destructive behavior(64f) that should be
prevented (except, perhaps, with the terminally ill), its failure is no longer punished---or is it
rewarded?---by death. And so we progress.(65f)
Chapter 3: Three ways to study suicide
Sociology, Psychiatry, and Biology(66f) offer three different lenses currently used to study
The sociological perspective looks at society's influence on its members; how do various social
conditions (and their changes) affect suicide rates. Examples of such social variables are income,
unemployment rate, birth order, gun ownership, divorce, and immigration. As its most eminent
early proponent, Emile Durkheim, said, "social facts must be studied as things, as realities external
to the individual."[Suicide, pp37-8]
The sociological/statistical study of suicide actually began in the 1820's with research by
Jean-Pierre Falret in France, and Johann Casper in Germany. Durkheim organized the earlier
work and integrated it into a theoretical framework in the late 1800s. His ground-breaking book
Suicide: A Study in Sociology was published in 1897.
Durkheim felt that the Industrial Revolution had massively disrupted Western communities. As a
result, people who didn't have the structure of ties to family or religion became particularly
susceptible to suicidal urges. He called suicide due to such social disintegration "anomic".
In other societies the individual is so highly integrated into the community that his life and
behavior are tightly governed by the community's customs. In these circumstances, most suicide
occurs because it is expected---almost required---rather than from personal sorrow or guilt.
Examples of such "altruistic" suicide include the Indian custom of suttee where widows (but not
widowers) burn themselves to death; Japanese seppuku or hara-kiri where ritual disembowelment
(sometimes followed by coup-de-grace decapitation) prevents, or atones for, dishonor. Among
military officers in nineteenth-century Europe, suicide-by-pistol was the expected response to
inability to pay gambling debts. Suicide by groups seeing themselves as persecuted also falls into
this category; the Branch Davidians (Waco, Texas, 1993) for example, or the members of the
People's Temple at Jonestown (Guyana, 1978), who held suicide "rehearsals".(67)
Durkheim's third category, "egoistic" suicide, describes individuals who lack involvement with
their reasonably stable societies. Such people are often "misfits" or "criminals". A prototypic
example might be an unemployed, isolated, man or woman living alone in a rooming house.
Sociology's forte is the statistics of suicide. Its self-acknowledged limitation is that it doesn't tell
us anything about why one person kills himself while another person, in similar circumstances,
One other weakness of this method was that it offers no good explanation of cultural and national
differences. For example, if, as frequently claimed, Catholic countries have lower suicide rates
than Protestant ones because Catholicism is the more cohesive religion, why does Catholic
Hungary usually have the highest suicide rate in Europe, and, often, in the world?
The suicide rate in Hungary, for various age groups, [see Table V-4, Website Appendix]
is anywhere between 5 and 25 times the corresponding rate in nearby Greece. And, the suicide rate of countries bordering Hungary is highest in the regions near Hungary, and those with large Hungarian populations.(68f)(69)
Sometimes there are extraordinary or temporary circumstances that lead to a high suicide rate. In
the 1990s Sri Lanka, in the midst of a protracted civil war, has had unusually high rates.
However, Greenland (127 per 100,000 population in 1987) has the highest rate in the world.(70)
This has been attributed to the cultural and social disintegration of the native Inuit population in
the face of well-meaning Danish paternalism.
Psychology and Psychiatry
The psychological/psychiatric approach rose to prominence a bit later than the sociological one, at
the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. It emphasizes and examines
the individual, and the conflicts within a particular mind leading to self-destructive behavior.
"When we learn that the most densely populated parts of the world have the highest incidence of suicide, and that suicides cluster in certain months of the year, do we thereby learn a single adequate, explanatory motive?" asked psychoanalyst Alfred Adler in 1910. "No, we learn only that the phenomenon of suicide is also subject to the laws of great numbers, and that it is related to other social phenomena. Suicide can be understood only individually, even if it has social preconditions and social consequences."(71)
While people with diagnoses of "depression" or "schizophrenia" or "psychosis" have suicide rates
five to fifteen times that of the general population, the vast majority of those so-diagnosed do not
attempt suicide. One limitation of the psychological strategy is the inability of experts to reliably
predict who will carry out suicides and suicide attempts, even among the highest-risk groups.
"Robert Litman...believes that suicide-vulnerable individuals move in and out of periods of suicidal risk---sometimes for brief periods, sometimes for moderate or long periods---as their life circumstances fluctuate. But of all those people who enter that zone, very few actually kill themselves. "For every hundred people at high risk," he says, "only three or four will actually commit suicide over the next couple of years....It's like a slot machine....You can win a million dollars on a slot machine in Las Vegas, but to do that, six sevens have to line up on your machine. That happens only once in a million times. In a sense it's the same with suicide." Those spinning sevens represent all the biological, sociological, psychological, and existential variables that are associated with suicide---broken family, locus of control, decreased serotonin [a chemical found in the brain], triggering event, and so on. "In order to commit suicide, a lot of things have to fall together at once, and a lot of other things have to not happen at once," says Litman. "There's a certain random element determining the specific time of any suicide and, often, whether it happens or not....It's as if you need to have six strikes against you...and we're all walking around with one or two or three strikes. Then you have a big crisis and you have four strikes. But to get all six really takes some bad luck." "(72)
Hopelessness about the future seems to be a better predictor for suicide than is depression.(73) For
example, in one group of 207 suicidal patients, 89 were ranked high on a widely used
"hopelessness" scale. Thirteen of fourteen suicides within the next five years came from this
subgroup, even though only half of them had a diagnosis of depression.(74) Nevertheless 76 of
these 89 did not kill themselves, underscoring the difficulty in predicting suicidal behavior, even
the highest-risk groups.
Indeed, in one study a computer program was better at identifying people who would attempt
suicide than was a group of experienced clinicians. To add insult to injury, half of the patients
preferred "talking" with the computer to talking with the human interviewers.(75)
Another issue is that there is dispute as to what extent, if any, various schools of psychological
therapy are effective. For example, in one study psychotherapy was found to be
counterproductive with those who had attempted suicide.(76f)(77) Other studies have been equivocal.
Current expert opinion seems to be that psychotherapy is about as effective as drug therapy for
mild to moderate depression, but significantly less so for more severe cases.(78)
(3) The biological view sees physical disorders, often a biochemical imbalance, as the "cause" of
suicide and other psycho-pathological problems, like schizophrenia. This concept was articulated
by Emil Kraepelin, a German contemporary of Freud's. It didn't gain wide acceptance for a half
century, largely because the biochemical tools for testing it were lacking.
In suicide, the biochemical problem often seems to be associated with a low level of the chemical
nerve-impulse transmitter, serotonin, in the brain. Treatment consists of repairing or overcoming
the original neurochemical imbalance. Some drugs increase serotonin levels and are used as
anti-depressants with moderate, but increasing, effectiveness.
Some evidence for, and limitations of, the biological model are:
(a) Studies on twins provide the most persuasive evidence of a biological basis for suicide. In two
investigations of suicide among twins, the identical twin of a suicide also killed himself in 19
percent of the cases (22 out of 118), while there were no instances (0 out of 254) where the
fraternal [non-identical] twin of a suicide had done so.(79)
(b) Suicide tends to run in biological families. Adoption data show a significantly greater
frequency of suicide among the biological relatives of suicides than among adoptive relatives. In a
study of Danish adoptees diagnosed with depression, there were 15 suicides among 387 biologic
relatives while only one suicide occurred in 180 adoptive relatives. Similarly, there were 12
suicides among 269 blood relatives of 57 adoptees who had killed themselves; there were no
suicides among their 150 adoptive relatives.(80)
This is not to say that there is a "suicide gene". But there are statistical associations between
depression, aggression, and suicide, and depression clearly has a genetic component: for example,
in 57% of identical twins studied, if one twin had major depression, so did the other.(81)
This evidence for a biological tendency to suicide is convincing. Yet even among identical twins,
in more than four out of five instances the suicide of one twin was not followed by the suicide of
the other. Tendency is not fate.
(c) Studies on brain tissue and cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) show that many people who kill
themselves, especially those who use violent methods, have low levels of a brain tissue chemical
neurotransmitter, serotonin, and its metabolic breakdown product, 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid
(5HIAA). "Lower levels of 5-HIAA in CSF have been found to predict a 10-20 times higher
mortality from suicide within 1 year after discharge from the hospital."(82) Especially interesting is
the fact that whether the psychiatric diagnosis was depression, alcoholism, schizophrenia, or
personality disorder, low 5HIAA was associated with significantly more of the suicides and
suicide attempts, as well as other violent or impulsive behavior. In this model, lower CNS
serotonin levels makes people more aggressive and impulsive, and thus increases the effects of
stress, depression, and psychosis.
Moreover, the types of anti-depressant drugs that increase serotonin levels are generally more
effective in decreasing both suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, than are other anti-depressants
that work by different mechanisms.(83)
There are also animal data that link aggression with low serotonin levels. For instance, blocking
the formation of serotonin causes tame house-cats to become ferocious, and nursing rats to bite
their pups to death.(84)
The 5HIAA hypothesis is not universally accepted. There are methodological criticisms.(85) Some
studies have failed to find any connection between suicide and 5HIAA; and most have found little
or no correlation of 5HIAA levels with non-violent suicide. This murky picture should not be
entirely surprising, since "suicide" lumps together groups as diverse as depressed teenagers,
prisoners, alcoholic adults, political protesters, and the terminally ill. Most suicide is probably due
to the interaction of multiple factors. Even if 5-HIAA is one of them, it may be overcome or
augmented by others. Finally, it's not clear that even if there is a relationship between low 5HIAA
and suicide, violence, or impulsiveness, whether the low 5HIAA level is a cause of the behaviors,
an effect of the behaviors, or is the result of some other yet-undiscovered factor.
One supposed problem with the serotonin model is that there are a number of places, like
Denmark, Switzerland, and Japan, that have low rates of outwardly-directed violence (e.g.
homicide) along with high rates of suicide. A possible explanation for this is that there are
cultural factors that influence whether violent impulses manifest themselves as suicide or as
homicide. An alternative view, that suicide is associated with prosperity, is discussed later.
A more significant weakness of the biological model as the prime mover in suicide is its difficulty
in explaining the sometimes-large changes in suicide rates seen over short periods of time. For
example from 1958 to 1978 the suicide rate for Americans 15-24 years old went from about 4 per
100,00 to about 14 per 100,000, an increase of roughly 250 per cent.
The suicide rate in Norway was an almost constant 7 per 100,000 from 1876, when central
records were first collected, until about 1966.(86) It then increased 112 percent (from 7.3 to 15.5
per 100,00 between 1960-4 and 1990), while that of England decreased by 36 percent (11.7 to
7.5 per 100,000 between 1960-4 and 1991) and Ireland increased 170 percent (from 2.7 to 7.4
per 100,000 between 1971 and 1988). A convincing biological explanation is not obvious.
An interestingly different perspective is provided by some evolutionary biologists, who note the
persistence of suicide (about 1 percent of all deaths) across culture and time. While such behavior
may seem counter-productive in a simple Darwinian sense---if you're dead, you probably won't be
passing on too many more genes---they argue that this may represent (like altruism), a trait that
has evolutionary benefits.
They suggest that suicide may be the sometimes-inappropriate expression of an instinct for
self-sacrifice for the good of surviving relatives, who do pass on the deceased's genes. We see
other forms of this in, say, parents perishing to save their children from danger, or old people
killing themselves to leave more resources for their families.
Consistent with this, psychiatrists have noted that many people who are considering suicide think
of it in altruistic terms, as the best thing for their family and friends.
"If you talk to people immediately after they made a serious suicide attempt, they'll have a very
altruistic explanation for what they did," says Dr. David C. Clark. "They believed it was the wise,
clever and thoughtful thing to do."(87)
An alternate view is that the tendency for depression, rather than "suicide", is the behavior
selected for. In this picture, depression is useful because it forces people to contemplate and,
presumably, learn from their mistakes. Suicide is, in this model, due to an excess of that process.
Unfortunately (for the model), most patients with "major depression" never attempt suicide, and
suicide rates for people with other diagnoses (e.g. schizophrenia, or substance abuse) are
comparable to those with major depression.
Other researchers claim that traumatic or premature births are highly correlated with later
suicide(88) and even with the suicide method employed.(89) There is both human and other animal
evidence for each of these views, but they are not more convincing than other explanations.(90f)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
While it simplifies the picture, it may be counter-productive to limit one's understanding of suicide
to "biology" or to "sociology" or to "psychiatry". There have been attempts to integrate some of
these ideas under the label "suicidology." For example, Jack Douglas, in The Social Meanings of
Suicide, argues that how the individual sees and interprets sociological situations determines their
effects on her; a biologist might tack on a biochemically-caused tendency toward impulsivity or
violence. But, for the most part, we're still in the same position as the apocryphal blind men each
describing a different part of an elephant: each discipline tends to see suicide through its own
filters and biases, and there is, as yet, no adequate synthesis.
Chapter 4: Why people attempt suicide
"Let them think what they liked, but I didn't mean to drown myself. I meant to swim till I
sank---but that's not the same thing." --Joseph Conrad
"In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning." ---F. Scott Fitzgerald
"To be or not to be: that is the question."---William Shakespeare
Thousands of books have tried to answer the question of why people kill themselves. To
summarize them in three words: to stop pain. Sometimes this pain is physical, as in chronic or
terminal illness; more often it is emotional, caused by a myriad of problems. In any case, suicide
is not a random or senseless act, but an effective, if extreme, solution.
A slightly more elaborate list of some reasons people commit or attempt suicide follows. The
categories are arbitrary and overlap to some degree. However, this is just an outline, and there is
no lack of books that discuss suicidal motivation in much more detail and from many different
(1) Altruistic/Heroic suicide. This is where someone (more-or-less) voluntarily dies for the good
of the group. Examples include the Greeks at Thermopolae; the Japanese kamikaze pilots(91f) at
the end of WWII; the Buddhist monks and others who, starting in 1963, burned themselves to
death trying to stop the Viet-Nam war;(92f) elderly Inuit (Eskimos) killing themselves to leave more
food for their families; some Communists who confessed to invented (and often impossible)
crimes during the Purge Trials of the late 1930s and early 1950s. Gandhi's tactic of hunger
strikes, called "satyagraha" or "soul force", would have fallen into this category, had the British
authorities failed to respond to his demands.(93f)
(2) Philosophical suicide. Various philosophical schools, such as stoics and existentialists, have
advocated suicide under some circumstances.(94)
(3) Religious suicide. There is a long history of religious suicide, usually in the form of
martyrdom. This was widespread in the early years of Christianity and was also commonly seen in
the various "heresies" uprooted before and during the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and
Inquisition. More recent examples may include members of the Solar Temple in Switzerland,
France, and Canada, the San Diego Hale-Boppers in March, 1997, the Branch Davidians in Waco,
Texas, and some of the people at Jonestown, Guyana.
(4) Escape from an unbearable situation. This may be persecution, a terminal illness, or chronic
misery. There is no lack of historical examples:
Epidemics of suicide were frequent among Jews in medieval Europe; (sometimes they were given
a choice between converting to Christianity and death).(95f) Later, both Indian and black slaves in
the New World committed mass suicide to escape brutal treatment. One slave owner supposedly
stopped such desertion among his slaves by threatening to kill himself and follow them into the
next world, and impose worse repression there.(96)
There were large numbers of suicides during times of pestilence in medieval Europe. More
recently, AIDS has generated a similar response among many of its victims.
There was also a wave of suicides among priests and their wives around 1075, after Pope Gregory
VII imposed celibacy on the clergy, who had previously been allowed to marry.(97) Marriage had
been only slightly more popular than damnation with the Church ("It is better to marry than to
burn."), but had been accepted for its first thousand years.
A significant number of killers commit suicide. Four percent of 621 consecutive murderers later
killed themselves;(98) and about 1.5 percent of suicides follow murders.(99)
All of these situations can be readily seen as more-or-less "unbearable". However, sometimes
"unbearable" means failing an exam, or missing a free throw in the big game. As George Colt
"Most adolescent depression is caused by a reaction to an event---a poor grade, the loss of a relationship---rather than a biochemical imbalance....Feeling blue after not getting into one's first-choice college is as appropriate as feeling happy after scoring a winning touchdown. But many adolescents who experience depression for the first time don't realize that it won't last forever."(101)
Or, as an anonymous teenager said, "It sounds crazy, but I think it's true---kids end up committing
suicide to get out of taking their finals."(102)
(5) Excess alcohol and other drug use. The observed high correspondence between alcohol and
suicide(103f)(104) can be explained in several ways, including: (a) Alcoholism can cause loss of
friends, family, and job, leading to social isolation. (This may be a chicken-and-egg question; it's
equally plausible that family or job problems induce the excess alcohol use. In its later stages, the
fact and consequences of alcoholism dominate the picture and are often blamed for everything.);
(b) Alcohol and suicide may both be attempts to deal with depression and misery; (c) Alcohol will
increase the effects of other sedative drugs, frequently used in suicide attempts; (d) Alcohol may
increase impulsive actions.
The significance of the last two points is emphasized by findings that alcoholic suicide attempters
who used highly lethal methods scored relatively low on suicidal-intent tests. The correlation
between lethal intent and method was found only among non-alcoholics.(105)
Thus, to claim that alcoholism "causes" suicide is simplistic; while the association of alcohol
excess with suicide is clear, a causal relationship is not. Both alcoholism and suicide may be
responses to the same pain. "A man may drown his sorrows in alcohol for years before he decides
to drown himself."(106)
(6) Romantic suicide. "My life is not worth living without him". This is most celebrated among
the young, as in Romeo & Juliet, but is probably most frequent among people who have lived
together for many years, when one of them dies.
Suicide pacts (dual suicide) constitute about 1% of suicides in western Europe.(107) Most often,
their participants are over 51 years old---except in Japan, where 75% of dual suicides are "lovers'
(7) "Anniversary" suicide is characterized by use of the same method or date as a dead loved one,
usually a family member. "Imitative" suicide is similar to anniversary suicide in its focus on the
dead, but uses a different date and method.
(8) "Contagion" suicide.(109) This is where one suicide seems to be the trigger for others, and
includes "cluster" and "copycat" suicides, most often among adolescents.(110) For example, on
April 8, 1986, Yukiko Okada, 18, jumped to her death from the seventh floor of her recording
studio. She had recently received an award as Japan's best new singer. Media attention was
intense. 33 young people, one nine years old, killed themselves in the next 16 days, 21 by
jumping from buildings.(111)
There are comparable examples from many parts of the world. The highly publicized suicide of a Hungarian beauty queen was followed by a epidemic of suicides by young women who used the same method.(112)
Similarly, there was a spate of ethylene glycol (automobile antifreeze) intentional poisonings in
Sweden following two accidental fatalities and "spectacular attention in the Swedish mass
In the U.S. there have been clusters of suicides, most often (or most often reported) among high
school students, but not necessarily using identical methods.(114) Even fictional accounts may be
enough, as in a claimed spurt of "Russian roulette" deaths shortly after the release of the film The
Deer Hunter, with its powerful and nihilistic Russian roulette scene.(115)
On the other hand, other studies found no linkage between most newspaper reports and suicides.(116) Nor do copy-cat suicides occur consistently. For example, the 1994 death of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain was not followed by a cluster of suicides.(117) In the seven weeks following his death there were 24 other suicides in the Seattle area, compared with 31 in the corresponding weeks of the previous year.
(9) An attempt to manipulate others. "If you don't do what I want, I'll kill myself," is the basic
theme here. However, the word "manipulative" does not "...imply that a suicide attempt is not
serious....fatal suicide attempts are often made by people who are hoping to influence or
manipulate the feelings of other people even though they will not be around to witness the success
or failure of their efforts."(118) Nevertheless, while people sometimes die or are maimed from their
attempts, the intention in this case is to generate guilt in the other person, and the practitioner
generally intends a non-fatal result.
(10) Seek help or send a distress signal. This is similar to "manipulative" suicide except that there
may be no specific thing being explicitly sought; it's the expression of too much pain and misery.
This may occur at any age, but it is more frequent in the young. However, "Parents may minimize
or deny the attempt. One study found that only 38 percent of treatment referrals after an
adolescent attempt were acted on. Another found only 41 percent of families came for further
therapy following an initial session. `It's often difficult to get parents to acknowledge the problem
because they are the problem,' says Peter Saltzman, a child psychiatrist."(119)
(11) "Magical thinking" and punishment. This is associated with a feeling of power and complete
control. It's a "You'll be sorry when I'm dead" fantasy. An illustration is the old Japanese custom
of killing oneself on the doorstep of someone who has caused insult or humiliation. This is similar
to "manipulative suicide", but a fatal result is intended. It's sometimes called "aggressive suicide."
In a power struggle, if you can't win you can at least get in the last word by killing yourself.
(12) Cultural approval. Japanese (like Roman) society has traditionally accepted or encouraged
suicide where matters of honor were concerned. Thus, the president of a Japanese company
whose food product had accidentally poisoned some people killed himself as an acknowledgment
of responsibility for his company's mistake.
It's almost unheard-of to find an American CEO who has voluntarily resigned on account of his
company's misdeeds, let alone one who has committed suicide because of them. In Japan, 275
company directors killed themselves in a single year, 1986 (albeit for a variety of reasons).(120)
(13) Lack of an outside source to blame for one's misery. J.F. Henry and A.F. Short present
evidence that when there is an external cause of one's unhappiness, the extreme response is rage
and homicide; in the absence of an external source, the extreme response tends to be depression
and suicide.(121) Thus, while marriage and children are associated with a lower suicide rate, they
are also correlated with a higher homicide rate.
Henry and Short also suggest that, as economic quality-of-life improves, homicide should decrease and suicide increase. Long-time suicide researcher David Lester found such a correlation when comparing 43 countries;(122) and also when comparing American states.(123)
However, national data are contradictory: it's easy to find countries with low suicide and low
homicide rates (e.g. Great Britain and Greece); or high rates of both (e.g. Finland and Hungary).
Furthermore, recent multi-national increases in suicide rates are roughly matched by similar
increases in homicide.
In addition, there are high rates of both suicide and homicide in prison. Most jail (short-term) and
prison (longer-term) suicide rates have been reported between 50 and 200 per 100,000 per year,
while the age-matched male rate in the general population was around 25. Jail suicide is more
frequent than prison suicide.(124)
Still, the Henry-Short hypothesis can be used to explain some counter-intuitive facts, such as the
low suicide rate among Nazi concentration camp inmates,(125f)(126) among African-Americans,(127f)
and during wartime; though, as Erwin Stengel observed, "It is a melancholy thought that marriage
and the family should be such effective substitutes for conditions of war..."(128)
(14) Other. Most suicides have multiple causes.(129)
Consider, for example, an existentialist with a serious illness who is devastated by a recent divorce
and consequently suffering from "clinical major depression". He has a prescription for
anti-depressant medication which makes him feel well enough to go out of the house. He goes to
a bar, gets drunk, comes back and shoots himself with a loaded gun he kept in the bedroom.
None of his neighbors responds to the noise and he bleeds to death. What "caused" his death:
physical illness, philosophy, divorce, depression, medication, alcohol, availability of a gun, or
social isolation? Or, perhaps, none of the above: from a slightly different perspective, none of
these factors caused the suicide; rather it is the pain associated with them (along with the
unwillingness to bear it) that precipitates suicide.(130)
"Reasons" cited for suicide change with the times. Dr. Forbes Winslow wrote in 1840 that the
increase in suicide was due to socialism, and particularly, Tom Paine's Age of Reason. Additional
causes he cited were "atmospheric moisture" and masturbation, "a certain secret vice which, we
are afraid, is practised to an enormous extent in our public schools." He recommended cold
showers and laxatives.(131)
The question of intent in suicide attempts
"The survivor of a suicide attempt act is regarded by the public as either having bungled his suicide or not being sincere in his suicide attempt intention. He is looked upon with sympathy mixed with slight contempt, as unsuccessful in an heroic undertaking. It is taken for granted that the sole aim of the genuine attempt is self destruction, and therefore the dead are successful and the survivors unsuccessful."---Erwin Stengel(132)
People who carry out acts lumped together as "suicide attempts" actually have a variety of
motives, and combining various intents masks important differences. According to Louis Dublin,
a respected statistician, almost a third fully intend to kill themselves; fewer than half of these
succeed. Those that fail generally do so because of unexpected rescue, or, more often, mistakes
in planning or knowledge. These people tend to use generally-lethal methods (guns, hanging,
drowning, jumping) and are disproportionately older and male.(133)
Another third clearly do not want to die. Their suicide attempt, more aptly called a "suicidal
gesture", is a cry for help or attention. They're trying to change their circumstances or to
influence important people in their lives, usually parents, spouse, or lover. They make every
effort to be saved, often scheduling the attempt to coincide with the expected return of a
Of course, rescuers are sometimes delayed--or uninterested. Forensic texts provide some
charming examples. In one case a woman took an overdose of barbiturates and pinned a note to
herself saying, "If you love me, wake me up." Her husband came home around 10 p.m., saw the
note, tossed it into the trash, and went out to a bar. When he returned early next morning, she
was dead. The official cause of death was suicide. Criminal charges of homicide were
considered, but not filed.(134)
These suicide "attempters" are more likely to be younger and female, and use less lethal means
than the first group, most frequently drug overdoses and wrist cutting. Note that a "failed"
suicide attempt in this group is one in which the person dies, which is the opposite of failure in the
The last third are people tossing the dice. They are in such emotional pain, rage, or frustration
that they don't much care if they live or die, as long as the pain stops. They tend to be impulsive,
not plan carefully (if at all), and leave their survival to chance.(135) In another study, of 500 suicide
attempts, only 4% were described as "well-planned"---but only 7% turned out to be more-or-less
The relationship between the seriousness of someone's intent to kill herself and the lethality of the
attempt is controversial. While it would seem intuitively plausible that the more seriously one
intended to die the more lethal the resulting suicide attempt would be, numerous studies have
reached contradictory conclusions: some have found an association, others have not.(137)
The debate is more than academic. If the connection between serious intent and lethality of
attempt is real, it implies that suicide prevention strategies that focus on decreasing the availability
of lethal methods (e.g. gun-control laws) will fail, because people wanting to die will simply
switch to other, similarly lethal, methods such as hanging.
If, on the other hand, there is no good correlation between intent and lethality, then a decrease in
the availability of lethal methods will be effective in decreasing suicides, because serious (but not
fully rational) attempters will tend to switch to methods of lesser lethality.
Other evidence suggests a third possibility, that impulsivity or depression might have the best
correlation with use of lethal methods; and that these in turn, are associated with neuro-chemical
And we find ourselves back to the biological issues raised in chapter 3.
Chapter 5: Youth Suicide
"I want to kill myself, but I don't want to be dead."
--a 15 year old
"Most things, except agriculture, can wait."
Teenagers attempt suicide roughly 10 times more frequently than adults, although their fatality
rate of 11.1 per 100,000 people is about the same as adults'. This is the third leading cause of
death among 15-19 year-olds. For this age group, there were 5,174 motor-vehicle deaths in
1994, compared to 1,948 suicides.
According to U.S. national data released in September 1991, about one million teens (out of
about 25 million) attempt suicide each year, of which an estimated 276,000 sustained injuries
serious enough to require medical treatment.(139)
Some other estimates (these are total, not per-year) are considerably higher: 3% of
elementary-school, 11% of high-school, and 17% of college students. However, "Most were
low-lethality attempts for which medical or other attention was not sought. Accordingly, the vast
majority of [these] suicide attempts will not be uncovered by investigations dealing solely with
clinical or medically identified populations."(140) Thus, estimates or calculations of teenage
suicide-attempt rates are particularly unreliable.
About four times more girls than boys make suicide attempts, but boys are much more likely to
die: about 11% of (reported) males' attempts were fatal, compared to 0.1% of females', a ratio of
more than 100:1.(141) This also gives a ballpark average of about 50 attempts for every fatality in
this age group.
This low fatality rate might be taken to mean that most of these adolescents don't want to kill
themselves (true) and that there is generally one or more "warning" attempts before a lethal one
(not true). In a study from Finland, only 30 percent of male, and 68 percent of female suicides 13
to 22 years old had made a previous (known) suicide bid.(142) This suggests that many of these
lethal first-time-attempters intended to die.
Compared to those of older people, adolescents' suicide-attempt statistics show two significant
differences. First the fatality rate for boys is a hundred times that of girls, a much greater gender
difference than with any other age group. The immediate reason is clear enough: most teenage
girls use relatively low-lethality methods like drugs and wrist cuts, while a substantial number of
boys use guns and hanging. The reasons behind these choices are not known.
Second, the fatality rate among adolescents, less than 2%, is much lower than that among the
elderly, variously reported to be between 25% and 50%. This may be because the young,
however miserable, usually have more reason for optimism about the future than do the old, who
are too often without friends, family, job, and health.
Nevertheless, their suicide rate is increasing, and approaching the national average. U.S. suicide
rates for 15-19 year-olds and over-65 year olds are shown in Table 5-1 (more complete tables in Website Appendix).
Table 5-1: U.S. suicide rate for selected age groups
Rate per 100,000 population, not age-adjusted
|U.S. Rate||15-19 year-old rate||over 65 year-old rate|
This corresponds to about 2000 suicides among 15-19 year-olds per year. While it's true that the
suicide rate is substantially higher among old people, suicide is a relatively more frequent cause of
death in the young, who have few deaths from illness. That's why it's the third leading cause of
death among 15-24 year-olds, but ranks ninth or tenth for those 55-74.(143)
These numbers show that overall U.S. suicide rates have been essentially unchanged between
1980-94, while 15-19 year-old rates have risen significantly and elderly rates held steady.
Among children between the ages of 10 and 14, the suicide rate increased 110 percent (from 0.8
per 100,000 to 1.7 per 100,000) between 1980 and 1994.(144)
There are also claims of an epidemic of youth suicide, with increases on the order of 300%
between the early 1950s and late 1980s.(145) In 1950 the official rate for adolescent suicides was
2.7 per 100,000; by 1980 it had increased to 8.5 per 100,000. However, there is dispute about
the magnitude of this "epidemic" in part because (1) the base rate chosen was the lowest in this
century; (2) there is a greater willingness to admit to teen suicides now than in the 1950s.(146)
The reasons for this rise are also in dispute. Besides the usual social rationales (e.g. higher
divorce rates), "Some statistics indicate that suicide attempts among younger persons have not
increased, but the methods and means they are using are more lethal, making the attempts more
successful," says CDC's [Centers for Disease Control] Dr. Alexander E. Crosby.(147)
According to Crosby, in 1992 firearm-related deaths accounted for 64.9 percent of suicides
among people under 25. Among those aged 15 through 19, firearm-related suicides accounted
for 81 percent of the increase in the overall rate from 1980 to 1992.
Data from around the world [Table, Website Appendix] show no consistent suicide pattern.(148f) 20
of 27 national rates rose between 1970 and 1980; so did 22 of 27 youth rates [Table V-3, Website
Appendix]. The male youth-suicide rate generally increased more than the female rate. In most
countries, the youth suicide rate is around one half of the adult rate, but in Chile, Venezuela, and
Thailand, the youth rate is somewhat higher than the overall adult rates. The reasons are
uncertain; and youth suicide rates show fewer correlations with social variables, such as income or
national birth rate, than do adult rates.(149)
In terms of methods, a 16-country survey found suicide rates from 1960 to 1980 increased for
motor vehicle exhaust (carbon monoxide), guns, and hanging; decreased for domestic gas; were
stable for solid and liquid poisons, drowning, and cuts/stabs.(150)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Suicidal adolescents are so caught up in their own misery, that they can't see they have choices.
Most have had little experience dealing with problems. They often can't or won't talk with their
parents and may have no other trusted adults in their lives. Frequently they have withdrawn from
their friends. This isolation further decreases their contact with other ideas and views.
Death may seem like the only solution to teenagers grieving over a major loss in their lives. In the
bleak words of one fourteen-year-old girl, "If I died, I wouldn't hurt as much as I do now."
`But if you could say to them, "Don't commit suicide because I can get you away from the pain
without dying," says psychiatrist Michael Peck, they'd likely be ready to do it.'(151)
One counselor's description of a session with a suicidal college student follows: the student was highly religious, single, and pregnant. Overcome by guilt, she wanted to kill herself. The counselor tried to show her that there were other possible solutions:
"I did several things. For one, I took out a single sheet of paper and began to "widen her blinders." Our conversation went something on these general lines: "Now, let's see: You could have an abortion here locally." ("I couldn't do that.") ...."You could go away and have an abortion." ("I couldn't do that.") "You could bring the baby to term and keep the baby." ("I couldn't do that.") "You could have the baby and adopt it out." ("I couldn't do that.") "We could get in touch with the young man involved." ("I couldn't do that.") "We could involve the help of your parents." ("I couldn't do that.") "You can always commit suicide, but there is obviously no need to do that today." (No response.) "Now, let's look at this list and rank them in order of your preference, keeping in mind that none of them is perfect."
"The very making of this list, my non-hortatory and non-judgmental approach, had already had a calming influence on her. Within a few minutes her lethality had begun to de-escalate. She actually ranked the list, commenting negatively on each item. What was of critical importance was that suicide was now no longer first or second. We were then simply "haggling" about life---a perfectly viable solution."(152)
Sometimes the triggering event is astonishingly trivial: George Colt mentions,
"...the fourteen-year-old boy who, according to his parents, shot himself because he was upset about getting braces for his teeth that afternoon; the girl who killed herself moments after her father refused to let her watch "Camelot" on television....Such incidents are often misinterpreted as the "reason" for a suicide, but they are usually the culmination of a long series of difficulties..."(153)
Even so, there may be qualitative differences between suicidal adolescents and older people.
"When young people are suicidal, they're not necessarily thinking about death being preferable,
they're thinking about life being intolerable," says Sally Casper, former director of a suicide
prevention agency in Lawrence, Massachusetts. "They're not thinking of where they're going,
they're thinking of what they're escaping from. Recently, a fifteen-year-old girl came in here. In
one pocket she had a bottle of sleeping pills, and in the other pocket she had a bottle of ipecac, a
liquid that makes you vomit. She said, `I want to kill myself, but I don't want to be dead. I mean,
I want to be dead, but I don't want to be dead forever, I only want to be dead until my eighteenth
The fact that more than 95% of adolescents who live through their suicide attempt do not go on
to kill themselves suggests that their problems are not as permanent or serious as their attempted
solution. Feeling miserable and hopeless, these adolescents choose an irrevocable solution to
temporary problems and, "...reject not just a last few bitter moments, but life, all of it and at once,
with all its myriad possibilities...'"(155)
This is what make youth suicide especially heartbreaking.
Chapter 6: Suicide in the Elderly and Other Groups
"Lord save us all from old age and broken health and a hope tree that has lost the faculty of
putting out blossoms." ---Mark Twain
"When an old person attempts suicide he almost fully intends to die."(156)
The elderly (defined as those over 65 years old) have, historically and currently, the highest
suicide rates in most---but certainly not all---countries of the world. [See table, Website Appendix.]
The death rate in adolescent suicide attempts is roughly 2%; among men over 45 years old, R. W.
Maris found 88% of first-time attempts are fatal.(157) Other estimates are lower, but still on the
order of 25-50%,(158) though psychiatrist Herbert Hendin, questioning these numbers, points out
that there seem to be many more elderly survivors of suicide attempts than there are suicide
deaths in this age group.
Despite recent decreases in old-age suicide frequency and increases in youth suicide, the suicide
rate for the elderly in the U.S. is still more than 50% higher than that of 15-24 year-olds.
26 percent of the population is over 50 years old; 39% of suicides are from this group, a rate 1.5
times the national average. White males over 50 years old are about 10 percent of the population,
but 33 percent of the suicides in the U.S.(159) Elderly white males have a suicide rate 5 times the
Among people over 65 years old (12% of the population), the suicide rate was about 22 per
100,000 (21% of suicides) in 1986, or almost twice the national average.(161) The actual rate for
the elderly is probably a good deal higher, since, "Many deaths from suicide are never investigated
and are reported mistakenly as accidents or deaths from natural causes, particularly when the
victim was old."(162)
The annual suicide rate for elderly women (6.7/100,000) is lower than that for middle-aged
women (7.9/100,000), and about one sixth that of elderly men (around 40/100,000); however the
rate for women is relatively under-reported, since they tend to use methods (e.g. overdose) that
leave room for other verdicts.(163) Since American men most often use guns, these deaths are
harder to attribute to "natural causes".
Nevertheless, the fact that American male suicide rates peak in old age while female rates are at
their maximum during middle age is difficult to explain. The unpleasant realities of old
age---increasingly poor health, death of a husband or wife, relegation to a nursing home---fall
more frequently on women than men, due to the former's greater longevity. On the other hand,
women are generally better than men at maintaining social and family contacts. And men, due to
the higher status and more competitive nature of their activities (e.g., business, sports, war) lose
more social standing to the infirmities of old age than do women, who generally have lower rank
and thus less distance to fall.
Reasons for these high rates seem to include:
(1) social isolation and loneliness, especially among widowers.
(2) physical isolation: because many old people live alone, a suicide attempt may not be
discovered soon enough to survive it.
(3) the accumulation of losses, such as friends, physical and mental abilities, social status, and
(4) the elderly use more lethal methods than do younger people.(164f)
(5) old people are less likely to survive any given level of injury than are younger, healthier, ones.
Some specific reasons were identified among elderly suicides from the Miami area [Table V-5,
Website Appendix]. The single most-cited cause was "physical health concerns", which were more
frequent than the next two reasons ("depression" and "unknown") combined.
Such health concerns are not necessarily accurate. In one study of 248 suicides, more people (8)
killed themselves in the mistaken belief that they had cancer than the number of suicides who, in
fact, had terminal cancer.(165)
The real rates are probably a good deal higher than the official ones. This is because many drug
overdoses have no witnesses, no wounds, and look like a natural death. Since serious pre-existing
illness is common in the elderly, such deaths are particularly likely to be misdiagnosed as
"natural." In one study, 15,000 autopsies in apparently-natural deaths were reviewed. 764
(5.1%) bodies contained enough poison to account for death.(166)
About half of the elderly who commit suicide are "depressed", but depression is common amongst
old people. Both psychiatric and physical illness are more common in elderly suicides than in
younger ones, whose deaths are more often precipitated by relationship, school, job, or jail
problems.(167) Between 60 and 85 percent of elderly suicides had significant health problems and in
four out of every five cases this was a contributing factor to their decision.(168) On the other hand,
non-suicidal elderly had similar rates of physical illness as the suicidal.(169)
Does depression affect willingness to accept treatment for other medical problems? In one study,
depressed patients were less inclined than non-depressed ones to want medical treatment when the
likelihood for improvement in some physical disease was good, but there was no difference
between the two groups when the prognosis was poor. It seems that both groups were equally
realistic about a poor prognosis, but that the lower quality-of-life and hopes-for-the-future among
depressed patients decreased their willingness to seek or accept help when the probability of
improvement was good.(170)
This is consistent with other data. For example, a survey of elderly (60-100 years-old) visitors to
senior centers in Indiana found that depression, low self-esteem, and loneliness were not
associated with a decision to end their lives if faced with terminal, or debilitating chronic,
illness.(171) Again, both the depressed and non-depressed elderly were similarly pragmatic about
their options under these circumstances.
However, when the severity of the depression is taken into account, differences appear. Elderly
patients who were hospitalized for major depression were asked, before and after anti-depressant
medication, whether they wanted life-sustaining treatment for their current physical health
problems and for two hypothetical physical illnesses. In the relatively "mild" to "moderate" cases,
remission of their depression did not increase their willingness to accept medical intervention;
however in the most severely depressed people, it did. This suggests that people in the midst of
severe depression should probably not make life-and-death decisions, because their views are
likely to change after anti-depressant treatment.(172)
Poverty is not a good suicide predictor. Sweden and Denmark both have high per-capita income
as well as comprehensive social welfare for the aged. They also both have high suicide rates
among the elderly, as well as in the general population. Greece and Mexico, which have a far
lower (economic) standard-of-living than Sweden and Denmark, have particularly low rates,
though higher in the elderly than in the general population. Interestingly, during times of
economic prosperity, the elderly suicide rate goes down while the suicide rate of younger adults
goes up in the U.S.(173)
A final observation: suicide notes left by the elderly tend to show a desire to end their suffering,
rather than dwell on interpersonal relationships, introspection, or punishing themselves or others,
which are common themes in younger suicides.(174)
Are there groups that have particularly high or low suicide rates?
Yes. Native Americans have the highest "racial" rate (16.2/100,000 [1991-3, age-adjusted] while
the White rate was 11.1/100,000 [1992, age-adjusted]). Among Native Americans, the pattern of
suicide resembles that of Black Americans: a male peak in early twenties, and decreasing
thereafter. This pattern differs from that of White Americans, where elderly White males have the
Black Americans have reported suicide rates substantially lower than those of Whites---except
among males 24-35 years old, whose rates are similar. The overall rate for Blacks (6.2/100,000 in
1980; 7.0/100,000 in 1994) is roughly half that of Whites, a ratio which has been consistent over
many years. There is, however, some evidence that a small part of the difference is due to more
under-reporting of Black suicide than White.(176)
The best single socio-economic predictor appears to be religious affiliation. Suicide is infrequent
in Moslem populations, typically reported as less than 1 per 100,000 per year. It also is
uncommon in many Catholic countries, with rates of 2 to 8 per 100,000 per year. On the other
hand, Catholic Austria and Hungary have rates of 23 and 39 per 100,000 per year, respectively.
Protestant, Hindu, and Buddhist regions have, with a few exceptions, higher reported suicide rates
than Moslem or Catholic ones.
However, there is substantial skepticism about the accuracy of suicide statistics, particularly from
societies in which suicide is most condemned. Psychiatrist Erwin Stengel observes, "In Roman
Catholic and Moslem countries a verdict of suicide is such a disgrace for the deceased and his
family that it is to be avoided wherever possible."(177)
The suicide rate is not reliably correlated with such factors as income, education, and health care
availability. The effect of unemployment is in dispute. For example, while some studies have
found an association between unemployment and suicide, in England there was a 35 percent
decrease in the suicide rate between 1963 and 1975, the same period that showed a 50 percent
increase in unemployment.(178)
While there is no good correlation with wealth or poverty and suicide, certain professions have
especially high rates: psychiatrists, physicians, lawyers, and retired military officers.
However, (to combine some risk factors for suicide) the highest suicide likelihood would probably
be found in a depressed, ill, elderly white Protestant male immigrant, widowed, divorced or
unmarried, who sleeps more than 9 hours a day, has more than three drinks a day, smokes, and
keeps a gun in the house.
Chapter 7: Some Frequently-asked Questions About Suicide
Are suicidal people crazy?(179f)
Yes, no, not necessarily, and so what. Certainly, people with a diagnosis of "schizophrenia" have
a high lifetime risk of suicide (10%)(180) as do people with severe depression (15%)(181) and/or
alcoholism (2-11%).(182) But so do people with medical illness (18% to 85%---studies are all over
the map---of suicides had a physical illness; for 11% to 69% this was an "important contributing
cause"; however, only around 5% were terminally ill.(183)
In addition, the association of suicide with mental illness or alcoholism does not mean that suicide
cannot be rational: chronically depressed, alcoholic, or schizophrenic persons may decide that it is
better to be dead than to continue living as they are.
And to insist that suicide is irrational and attribute it to depression or mental illness "...is absurd
and infuriating to those who have spent time at the bedside of dying patients who are suffering
severely with no good choices."(184) Besides, "Who wouldn't be depressed with such severe
limitations to a meaningful life as incontinence, inability to speak, heavy curtailment of the ability
to move and loss of dignity?"(185)
Moreover, one doesn't need to be terminally ill to decide that one's physical, mental, or emotional limitations have become unacceptable, and that it's pointless to go on living. As an 84 year old woman said to her, son, a professor of health policy:
"Let me put this in terms you should understand, David. My "quality of life" -- isn't that what you call it? -- has dropped below zero. I know there is nothing fatally wrong with me and that I could live on for many years. With a colostomy and some luck, I might even be able to recover a bit of my former lifestyle, for a while. But do we have to do that just because it is possible? Is the meaning of life defined by its duration? Or does life have a purpose so large that it doesn't have to be prolonged at any cost to preserve its meaning?
"I've lived a wonderful life, but it has to end sometime and this is the right time for me. My decision is not about whether I'm going to die -- we will all die sooner or later. My decision is about when and how. I don't want to spoil the wonder of my life by dragging it out in years of decay. I want to go now, while the good memories are still fresh. Help me find a way."(186)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Studies have claimed to find among suicides about three times the rate of mental disorders as people with non-suicidal natural deaths (77% versus 25%).(187)
Other studies have found similar,(188) higher,(189) and lower(190) rates. However, some of these
investigations have had the benefit of hindsight:(191)
"...the highest estimate of mental illness when a sample had been diagnosed before suicide was 22
percent. Afterward the highest estimate was 90 percent."(192f)(193)
After-the-fact diagnosis is rightly criticized(194) for lack of objectivity: when a psychiatrist knows that someone died a suicide, his conclusion will be influenced by that knowledge, particularly if the psychiatrist believes that people who kill themselves must be crazy.(195f)
The diagnosis of mental illness is especially suspect when it comes to self-destruction. "The
argument connecting suicide and mental illness is tautologically based upon our cultural bias
against suicide....We say, in essence, `All people who attempt suicide are mentally ill.' If someone
asks, `How do you know they are mentally ill?', the implied answer is, `Because only mentally ill
persons would try to commit suicide.' "---Z. Stelmachers(196)
But there is a wide range of opinions, even within the psychiatric community:
"Is every suicide mentally ill and in need of hospitalization as [interventionist] Eli Robins believes?(197)....Or is he simply called mentally ill for the purpose of controlling his behavior, as [radical Thomas] Szasz believes?(198) Or does he have the right to kill himself whether or not he is mentally ill as [libertarian Eliot] Slater advocates?(199) These views reflect the diversity of psychiatric thought with regard to suicide. My own view is that each of these positions contains some truth and that no one of them is an adequate guide for social policy. Most suicide can be diagnosed under present clinical standards as mentally ill; many diagnoses are influenced by the concern with suicide and the desire to prevent it through hospitalization; and the diagnosis of mental illness is not only insufficient to explain suicide but does not by itself justify taking away an individual's rights....[But] Surely confinement for a limited period for the purpose of evaluation with a view to providing help is indicated."(200)
I would agree that it is better to err on the side of temporary intervention. People sometimes
regret things they do; suicide is hard to regret. You can usually kill yourself later, but you can't
bring yourself back to life. On the other hand, it remains all too possible to turn "temporary" into
permanent; to subject people to conditions that worsen their state; to drug them into submission,
or to lock them up indefinitely. There need to be clear limits to both the duration and nature of
any intervention; and if someone is persistent in wanting to end their life, that, however
distressing, must---and ultimately will---be their decision to make.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"You don't have to be `crazy' to commit suicide. You just have to be desperate, and in need of
attention and care." --Emilinda, 15(201)
The notion that suicidal people are crazy also tends to isolate those who are feeling suicidal.
Because of the stigma associated with mental illness, they may not be willing to seek help, even in
Thus, one of the ironies of suicide is that a suicide attempt--if survived--is probably the most
dramatic and convincing way to draw attention to a problem and get help. Often family,
psychiatric, and social service resources become suddenly available. A survey of Swiss survivors
found that a majority felt that their actions had positive consequences for them.(202) In Erwin
Stengel's words, "The suicidal attempt is a highly effective though hazardous way of influencing
others and its effects are as a rule...lasting."(203)
Optimists may derive comfort from the fact that only about 1% of suicide survivors kill
themselves within one year;(204) of 886 suicide survivors in another study, only 3.84% killed
themselves within five years;(205) or that a Swedish study with 35 year follow-up found 10.9% died
A pessimist might note that about half of the people who make a suicide attempt will make a
subsequent one;(207) the one-year suicide rate of 1% is 50 times the rate of non-attempters; and
10-15 percent will eventually kill themselves, a rate 10-15 times that of the general population.(208)
How would I know if someone close to me was considering suicide?
There are two general strategies, that overlap to some degree: awareness of (1) sociological or
biological risk factors and (2) individual signals. Risk factors are discussed in Chapter 3 and
elsewhere. The generally more familiar method consists of sensitivity to various verbal and
behavioral signs; but the fact is, while many people consider, mention, or threaten suicide, far
fewer make a suicide attempt. Probably the closest we can get to knowing is to ask---usually not
a comfortable question to think about, let alone ask.
The most important suicide warning signs are:
(1) A previous suicide attempt. Between 20-80 percent of suicides (studies vary wildly) have
made one or more prior attempts.(209) Whatever the actual number, this is the single most
(2) A major change in behavior or personality. A normally cheerful person may become quiet and
withdrawn, and stop formerly-pleasurable activities. Insomnia, or more often an excess of sleep,
may be seen. Giving away prized possessions is sometimes a sign that a decision for suicide has
been made. However, in all of these and other changes, alternative reasons for the behavior are
(3) Reckless behavior. "I don't care" or "leave it to chance" actions are close to out-and-out
suicidal behavior. An example of this is "Russian roulette".
(4) Severe depression. Some of the components of depression are hopelessness, inability to
concentrate, sleep disturbances, feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, and sadness. Such a person
might say things like, "You would be better off without me," or "Everything I touch turns into
ashes." However, some people are so depressed that they don't have the energy to kill
themselves. These folks are actually at higher risk when they're just starting to feel a little better.
As one suicidal woman noted,
"It takes a tremendous amount of energy to figure out how you're going to kill yourself....I wanted something that was final and wasn't going to be messy. I didn't want to jump off the roof; I might end up only half dead, and I wouldn't like that. I didn't want to blow my head off---I didn't happen to feel that physical disembodiment would be a particularly pleasant thing for everybody....I kept thinking about what would be easiest for everyone else. Of course the easiest thing would have been if I'd lived."(210)
Since thought disturbances and hopelessness are generally associated with depression, severely
depressed people may not recognize the serious nature of their problem, or, if they do, lack the
will to try to get help.
"Their thought processes often seem tailored to narrow possibilities, for their rigidity often makes them unable to see alternative solutions, while depression alters their judgement about possibilities for the future."(211)
"When I was nineteen, I had my first deep depression. I was terrified. Everything---the way I walked, the way I talked---slowed to a crawl. I felt empty, like everything inside me had been cut up and pulled out. It was as if something had died inside me and was disintegrating. I couldn't concentrate. Reading a book, I'd find myself skimming the same passage over and over until I'd realize I had read the same paragraph sixteen times. After eight months I began to wonder whether my depression would ever lift. I envisioned spending my whole life like that. The feeling that it was never going to end is what made me think of suicide."---Anne-Grace Scheinin(212)
She made six suicide attempts in the two years before being diagnosed as manic-depressive and
being treated with lithium. There were no suicide attempts in the following 10 years.(213f)(214)
(5) Talking, or dropping clues, about committing suicide. This is usually an indirect, but
unmistakable, plea for help, and shouldn't be ignored. Adolescents, in particular, generally place
high value on independence, privacy, and self-reliance. If they're asking for help, they're probably
in serious pain.
The idea that people who talk about suicide won't carry it out is dead wrong. Erwin Stengel
estimates that three fourths of the people who either commit suicide or make an attempt give clear
warning of their intent; perhaps some act because they were not taken seriously.
On the other hand, depression is often hidden ("The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
--Thoreau) or unnoticed. Thus, as discussed later, physicians often don't recognize depression in
Risk Factors for Suicide
The second identification strategy takes a statistical look at the social, biological, and psychiatric
components associated with suicide: are there characteristics that suicidal people tend to share?
One small study looked at a few such risk factors among New York teenagers:(215)
In Table 7-1 below, column 2, the "odds ratio", shows the relative likelihood of someone with a
particular risk factor killing themselves, compared to similar persons without that trait. In this
study, the greatest risk factor was a prior attempt, 22.5 times the general population rate.
Risk factors for male teenage suicide (New York City)
family history of suicide
In another study, J.A. Motto looked at risk factors in 2753 people hospitalized for depression or
suicide attempt.(216) Out of 101 factors he examined, that ranged from "age-difference of siblings"
and "value of church as resource" to "preparation of attempt" and "seriousness of present suicide
attempt injury", fifteen were found to be most predictive of suicide within two years, for this
population. In order of importance, they were:
RISK FACTOR [modified from Motto]
|HIGH RISK CATEGORY|
||Unambivalent or ambivalent but weighted towards suicide|
||Bisexual, active; or homosexual, inactive|
||Gain; or 1-9% loss|
||Negative or variable|
||Executive, business owner, administrator, professional, semi-skilled worker|
||Risk increases with negative reaction|
||Risk increases with more sleep|
||Risk increases with resources|
||Risk increases with age|
||Risk increases with number of admissions|
Among the lowest-risk group, there were no suicides within two years; in the highest-risk group
there were 57 (20.7 percent). Nevertheless, even in the highest risk set of a high-risk population,
four out of five did not kill themselves.
The fact that the U.S. suicide rate has been fairly stable over several decades suggests that our
ability to identify and treat the suicide-prone has not improved much, though it's certainly possible
that the rate would be higher without such improvements as have occurred.
In other words, our ability to anticipate---using any or all sociological, psychological, or biological measurements now available---if a particular individual will or will not commit suicide, remains negligible. In the words of psychiatrist Alex Pokorny,
"Although we may reconstruct causal chains and motives after the fact, we do not possess the tools to predict particular suicides before the fact....The conclusion is inescapable that we do not possess any item of information or any combination of items that permit us to identify to a useful degree(217f) the particular persons who will commit suicide....Even for someone in a high-risk category the chances of suicide within a year are much less than the chance that he will not have committed suicide within that time. In twenty-five years I can remember perhaps three cases where I felt the chance of a certain person committing suicide within the next year was more than 10 percent."(218)
Pokorny makes a distinction between long-term prediction, about which he is pessimistic, and
short-term crises (minutes, hours, or days) which, he argues, requires identifying a crisis that is
already here, and which, he feels, psychiatrists do reasonably well.
However, clinical judgement seems unreliable for predicting suicide attempts: as noted earlier, a
computer program was superior to experienced clinicians in identifying patients who would
The current situation still seems to be,
No one knows why people kill themselves. Trying to find the answer is like trying to pinpoint what causes us to fall in love or what causes war. There is no single answer. Suicide is not a disease like cancer or polio. It is a symptom. "The problem of suicide cuts across all diagnoses," says John Mack, a psychiatrist and coauthor of Vivienne, the story of a fourteen-year-old girl who hanged herself.(220) "Some are mentally ill, most are not. Some are psychotic, most are not. Some are impulsive, most are not." Says psychologist Pamela Cantor, "People commit suicide for many reasons. Some people who are depressed will commit suicide, and some people who are schizophrenic will commit suicide, and some people who are fine but impulsive will commit suicide. We can't lump them all together." And just as there is no one explanation for the five thousand adolescent suicides each year, there is no one explanation for any one suicide."(221)
Does bringing up the subject of suicide with a depressed person put the idea into her head?
No; you can be sure that the idea was already there. However, "If they are feeling suicidal, it can
come as a great relief to see that someone else has some insight into how they feel."(222)
What do suicide-attempt survivors think of suicide?
"Many people have speculated that if you could talk to someone who was in midair after jumping from a tall tower, you might find out that he no longer was so sure he wanted to die. Over the past thirty years I have seen four people who survived six-story suicide jumps.
"Two wished to survive as soon as they jumped, two said they did not, but one of the latter two who professed to be furious at having survived made no subsequent suicide attempt."(223f)(224)
Similarly, of 515 people who had been prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate bridge, only
25 (5%) went on to kill themselves later.(225) Of eight known survivors in 1975, one subsequently
According to another source, only 2% of survivors of suicide attempts objected to having been
saved, while 70% said their suicide was "stupid".(227) The same author, Jaques Choron, cites
Japanese data that claim 90% of survivors studied were happy to be saved. Similar studies from
Norway found that 57-75 percent of suicide survivors said they were glad that their attempt had
It seems also to be the case that surviving a serious suicide attempt sometimes ends
depressions(229)---even if there is permanent injury. Hendin suggests that sometimes a self-inflicted
permanent injury is "therapeutic" in the sense that it satisfies a need for self-punishment.(230)
On the other hand, our inability to interview dead people---generally the most serious and
thorough of attempters---limits our knowledge of their interest in being saved.
How do clinicians treat suicidal people?
"The immediate goal of a therapist, counselor, or anyone else dealing with highly suicidal people should be to reduce the pain in every way possible....Help them by intervening with whoever or whatever is causing their distress---lovers, parents, college deans, employers, or social service agencies. I have found that if you reduce these pressures and lower the level of suffering, even just a little, suicidal people will choose to live.---Edwin Shneidman"(231)
This is not always as gratifying as it sounds: some suicidal people are "...extremely difficult:
provocative, ambivalent, openly hostile, or passive-aggressive and vengeful."(232) Thus,
The clinician's first job is to manage his or her own feelings generated by the crisis situation and
not be driven by discomfort. The clinician can act out in a variety of ways, from failing to inquire
about suicidality with an obviously upset or depressed person ("It sounds bad, but surely you're
not suicidal."); by fleeing from the subject when the patient brings it up ("Uh-huh. And how's
your appetite?"); by actively colluding with the patient's wish to commit suicide ("Sounds like
there isn't any reason for you to live."); or by openly or covertly directing the patient to die ("Why
don't you do it right the next time!") (233)
Can treatment prevent suicide attempts?
Though often useful, professional help is no guarantee against suicide. Two thirds of the suicides
in one study had consulted their family doctor within a week of their death.(234) In another study,
over 90 percent of suicides had been seen by a psychiatrist or a family doctor within a year of
death; 48 percent within a week.(235) However 48 percent of physicians were "very surprised" by
the suicide of their patient.(236)
In fairness to GPs, most of these people came in with somatic complaints: headache, insomnia,
tiredness, backache, and so forth. In addition patients are often on their best behavior at the
doctor's and tend to minimize their own psychiatric problems.
It's also the case that a substantial number of these suicides saw the physician specifically to get
enough drugs to kill themselves. In one study, this motivation was found in 43 percent of
drug-overdose deaths immediately (within 24 hours) following physician visits.(237)
All of this does not imply that therapy is useless or counterproductive any more than the fact that
many people who see heart specialists end up dying from heart disease; only that it is far from
On the other hand, current anti-depressant drugs(238f) are fairly good at making people feel
better---about 75 percent of users seem to be helped(239)---and should certainly be tried by just
about anyone considering suicide. However, they don't work instantly and might take as long as
six weeks to show an effect, and the dose may need be adjusted for an optimal response. Drug
treatment should be generally continued for several months; less than 4.5 months of
anti-depressant use is associated with an increased rate of treatment failure.(240) In addition, most
of these drugs work for some people but not for others, possibly requiring trials with more than
In a study of people in New York City who killed themselves between 1990-92, 16.4 percent
(268/1635) had been taking anti-depressants.(242) This is similar to data from Sweden where 15.9
percent (542/3400) of suicides had been using anti-depressants.(243)
It is not clear if this is good news (a lot of suicides might not have killed themselves had they been
using medication) or bad news (a lot of people taking anti-depressants kill themselves anyway).
In fact, while most anti-depressants are reasonably good at making people feel better, they are less effective in decreasing suicidal thoughts and behavior.(244f)
This is particularly true of the older tricyclics (TCAs) such as amitriptyline (e.g., Elavil) and imipramine (e.g., Tofranil). In fact one, maprotiline (Ludiomil), significantly increased suicidal behavior---14 suicide attempts among 777 patients compared to 1 attempt among the 374 patients taking no medication. Particularly interesting is that a low dose was just as suicide-provoking as a higher dose, while less effective in decreasing depression. The implication is that lower doses of such drugs, sometimes chosen for "safety", may be equally dangerous and less therapeutic than higher doses.(245)
Curiously, none of the 5 completed suicides was by maprotiline overdose, even though it is a
fairly toxic drug.
More recent anti-depressants of a type called "serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitors" (SSRIs), like
Prozac (fluoxetine), Welbutrin (bupropion) and Effexor (venlafaxine), seem to be safer, somewhat
more effective, and faster acting than either TCAs or MAOIs, especially in severe depression or
where there is a large anxiety component of the depression. However, there is some evidence
suggesting that fluoxetine itself can cause suicidal thoughts and/or behavior.(246)
But, even effective anti-depressants can be a two-edged sword: sometimes they make people feel
just enough better to have the energy to kill themselves, as well as providing them the means to
Especially in adolescents and in people experiencing severe depression for the first time, it's important to remember the probability that, as Leigh Orf says,
"...in six short months someone who was threatening suicide daily will change their tune to `Gee, am I glad I didn't off myself' because of some rather insignificant event, in the Grand Scheme of Things, like finding a new friend, S[ignificant] O[ther], or hobby."
How do telephone hotlines work?
Hotlines provide an anonymous way for people to speak to a counselor about a problem. Some
callers feel that they have no one they can talk to. For others, the telephone is simply less
threatening than a face-to-face meeting would be. Assistance is available whether you're having a
crisis yourself, are concerned about someone else, or just need someone to talk with. They
generally do not provide "treatment", but usually have information about other available services
that you may not have thought of.
Hotlines are often staffed by volunteers---about a third have no paid staff---and operate on
shoestring budgets. As a result, they may be closed, or busy with other clients when you call.
However there is frequently more than one hotline locally available. Suicide hotline phone
numbers may be found under "Crisis", "Suicide", or "Hotline" in the telephone book or under
"Local Government" listings. If you can't find one, you can call the American Association of
Suicidology (212-237-2280) for the nearest agency.
Be aware that some suicide hotlines will call the police to trace a call if they think the caller is
about to kill herself; others will not. If this is relevant to you, ask first.
Surprisingly, there is little or no difference in the suicide rate in comparable communities that have
hotlines and those that don't. This was found to be the case both in the U.S. and in England. A
likely reason is that the most seriously suicidal people are the least apt to use such a service.
Most of the legitimate calls (about half are cranks) are from unhappy people needing someone to
talk with, but only a small fraction of them are suicidal. Only about 5% of suicides had been in
contact with a hotline.(247)
What suicide-related resources exist on the Internet/WEB? (Though the book's original list is below; a more current (and better) list can be found here.)
There is a lot out there, but there's no quality control on the Internet. Caveat emptor.
The Samaritans is probably the oldest organization doing suicide prevention on the Internet. They
are based in England and have been providing hot-line and hands-on help for over forty years.
E-mail is read and answered 365 days a year. Note that the Samaritans will not break a caller's
confidentiality on any matter pertaining to suicide.
To reach them, send E-mail to: email@example.com
Their website is: http://www.samaritans.org.uk
Nothing is 100% snoop-proof, but there are a number of "anonymous re-mailers" who will
forward your e-mail while removing your identification. For more information about, and links
to, these sites, try: www.anonymizer.com
This process, through a re-mailer, is often much slower (hours, rather than minutes or seconds)
than direct e-mail.
There are several discussion Usenet newsgroups under the "alt.support" hierarchy:
"alt.support.depression" has been recommended by Graham Stoney as having a detailed and
excellent Frequently Asked Questions posting covering many facets of depression.
Other alt.support groups include: alt.suicide.holiday, or ASH ("I've been through a lot, learned a
lot, and have come a long way since I first discovered ash. Ash was there when I needed it. And
it's helped. A lot."), and a newer group, alt.suicide.exams which is most active around
Note that (1) the Internet changes rapidly; (2) not all sites carry any or all alt groups.
The IRC Suicide Chatline "continues to remain [sic] a place for people to drop by and chat about themselves, their problems, depression, and life in general...Keep in mind that this is not a suicide hotline and that there are no professionals who frequent the channel: you are on your own." Can be reached from:
http://www.coil.com/~grohol/ is the address of John M. Grohol's Mental Health Page. Support,
questions, and answers.
Suicide Awareness\Voices of Education (SA\VE) is "A page devoted to suicide support,
questions, and answers. It's at: http://www.save.org/
"The suicide-support mailing list provides an electronic support group. Membership of the list is open to anyone seeking emotional support regarding potentially self-destructive situations [or who have had a family member, close friend or loved one complete suicide], and to people willing to offer support in a non-judgmental manner. List members who offer support do so in their spare time on an ad-hoc basis, and come from a diverse variety of backgrounds and experiences. To subscribe, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org containing:
subscribe suicide-support [your name]
in the body of the message."
Some other resources:
AFTERWORDS is a letter about suicide and suicide grief published quarterly by Adina Wrobleski, parent of a teen who killed herself. She also travels and speaks on
suicide and has pamphlets and tapes. 5124 Grove St., Minneapolis, Minnesota, 55436-2481; 612
American Association of Suicidology, 4201 Conn. Ave. Suite 310, NW Wash DC 20008 (202)
237-2280 is a national clearinghouse for suicide information. It has, among other things, phone
numbers for local hotlines. http://www.cyberpsych.org/aas.htm
Boys Town Suicide Hotline, short-term intervention & counseling, local referrals, counseling; 800 / 448-3000; TDD: 800 / 448-1833.
Compassion in Dying helps terminally ill people "...who choose rational suicide after reaching the
limits of benefit from medical therapy." P.O. Box 75295, Seattle, WA 98125,
Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide: All Sides is at
Euthanasia World Directory includes a list of right-to-die groups, and how to contact Dr. Jack
Hemlock Society supports the right of the terminally ill to commit suicide. P.O. Box 10810,
Denver, CO 80250 (1-800-247-7421); http://www.hemlock.org/hemlock
HOSPICE CARE. Hospice care provides a reasonable alternative for dying patients who choose
to give up some length of life for improved quality of life in their last months. Hospice programs
in the U.S. only started in the mid-1960s, but thirty years later there are more than 2000. They
provide "comfort care" for the dying, often at home. There are many hospice Web Pages on the
Internet. The National Hospice Organization address is 1901 N. Moore St. Suite 901, Arlington,
VA 22209; 1-800-658-8898.
International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force is a good source for anti-euthanasia arguments and
Last Rights Information Centre "provides the latest information available on a wide range of
concerns associated with the dying process: news about "living wills"; palliative care; legislation
concerning voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide; support groups for those afflicted with
life-threatening illness; and access to public forums (newsgroups and mailing lists) exploring the
medical, legal, political and ethical issues associated with death and dying." P.O. Box 39018,
Victoria BC V8V 4X8 FAX (604) 386-3800. Can be reached on DeathNET on the Internet:
Mental Health Net is at: http://www.cmhc.com
Ray of Hope Inc., Iowa City: national nonprofit with information and training on setting up
support groups, telephone counseling: 319-337-9890.
Survivors of Suicide, national network of support groups: 414-442-4638 or write Sharry
Schaefer, 3251 N. 78th St., Milwaukee, Wisc. 53222 and enclose self-addressed stamped
This is just a sampling of what's out there; a WEB search will turn up much more.
How does suicide affect friends and family?
The family is left to pick up the pieces, figuratively and sometimes literally.(248f)
Such deaths often leave scars on family and friends: guilt, sorrow, anger, abandonment, silence.
Even young children instinctively know this when they scream (or fantasize) to their parents, "I'll
die and then you'll be sorry!" Mark Twain describes this situation in Tom Sawyer's elaborate
death ruse---he is supposed to have drowned, but is actually hiding under the bed listening---while
his Aunt Polly and her friend, Mrs. Harper, sorrowfully express their belated love and guilt at his
In one study, all family members said they were shocked by finding the body or being informed of
the suicide. 89% said they were later angry, and 57% reported depression. Some described
persistent memories of the smell of gunpowder and finding bone and tissue parts.(249f)(250)
On the other hand, depending on attitudes and circumstances, sometimes the death is also a relief,
particularly in cases of terminal illness or chronic suicidality. One 57-year-old woman said, of her
husband, "It was at the back of my mind that it was going to happen. And when it did, it was a
shock, but I felt, `Okay, he's finally at rest...' I felt relieved that he was finally at peace, because I
had done all I could."(251)
Chapter 8: Is suicide appropriate? Is intervention appropriate? Who decides?
"It is not a thing to do while one is not in one's best mind. Never kill yourself while you are suicidal." ---Edwin Shneidman(252)
"Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. Delay may give clearer light as to what is best to be done."---Aaron Burr
When is Suicide Justified?
People have been arguing this question for millennia. There are about one thousand books in print on suicide in the United States. Sherwin Nuland, physician and author of How We Die, puts it well when he says, "...the importance of airing different viewpoints rests not in the probability that a stable consensus will ever be reached but in the recognition that it will not. It is by studying the shades of opinion expressed in such discussions that we become aware of considerations in decision-making that may never have weighed in our soul-searching."(253)
Some people think suicide is never justified. A minority argue the merits of suicide: it allows one
to choose (as much as one can choose these things) the time, place, manner, cause, purpose, and
painfulness of death,(254) and maintain that it is a decision each individual must make.(255) Most of
us would understand why someone might prefer suicide if she were in uncontrollable pain.(256f)
Many would, I think, agree with Nuland when he says, "Taking one's own life is almost always the
wrong thing to do. There are two circumstances, however, in which that may not be so. Those
two are the unendurable infirmities of a crippling old age and the final devastations of a terminal
As philosopher Richard W. Momeyer puts it more formally,
"Suicide is an act that does not occur in a vacuum, and it is ordinarily not without very serious and often devastating consequences for others. Even if it can be claimed as a right, it is not inappropriate that one be very careful to assure that exercising that right is the right thing to do. Having a right to do something provides us some entitlement to do it; it does not assure that doing it is right. It is appropriate to set very high standards of justification for exercising a right to suicide, given how often it is undertaken in an ill-considered manner, how frequently suiciders suffer diminished competence from mental illness, and how widespread and serious are the consequences for others..."(258)
Intervention in Suicide
There seem to be two central questions about intervention to stop suicide: (1) under what (if any)
circumstances and (2) by what means, is it appropriate?
Most people would argue that suicide intervention is justified in the absence of terminal illness.
This is especially true if the potential suicide is young; her thinking is impaired(259f) by depression,
alcohol, or other drugs; she is ambivalent; or there's likelihood of "improvement", i.e., a change of
mind or condition. On the other hand, about two thirds of Americans feel that suicide or
euthanasia is sometimes proper for people who are dying.(260)
However, the issue becomes less clear when one asks, "For how long, and by what methods, may the exercise of the right to suicide be limited?" For example, should someone be locked up or drugged(261f) solely because she may commit suicide? If so, for how long? In the U.S.,
"...suicidal persons are the only people who may be held against their will for weeks, months, or even years on the sole basis of what they `might' do in the future rather than what they have done in the past---and not to others but to themselves. One Arizona woman spent fifty-eight years without comprehensive review in a state mental hospital after a suicide attempt. "If a sociologist predicted that a person was 80 percent likely to commit a felonious act, no law would permit his confinement," comment the authors of an article on "Civil Commitment of the Mentally Ill: Theories and Procedures" in the Harvard Law Review. "On the other hand if a psychiatrist testified that a person was mentally ill and 80 percent likely to commit a dangerous act, the patient would be committed." "(262)
The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, has seen fit to provide weaker safeguards of due process and
standards of proof in civil commitment cases than in criminal cases. In criminal cases the standard
of proof for guilt is "beyond a reasonable doubt" and accepts that it's better for a guilty person to
go free than for an innocent one to be unjustly imprisoned. In spite of this principle, the Court
does not "...appear to believe, as it does in criminal cases, that it is better for a mentally ill person
to go free than for a normal individual to be committed."(263)
Whether someone is involuntarily hospitalized depends, to a substantial extent, on social factors:
age, sex, status---older, female, and lower socio-economic-class people are more likely to be
involuntarily committed---(264) and whether the patient has a lawyer at the commitment
In addition, psychiatrists consistently overestimate the danger to and by the patient in commitment
hearings. This is not surprising, since (1) psychiatrists' ability to accurately predict who will
commit suicide is small; and (2) the consequences to the psychiatrist, and (perhaps) to the patient,
are much more severe if a released patient commits suicide than if the psychiatrist mistakenly
hospitalizes someone.(266) And, if the patient kills himself while hospitalized, this can be cited as
evidence of the need for the hospitalization, however regrettable the outcome.
Is ambivalence about suicide---for example, seeking help, calling a hotline, or standing on a
ledge---sufficient grounds for intervention? Ambivalence means wanting, or being undecided
between, two mutually exclusive things, in this case, "life" and "death". The problem with suicide
is that we can go from life to death but not from death to life; a hundred decisions for life are
overcome by a single one for death. One can argue that what suicides want is not death but the
end to their pain, however it be achieved, and that life=pain and death=end-of-pain. The results,
however, are the same.
Ambivalence toward suicide is indicated by the fact that three fourths of all suicides communicate
their intentions, often with the hope that something will be done to make their suicide
unnecessary. In a high proportion of cases, such communications are varied, repeated, and
expressed to more than one individual. Studies of those who have survived serious suicide
attempt have revealed that a fantasy of being rescued is frequently present.(267)
But even if you and I can agree that intervention is sometimes appropriate, what are we to do
with the suicidal people who do not agree? May we force them to take mind-altering drugs? For
how long? Electroshock? How many times? Lock them up? For how many days, months,
years? By what right may we continue to intervene in the face of someone's persistent demand to
make the decision as to the time and manner of his death? Ultimately the question cannot be
evaded: "Whose life is it?"
As Frederick Ellis puts it more eloquently, "[Death] is my final civil liberty, and I do not choose to
surrender it to the state, a church or a physician."(268)
Does Hospitalization Help?
In the heat of this argument, an important question is often overlooked: Does hospitalization
help? The answer is far from clear. Suicide rates in psychiatric hospitals are roughly five times
higher than on the outside.(269) and there have been suicide epidemics inside such institutions.(270)
Some of the anti-suicide regimens, such as 24-hour-a-day watch, or isolation may be terrifying or
enraging to the patient/prisoner, and may be imposed because of the staff's fear of being accused
of not having done everything possible to prevent a potential suicide.
Some evidence that has been uncritically used to support hospitalization is subject to other
interpretations. For example, one study found that a significant number of hospitalized mental
patients killed themselves while temporarily at home on leave. This was taken to mean that it was
the return to the scene and situation at home that triggered the suicide.(271) The notion that an
unwillingness to go back to the hospital might have been the catalyst was never examined.
Similarly, the fact that seven percent of a group of recently released psychiatric patients killed themselves was used to make a case for hospitalization.(272) But, as psychiatrist Herbert Hendin notes,
"There is as much justification for concluding that...the experience of hospitalization contributed to the suicide as there is for maintaining that hospitalization would have prevented it....For some acutely suicidal patients it may be life saving....Other suicidal patients are made more upset by their confinement. The decision for hospitalization is too often made, not on the basis of a realistic evaluation of whether it will help a particular patient, but because therapists want to shift the responsibility for a possible suicide onto an institution."(273)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
We're all going to die eventually; the only uncertainties are "when" and "how". Why, then, does suicide bother us in a way and to a degree that numerically greater---and easier to prevent---causes of death, like automobile wrecks (40,000-50,000/year) or cigarette smoking (400,000/year) don't? Writer Jaques Choron speculates,
"It has been suggested that suicide "troubles and appalls us because it so intransigently rejects our deeply held conviction that life must be worth living."(274)
"While there is undoubtedly some truth in this, in more cases than one would like to admit the reason for the shock may not be the challenges to the belief that life is good, but the fact that one is not really quite sure that it is. As...[Spanish philosopher] Jose Ortega y Gasset noted, for most people at all times "life" meant limitation, obligation, dependence, and oppression. They go on living simply because they happen to have been born, sustained by the force of habit, sometimes out of curiosity or vague hopes for a better future, and because they are afraid of the alternative--death.(275) But the suicide seems to have conquered this fear. Thus he confirms not only the suspicion that life may not be the highest good but the one that death may not be the greatest evil."(276)
Choron goes on to ask,
"Should not the multitudes who die painfully and miserably each year be allowed to decide for themselves what is best for them? Moreover, it would be interesting to ascertain how many among physicians, whose suicide rate is many times that of the average population, are actually euthanatic suicides, due to the discovery of their own terminal illness, their knowledge of how prolonged and painful dying can be, and the easy accessibility of quick-acting lethal drugs."(277)
Good question. There are high suicide rates among physicians: about 3% of male and 6.5% of
female U.S. physicians' deaths in 1986 were suicides,(278) 35% of premature deaths among
physicians were due to suicide,(279) suicide is the leading cause of death for physicians under 40
years old,(280) and the suicide rate for psychiatrists is almost twice that for other doctors.(281)
Data from Australia also show moderately elevated suicide rates for male physicians, and
substantially higher rates for female doctors.(282) And in Switzerland, the problem is so severe that
the life expectancy of female physicians is ten years less than that of the general female
Chapter 9: Assisted Suicide and Terminal Illness
"Whereas a prolonged life is not necessarily better, a prolonged death is necessarily worse."
"I believe often that death is good medical treatment because it can achieve what all the medical
advances and technology cannot achieve today, and that is stop the suffering of the
Dying has changed drastically over the last century. In 1900 the life expectancy in the U.S. was
47 years; by the mid 1990s it had risen to 77. Whereas, in earlier times, people typically died
quickly from infectious disease or infections following injury, now most Americans are living long
enough to develop degenerative diseases: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer. Now, 70-80
percent of us will die of something we have for months or even years.(285)
Four out of five Americans now die in an institution: hospital, nursing home, or other
extended-care facility in which,
Typically, patients forfeit control over what to wear, when to eat, and when to take medicines, for
example. Furthermore, they almost inevitably lose substantial privacy--intimate body parts are
examined, highly personal facts are written down, and someone they have never seen before may
occupy the next bed. Finally, trust must be placed in strangers selected by the institution: care is
given by professional experts who might well be, and who frequently are, substituted freely for
one another to accommodate work schedules and institutional needs. All of these factors serve to
isolate patients, rob them of their individuality, foster dependence, and diminish self-respect and
self confidence, even when illness, medication, and surgery have not already had these effects.(286)
In addition, the infrequency of home deaths has drawn a curtain of ignorance around dying, which
make it easier to misunderstand and---up to the point of personal involvement---neglect the
Medical ability to maintain hopeless life has increased tremendously. Social critic Ivan Illich calls
this "managed maintenance of life on high levels of sublethal illness" the "ultimate evil" of medical
progress.(287) We're still sorting out the individual, social, and medical consequences of the
widespread shift from acute to chronic disease; from dying at home to dying in a hospital,(288) from
dying quickly to dying slowly. Illness-driven suicide and euthanasia are two of these
Five hundred nineteen cases of mercy killing were recorded in the U.S. between 1920 and 1993.
Ninety two percent of these have occurred since 1973,(289) suggesting one response to prolonged,
high-tech dying---or fear of it.
The frequency of suicide among the terminally ill is in dispute. Studies of cancer patients have
found suicide rates ranging from the same as, to ten times, the rate of the general population.(290)
The reported rates are probably substantial underestimates, however, since families are relatively
unlikely to confess to a suicide and physicians or medical examiners unlikely to investigate deaths
under these circumstances. In addition, dying patients may be unwilling to admit to suicidal
thoughts or plans for fear of being classified as "depressed" and being deprived of pain-relieving
Assisted suicide and euthanasia
Much has recently been written on the topic of assisted suicide and euthanasia, and I will add only
a few passing observations:
First, there is a good deal of confusion about language, particularly concerning "assisted suicide"
and "euthanasia". Though the terms are often used interchangeably, in this book the distinction is
that in assisted suicide, while someone else provides the lethal agent, the person who is dying
administers it; in euthanasia, someone else does the administration.
Assisted suicide is probably easier on the assistant's conscience than euthanasia, and does decrease
the possibility of misunderstanding or abuses; however it also substantially increases the chance of
other errors, such as the patient falling asleep before swallowing a lethal dose, or vomiting it up.
On the other hand, where a dying patient has made the request for such help clear, but has lapsed
into physical or mental inability to act, assisted suicide would no longer be an option.
Euthanasia may be "voluntary", where the person dying has made a request for it. It may be
"non-voluntary", where a person who has not made her wishes on this matter known, is put to
death; such people are often in a coma. "Involuntary euthanasia" might be the oxymoronic term if
the person dying had expressed opposition to such a procedure. The more common word for this
Assistance may be "active", for example, administering a lethal injection; or "passive", such as
disconnecting someone from life-support apparatus. Thus, Dr. Jack Kevorkian has carried out,
exclusively, passive assisted-suicides. He has, in most cases, set up a carbon monoxide apparatus
that requires the patient to open a valve to start the gas flow. (His first three suicides used
intravenous potassium as the lethal agent. However, starting an i.v. line is not always easy, which
may be why he switched to carbon monoxide.)
Some people believe there is an ethical or moral difference between active and passive
euthanasia.(292) However, as Lonny Shavelson notes, "...the major difference today between
passive and active euthanasia is that people who believe in passive euthanasia are allowed to have
it; for those who would choose active euthanasia, it is forbidden."(293) Or, in the words of Dr.
Pieter Admiraal, "the only thing passive about passive euthanasia, is the physician."(294)
While there is an obvious difference between "killing" and "allowing to die", those who feel that
there is a clear moral distinction between the two seem to be saying that we may allow an
evil---choosing to die---by acts of omission, but may not commit the identical evil by acts of
commission. Would it then be morally acceptable to stay aboard a sinking ship to make room for
someone else in a lifeboat, but not to jump out of a lifeboat for the same purpose? Why is it legal
and ethical to act on a terminally ill patient's request to turn off her ventilator, but illegal and
unethical to carry out the same patient's request for an overdose of morphine? Is it not as much a
choice to die from asphyxia or cancer as from an overdose? In the ethical triad of intent, method,
and result, when the intents and results of passive (e.g. removing life support) and active (e.g.
administering a lethal overdose) euthanasia are the same, it seems obtuse to ignore those
similarities and focus on differences of method.
I would suggest that to turn off life support and let the patient die "naturally" hours or days later
is often the immoral act. If a dying person's condition is so hopeless or painful that withdrawal of
life-support is appropriate, then the most merciful action is that which brings this life to an
immediate end. In Margaret Battin's words, "To impose `mercy' on someone who insists that
despite his or her suffering life is still valuable to him or her would hardly be mercy; to withhold
mercy from someone who pleads for it, on the basis that his or her life could still be worthwhile
for him or her, is insensitive and cruel."(295)
"Active" vs "Passive" methods of dying
While the ethical arguments when someone in a coma has not made their desire for (or
disapproval of) an expedited death known are more complex than in assisted suicide, the
distinctions between "active" and "passive" are solely differences of method rather than intent,
result, or consent, and of little independent ethical interest.
Except that method matters. When a physician removes food and water i.v.'s from a terminal
patient, fully expecting and intending that the patient will die within a few hours or days as a
result of this action, why does he or she not administer a lethal drug and put an end to the
suffering? What is the lofty ethical principle being preserved here? Keeping one's hands clean?
The dog pound treats injured strays better.
In fairness to physicians, a major reason for their aversion to "actively" hasten death is, I think,
that it remains illegal to do so. As a result, a tormented patient is at the mercy of the doctor's
willingness to take risks, put his/her own career on the line, and perhaps go to jail. In 1991 Dr.
Timothy Quill [professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical
School] gave a dying patient a prescription for a lethal quantity of barbiturates knowing that she
intended to kill herself with them. After Quill bravely (or foolishly) wrote about it in a letter to
the New England Journal of Medicine,(296) Rochester, New York prosecutor Howard Relin ("The
People") tried to get a grand jury indictment on a charge of assisting a suicide, which carries a
5-to-15 year prison sentence. The grand jury (the people) refused.
Eleven physicians since 1935 have been charged with murder in mercy-killings (eight of these
since 1980); most were acquitted, one committed suicide, none served prison time.(297) Still, such
legal sanctions discourage physicians from both assisted suicide and euthanasia even when all
parties involved agree that it would be the right, as well as the best, thing to do.
And while individual doctors may carry out assisted suicide or euthanasia, as Anthony Flew notes,
"...it is entirely wrong to expect the members of one profession as a regular matter of course to
jeopardize their whole careers by breaking the criminal law in order to save the rest of us the
labour...of changing that law."(298)
Flew makes a valid point. Nevertheless, I find the withdrawal of food and water inexcusably
cruel: the socially-acceptable torture of the helpless due to the moral cowardice of legislators,
physicians, and the public.
Right to refuse medical treatment
Oddly, in the midst of the heated assisted-suicide debate, there is little discussion of the
generally-accepted, and legally undisputed, right to refuse medical treatment, even when the
refusal will directly lead to death.(299f)
For example, about one of five kidney dialysis ("artificial kidney") patients' deaths is due to
quitting dialysis(300)---knowing that they will die within two weeks as a result of their decision.(301f)
The average survival time is a little over a week.(302)
There are also large numbers who refuse blood transfusions, chemotherapy or surgery for a
variety of personal or religious reasons. The ethical distinction between refusing treatment in
order to die, and suicide (assisted or not) for the same purpose, is not apparent.
Nevertheless, treatment-refusal often does not lead to a "good" death: one that is painless,
dignified, conscious, and leaves time to review one's life and say goodbyes. Moreover, the
definition of a "good" death varies from one person to the next. For some people it is the least
painful, for some it is the fastest, for some it is the most-delayed, for some it is the least
disfiguring, for some it is that which best allows final conscious time with family and friends.
Thus, all the more reason to respect the autonomy and choices of each individual.
In the United States treatment-refusal is the only legally-protected method for choosing death. It
is available to (legally) competent and (indirectly, through proxy) non-competent individuals. It
was asserted by courts at least as early as 1914: "Every human being of adult years and sound
mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body."(303) More recently, in
Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court reached similar conclusions,
based on a constitutional right to privacy.
The ninth circuit Court of Appeals used this as the basis for overturning the Washington State ban on assisted suicide. A month later, the second circuit Court of Appeals overturned New York's ban on assisted suicide in April, 1996, but used the "equal protection" clause of the 14th amendment as the rationale, noting that terminally ill people who were on life-support could legally "pull the plug" while those not on life support had no similar option. In June, 1997, the Supreme Court reversed the two Appeals Court decisions and ruled that there is no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. They seem to have been unpersuaded by the part of the [New Jersey Supreme Court] Quinlan (1976) decision that stated:
Constitutional protection from criminal prosecution where death is accelerated by termination of medical treatment pursuant to right of privacy extends to third parties whose action is necessary to effectuate the exercise of that right where the patients themselves would not be subject to prosecution or the third parties are charged as accessories to an act which could not be a crime.(304)
Thus it remains legal to pull the plug on a respirator and let a permanently-comatose patient
suffocate, but a crime---murder---to end that same life by a deliberate overdose of painkiller.
"Natural" process vs "artificial" intervention
The assertion has been made that there is a crucial difference between "pulling the plug" and
deliberate overdose: one consists of letting a "natural" process continue while the other is an
"artificial" interference with that process. This claim is absurd. Why is it only ethical to die
"naturally", after a long illness filled with highly "un-natural" life-extending medical procedures?
Why is it unethical to choose to die swiftly and painlessly?
Scottish philosopher David Hume addressed the theological form of this argument around 1750:
"Were the disposal of human life so much reserved as the peculiar province of the Almighty that it were an encroachment on his right, for men to dispose of their own lives; it would be equally criminal to act for the preservation of life as for its destruction. If I turn aside a stone which is falling upon my head, I disturb the course of nature, and I invade the peculiar province of the Almighty by lengthening out my life beyond the period which by the general laws of matter and motion he had assigned it."(305)(306f)
Thus the argument by "natural physical law" fails: if one may intervene in some natural laws, one
may intervene in others; and suicide cannot be opposed on these grounds. That is, one must also
show that some laws of nature, but not others, should be left alone.
In any case, the "natural law" argument is fundamentally flawed, since it claims the existence of a
natural physical law (in this case, that suicide is contrary to the "law of self-preservation") as the
justification to enforce obedience to that same law. However, to the extent that what is called a
"natural law" really is one, it doesn't need legislative or moral reinforcement; for example, the
"law of gravity" seems to work equally well with or without human approval.
Consequences of making assisted suicide illegal
There are numerous cases of desperate, hospitalized people carrying out desperate suicides. In
one instance, a man dying of cancer, immobilized in a frame and partly paralyzed, poured lighter
fluid on his chest and ignited it. In another case, "One terminally ill seventy-eight-year old, who
was intubated and connected to life-support systems despite repeated requests to be left alone to
die, switched off his own ventilator during the night and suffocated. He left a final message for
his attending physician: `Death is not the enemy, doctor. Inhumanity is.' "(307)
In Richard Momeyer's words,
"A decent society finds ways of caring for those even in the most extreme distress; rarely is it the case that such caring is best done by encouraging death, either through suicide or euthanasia. Rarely, I said, but not never. For neither is it the case that in a decent society we would burden those for whom death is in their best interest with the sole responsibility for ending their lives, any more than we burden everyone with sole responsibility for sustaining their lives when this is best..."(308)
One of the ironic and presumably unintended results of making assisted suicide illegal is the pressure it puts on the old, infirm, and ill to kill themselves while they are still able to do so, and sooner than they would if they could count on help. Part of author Arthur Koestler's(309f) suicide letter addresses this issue:
"After a more or less steady physical decline over the last years, the process has now reached an acute state with added complications which make it advisable to seek self-deliverance now, before I become incapable of making the necessary arrangements."(310)
Nobel physicist Percy Bridgman, dying from cancer, shot himself after his physician refused to
help him die. He left the following note: "It isn't decent for society to make a man do this thing
himself. Probably this is the last day I will be able to do it myself."(311)
Koestler's and Bridgman's concern was not without foundation. Sometimes people wait too long.
AIDS patients are particularly prone to suicide, but doctors who have many AIDS patients say
that they have often seen these people prepare to kill themselves, but then become demented from
their disease, and become unable to carry out their plans.(312)
What should physicians do under these circumstances? Margaret Battin, a medical ethicist, argues:
"The physician's obligation is not only to respect the patient's choices, but also to make it possible for the patient to act upon those choices. This means supplying the knowledge and equipment to enable the person to stay alive, if he or she so chooses....But it may also mean providing the knowledge, equipment, and help to enable the patient to die, if that is his or her choice...(313)To restrict the right to die to the mere right to refuse unwanted medical treatment and so be "allowed" to die...is an indefensible truncation of the more basic right to choose one's death in accordance with one's own values."(314)
On the other hand, the capability of committing suicide sometimes decreases the perceived need to do so prematurely. In 1994, George Kingsley was a 48 year-old man with AIDS. He collected the pills he intended to use and gave away many of his possessions.
"[Having the means to kill myself] has made my every day better, much much better," he said. "It
has diminished my horror, as though I was facing an enemy on a battlefield stark naked and now I
Data from the Netherlands are consistent with this idea. Twenty-two percent (29/131) of a group
of AIDS patients died by physician-assisted suicide (PAS) or euthanasia, compared to about two
percent of all deaths. Based on an examination of each case, "[There was not] any substantial
shortening of life by euthanasia/PAS...most of these patients would have died naturally within one
When physicians single-mindedly fight against death, it is, too often, at the expense of their
equally important obligation to ease suffering. It is a medical atavism based on an acute-illness
model that doesn't apply: "If we can pull them through this crisis, they'll recover sufficiently to
have a worthwhile remaining life." In many situations, they won't. The use of so-called "heroic"
measures to maintain and resuscitate a terminally ill person who wants to die can better be
described as "killing slowly and without mercy".
Physicians' and nurses' views
From Australia comes an eloquent Open Letter to the State Premier [Governor] of Victoria:
"...Each of us who has signed this letter has personal experience of treating terminally-ill patients whose condition has moved them to ask for assistance in suicide and each of us has, on occasion, after deep thought and lengthy discussion, helped such a patient to die....We have assisted patients to end their lives and we know others who have. We believe that we have acted in the best tradition of medical ethics, offering our patients relief from pain and suffering in circumstances where it would have been an act of cruelty to deny them. We respect life. All of our professional training and work deepens that respect. However, the reality is that there are some patients who are beset by physical and mental suffering which is beyond the reach of even our most sophisticated efforts at control. When such patients clearly and repeatedly express a rational plea for help, it is out of respect for them that we have felt compelled to act. However, as long as the law maintains that our behaviour is criminal, there will be numerous patients who will die in unnecessary misery. There are many who cry out for help and who are denied it by doctors who may sympathise with their plight but who are unwilling to break the law. There are some who attempt to end their lives unaided and who botch the attempt and survive with their misery redoubled. There are others who may be helped by a doctor but who, for fear of incriminating their friends and family, must choose to die alone without the chance to say farewell."
Increasing numbers of doctors and nurses throughout the world have reached similar conclusions.
The Medical Journal of Australia published a 1988 survey that found 60% of physicians in
Victoria wanted the law changed to de-criminalize assisted suicide under some circumstances.
Seventy-eight percent of nurses in Victoria agreed. Of those Australian doctors who treated
incurably ill adult patients, 29 percent had "actively" hastened the death of some who had asked to
die; 80 percent of them had done this more than once.(317)
In another state, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, almost half of 2000
surveyed physicians had been asked to carry out euthanasia; 28 percent had done so.(318)
A survey of California physicians arrived at generally similar numbers, with 23 percent of doctors
having quickened a patient's death.(319) Among San Francisco Bay area doctors with substantial
AIDS practices, it was 53 percent.(320) A more recent national sampling found 7 percent of U.S.
physicians had written lethal prescriptions or given given lethal injections. Most had done so
infrequently, but one reported assisting 175 deaths.(321)
Nurses act in much the same way. 17 percent (141/852) of American critical-care nurses
surveyed had been asked by patients and/or patients' families to carry out euthanasia (which
included high doses of pain medication that results in both pain control and life shortening; but
excluded withdrawal of life support equipment); 16 percent (129) had done so, and an additional
4% (39) said they had hastened patients' deaths by withholding life-sustaining treatment ordered
by a physician. Most said they had done these three or fewer times; however 5% said they had
done so 20 or more times.(322)
In Canada, 44% of surveyed physicians said that physician-administered euthanasia was
sometimes justified. 51% said that the law should be changed to permit patient-requested active
In the Netherlands, where both have been more-or-less openly practiced since 1973, physician
approval is around 80-90 percent.(324)
In the U.S., medical opinion is closely divided. A 1993 survey of 938 doctors in Washington State(325) found that half supported physician-assisted suicide in some cases, while 39 percent said it was never justified. Smaller numbers (42%) felt that it was acceptable for the physician, rather than the patient, to administer the lethal overdose, while 48% said it was not.(326f)
Interestingly, psychiatrists were most likely to support physician-assisted suicide; cancer
specialists least likely. Female doctors were significantly more favorable toward assisted suicide
than were their male colleagues. One wonders if psychiatrists and female physicians might also be
higher in measures of empathy and compassion.(327)
A more recent study, published in 1996,(328) found increased physician support. Sixty percent of
the Oregon doctors most likely to work with terminally-ill patients (out of 2,761 responses)
favored physician-assisted suicide under some circumstances. Older doctors were more
approving than younger ones; perhaps they are more realistic about the limits of medicine.
Catholics, non-denominational Christians, and Mormons were less likely to approve than were
other religious affiliations. Twenty-one percent of these doctors had been asked to write a
prescription for a lethal drug dose in the previous year; seven percent had done so.
Meanwhile in Michigan, 77% of doctors felt that physician-assisted suicide should either be
explicitly legalized (40%) or that there should be no law at all concerning it (37%); only 17% said
it should be illegal. Thirty-five percent said that they might carry out such assistance, if legal.(329)
Among Michigan cancer specialists, 18 percent admitted to assisting in suicide(s) and 4 percent to
carrying out euthanasia.(330)
The American Medical Association's governing body recently reaffirmed its long-standing
opposition to physician-assisted suicide.(331)---while simultaneously respecting a dying patient's
wishes concerning treatment and maintaining the position that a doctor may withdraw all life
support treatment, including food and water, from a patient who is in an irreversible coma.(332) To
hold these views simultaneously is an impressive intellectual feat. However there is increasing
protest. One delegate argued that the official AMA position "...fails to respond to the crying need
of our patients in prolonged agony." Another said he was amazed by the number of fellow
doctors he had polled who had admitted assisting suicides.(333)
Significantly, a large majority---almost 90 percent---of doctors and nurses surveyed said that they
would not want treatment if they had severe dementia or were in an irreversible coma. In the case
of a possibly-reversible coma, 70 percent of the nurses and half of the physicians said that they
would not want treatment. In the words of the study's authors, "...physicians and nurses, who
have extensive exposure to hospitals and sick patients, are unlikely to wish aggressive treatment if
they become terminally ill, demented, or are in a persistent vegetative state. Many would also
decline aggressive care on the basis of age alone..."(334)
Yet they are willing to inflict treatment on patients in comparable circumstances. In the
hypothetical case of a demented elderly patient with life-threatening gastro-intestinal bleeding,
physicians were more than twice as likely to want only palliative [comfort] care if they were the
patient than if the patient were a stranger.(335)
This attitude is also seen in "active life termination" issues. In interviews with 155 cancer
patients, 193 members of the public, and 355 oncologists (cancer docs), about two thirds of the
patients and public thought doctor-assisted suicide or euthanasia were acceptable for patients in
uncontrollable pain. Less than half of the physicians agreed; however, almost one in seven had
carried out such acts.(336)
Non-medical opinion has also moved in the direction of increased acceptance of life termination.
Barbara Logue has collected a series of public opinion surveys published between 1937 and
1991.(337) They all show a gradual, but remarkably steady, shift from about 2:1 opposed to
euthanasia/assisted-suicide to 2:1 in favor.
What is most striking about these data is that every multi-year poll shows increasing approval for
every time interval. This was true irrespective of who (Gallup, Harris, Roper, General Social
Surveys) carried it out or how the questions were worded. A typical survey question, from Harris
polls between 1973 and 1985 is: "Do you think the patient who is terminally ill, with no cure in
sight, ought to have the right to tell his doctor to put him out of his misery, or do you think this is
wrong?" The response to this particular question went from 37%-right : 53%-wrong to
61%-right : 36% wrong over those 12 years.(338) When these questions were asked only to the
elderly, whose interest in such matters is least likely to be abstract or hypothetical, a similar
pattern of increasing approval was also seen.(339)
The impetus for this shift has not come from the medical, legal, or political establishment, which
has, in typical conservative fashion, generally resisted change. Rather, the pressure for change has
been the experiences of millions of the slowly dying, their families, and increasing numbers of their
Asphyxia is any process that cuts off the oxygen supply to the brain. This includes such seemingly
unrelated methods as a plastic bag over the head, suspension hanging, and carbon monoxide
poisoning. All forms of asphyxia are potentially lethal, but they differ widely in how painful they
are. Death usually occurs between 5-10 minutes after complete asphyxia. Some of these methods
are suitable for suicide; none are appropriate for a suicidal gesture.
Lethal intent: High
Fatality rate: High; around 80 percent
Permanent injuries: Moderately likely
What are the pros and cons of suicidal asphyxia?
What is Asphyxia?
In the most general sense asphyxia ("a" --without; "sphyzein" (Gr) --to beat or throb violently) is
any condition that causes the heart to stop beating by interfering with the body's capacity to inhale
or utilize oxygen. Oxygen is ultimately necessary for all human metabolic activity, and its absence
is rapidly fatal. Since the brain is the organ most sensitive to lack of oxygen, as a practical matter
asphyxia is anything that cuts the brain's supply of, or ability to use, oxygen. Obviously the rest of
the body needs oxygen, too; but the brain responds most quickly and catastrophically to its
Looking at the various causes of asphyxia outlined below, one can begin to appreciate that
methods as seemingly dissimilar as carbon monoxide poisoning, strangling, and drowning are all
fundamentally alike in how they kill.
I. Mechanical interference with oxygen uptake
|A. Compression of neck or chest|
|a. compression of chest|
|B. Obstruction of airway|
|a. Inhaling foreign object|
|b. Swelling (e.g., from allergic reaction or blow)|
|c. Depletion of oxygen (e.g., plastic bag, drowning, vacuum)|
II. Chemical interference with oxygen uptake or utilization
|A. Replacement of oxygen by non-toxic gas (e.g. helium, methane, nitrogen)|
|B. Depletion of oxygen|
|2. Other oxidation (e.g., rusty SCUBA tank)|
|C. Interference with utilization of oxygen at cellular level|
|1. Carbon monoxide|
Some of these topics are treated separately or in more detail in other chapters (hanging,
drowning, carbon monoxide, cyanide); others are too rarely encountered in the suicide literature
(allergic reaction, inhalation of foreign object) to be worth looking at in detail.
How Many People Kill Themselves by Asphyxia?
Pipeline gas E951.0
L-P gas E951.1
Motor vehicle CO E952.0
Other CO E952.1
Other gases E952.8-9
Plastic bag asphyxia E953.1
Other related means E953.8-9
M = Male; F = Female; W = White; B = Black; O = Other; L-P = liquified propane; CO = carbon monoxide
E-numbers are International Classification of Disease (ICD) codes (see website appendix).
Hanging and automotive carbon monoxide accounted for the large majority of these suicides.
Drowning is a distant third, though its actual numbers may well be a good deal higher than
reported, since it's easier to disguise suicidal intent with drowning than with either hanging or
carbon monoxide poisoning.
Plastic bag asphyxia is unusual in that there are as many women than men who use this method.
How and Why is Asphyxia Dangerous?
Death is a process, rather than an event. Different cells and tissues die at different rates; for
example, the brain will not normally survive more than a few minutes without oxygenated blood
circulation, while connective tissue and muscle cells may remain alive for many hours.(341) Thus,
there is the current medical ability to reattach severed limbs, but not heads.
At a basic level, all asphyxial injury is due to cutting off the brain's oxygen supply. This can
happen directly, by interference with breathing (e.g., from pressure on the chest or on the front of
the neck) or by removal of the oxygen from the air. The same results occur indirectly if blood
can't pick up oxygen (e.g., in carbon monoxide poisoning), or if oxygenated blood is prevented
from reaching the brain (e.g., by pressure on the large arteries in the neck). Irrespective of the
method,(342f) complete asphyxia causes quick---typically within 2-3 minutes---unconsciousness,
followed by brain damage, ending in death. Since the degree of oxygen depletion varies with
method, so does the length of time needed for any given result.
Resuscitation may produce a survivor with brain damage, which is often long-lasting and
sometimes permanent. Four to five minutes of circulatory arrest causes brain damage in around
half of patients(343) and approximately 5-10 minutes of complete oxygen cutoff is generally fatal
(unless body temperature is abnormally low, as in drowning in icy water), though the heart will
continue to beat for several more minutes.
Let's look at some of the methods in more detail.
Strangulation causes asphyxia by means of pressure on the neck from a ligature or from
someone's hands. The weight of the victim's body plays no part, which is what distinguishes
strangulation from hanging. Since manual self-strangulation is unknown and probably impossible
(your hands relax when you become unconscious), all cases of manual strangulation are
considered homicides. I suppose this also makes manual self-strangulation the perfectly safe
suicidal gesture, but, by the same token, it would not likely be taken seriously.
Pressure on the neck can close the airway (trachea, or windpipe) at the front of the neck, or
compress the common carotid (both sides of neck) and vertebral (back of neck) arteries or jugular
veins (both sides), or some combination of the above.(344f) The jugular veins are easiest to
compress, followed by carotid and vertebral arteries, followed by the trachea. (See 'Hanging'
chapter for details.) Much more pressure is needed to close the airway than to close the blood
vessels in the neck, and is unnecessarily painful. It is entirely feasible to protect the airway with
stiff padding, and still kill oneself by tightening a ligature around the neck, thus shutting off blood
flow to or from the brain.
Because they operate at higher pressure, the carotid arteries (blood into the head) require more
external pressure to compress than do the jugular veins (blood out). A tight, quickly-applied
ligature would squeeze both shut, leaving a body with a dusky, blue-tinged (from de-oxygenated
hemoglobin in the blood) face.
Lesser pressure, compressing the major veins but not the arteries, would allow blood into, but not
out of, the head. This would result in a swollen, blue-purple head, often leaking blood. It may
also be painful, albeit briefly. If aesthetics are an issue, quick and complete compression of the
blood vessels is least likely to leave a gruesome corpse.
Suicidal strangulation is uncommon, but certainly not unknown. It is generally done by one of
three means: (1) knotting a rope or piece of cloth around the neck in such a fashion that it will not
come undone when consciousness is lost; (2) twisting a stick or rod under the ligature so that it
tightens, and then stays caught under the jaw or chin after unconsciousness; (3) wrapping multiple
turns of cord around the neck without any knot at all, depending on friction to hold it in place.
Pressure on the windpipe is painful, but even lethal pressure elsewhere on the neck may produce
little or no distress; thus, if the front of the neck is well padded, none of the following techniques
ought to be particularly painful. But all are potentially deadly.
Method one is straightforward: a ligature is wrapped once or twice around the neck and quickly
knotted. This often looks similar to a homicidal strangulation, but can usually be distinguished
from it by the absence of scratches on the neck (produced either by the attacker or the victim) and
of internal neck injuries.
A more-or-less typical case of a suicidal strangulation is described in a forensic medicine text:
"A woman aged 73 was lying full length on the floor of a bedroom, which she shared with another patient in a nursing home. The bedclothing had been thrown back in a manner consistent with getting out of bed. There were no signs of any struggle. She was dressed in a nightgown and a brown stocking was round her neck; the fellow of a pair was seen suspended over the head of the bed. The stocking was applied with a half-knot at the nape on the first turn and with another half-knot at the front of the neck. The first turn was tight, but the second, although close to the first, was easily released. There were no other signs of violence, but a little bleeding, which produced a small stain 1 in. in its diameter, had occurred from the nose; the stain was directly below her nose. Her face and neck, above the ligature, were congested and of purple colour. Bleeding had occurred beneath the conjunctivae [eyelids], but petechial hemorrhages [pinpoint hemorrhages often found in asphyxia] were not seen in the skin of the forehead and face. The tongue protruded, but was not bitten; she had dentures, but these were on her bedside table."
The author goes on to describe the generally mild injuries in detail and concludes,
"The cause of death was asphyxia, following the application of a relatively broad, soft ligature to the neck with sufficient force to obstruct the veins and, to a lesser degree, the arteries of the neck; there was also obstruction of the air passages. The mode of application of the ligature was consistent with self-strangulation, as was all the other evidence."(345)
Sometimes it's difficult to determine whether death resulted from suicidal or from homicidal
strangulation. For example, a soft ligature applied with skill and removed soon after death will
create problems at autopsy. In one case a woman strangled her child with her husband's necktie.
She tied no knot and held the ends of the necktie instead, until the deed was done, and then
removed it.(346) As a result, there was no externally-visible neck injury. But she was caught
It isn't unusual for defense counsel in a case of homicidal strangulation to try to muddy the waters. In one instance, the body of a 42-year-old woman was found in a grave in her well-screened back yard. Clothesline was wrapped twice around her neck and tightened with a half-knot. A man was arrested. At trial, the defense described the ligature as more like a "lover's" knot than a murderer's; but had a hard time explaining the presence of a large piece of cloth forced down her throat, and several additional injuries. Faced with this evidence, counsel admitted that the injuries were the cause of death, but suggested that they were the results of a violent quarrel. The accused's failure to report the death was attributed to his preference for conducting his own funeral arrangements. His contention, that he wanted to give her a "Christian burial," was described by the prosecutor as one of the worst pieces of hypocrisy he had ever heard. The jury was equally unimpressed by his solicitude and convicted him of murder.(347)
Method two is rather like applying a tourniquet. There is generally a single loop which is attached
loosely and usually knotted with a granny or reef knot.(348) A rod (still called a "Spanish windlass"
in honor of its former use in that country for judicial executions) is placed under the ligature and
twisted to tighten. Tightening needs to be accomplished fairly quickly in order to get a few extra
twists in before unconsciousness intervenes. This is done because the twist may partly unwind
when no longer held in place. But only partly. Usually the rod hangs up on the side of the jaw,
and enough compression is maintained to cause death. Occasionally, quite unwieldy rods are
used to tighten the ligature, as in a case where a man used a fireplace poker.(349) Items this large
will certainly prevent the ligature from untwisting, but are hard to tighten rapidly.
Method three, multiple loops, is the least common since, if the ligature is tight, there isn't time to
do very many loops; if it is loose, it's ineffective. In one case, however, a 53-year-old man
succeeded despite these difficulties. He wrapped twine around his neck 35 times, tied a knot and
tightened it. He then bent forward on his knees with his head down, which increased his neck
circumference, and thus, pressure from the twine; this is the posture in which he was found. Since
this is an unusual position, the police were initially suspicious. However, there was no internal
damage to the fairly delicate anatomical structures in the neck, a fact consistent with suicide, but
Choking is the blockage of the internal airway by some foreign object. Some examples are:
(1) Inhaling vomit while unconscious, typically after drug/alcohol overdose. While this may be
the actual cause of death, it is unpredictable and rarely, if ever, the intended method.
(2) Aspiration of food. This is a common (and public) enough accidental cause of death that it's
been nicknamed the "cafe coronary". The food item is often a chunk of meat, and the victim often
is drunk. Sometimes there is no sign of respiratory distress---the victim just sits back on the chair,
or falls over, dead. These are cases of cardiac arrest triggered by a bolus of food stuck in the
airway. Choking on food is also occasionally seen among some mental patients who try to "wolf"
down (a canard---wolves don't eat in this way) their own and/or other inmates' food.
(3) Young children are indiscriminate about what they put into their mouths, and readily insert
things that will block breathing if inhaled.
The emergency treatment for life-threatening choking is the "Heimlich maneuver" widely taught in
first-aid courses. It consists of holding the victim from behind and putting sudden pressure on her
diaphragm by a quick squeeze with your locked hands. An emergency "self-Heimlich" can be
done (if you don't panic) by quickly shoving your diaphragm (just below where your ribs come
together between your chest and belly) hard against the rounded corner of a table, bannister, or
other sturdy object. Falling onto a round object such as a soccer ball or your fists should be
In any case the idea is to dislodge the blockage by a sudden increase in exhalatory air pressure. If
this isn't done, or fails, the desperate victim tries harder to inhale, which only wedges the object
more firmly. Blood pressure and carbon dioxide levels rise; lack of oxygenated (red) and excess
of un-oxygenated (blue) hemoglobin causes the victim to turn bluish; convulsions due to
insufficient oxygen and too much carbon dioxide often occur; heartbeat races, falters, then stops.
"Choke" and "sleeper" holds, sometimes used by police and muggers, are discussed in the
Compression of Chest
If the chest and diaphragm are compressed, the ability to inhale is impaired. Since this can be
done with few, if any, external signs of injury, it was once a notorious method of disguising
murder. It was popularized(351f) by two Ulstermen, William Burke and William Hare, who killed a
number of derelicts in Scotland by this means. The motive was money: they committed these
murders in order to sell the bodies for dissection at the local medical school.
Hare was keeper of the Log's lodging house in Edinburgh. They sold their first corpse, who had
died a natural death at the lodging house on November 29, 1827, to a Dr. Robert Knox for 7
pounds, 10 shillings, for dissection at Knox' anatomy school.
Deciding that there was a career opportunity here, over the next 11 months they enticed at least
15 people (one at a time) to the lodging house, got them drunk, and smothered them. One would
hold the victim's legs while the other would sit on his or her chest. Hare testified that, in one
"...got stridelegs on the top of the woman on the floor, and she cried out a little, and he kept in her breath...He pressed down her head with his breast...He put one hand under the nose and the other under her chin, under her mouth..."(352)
The technique was given the name "burking" in their honor. After they were caught, Hare turned
King's evidence, was eventually released, and disappeared with Burk's former mistress, by then
Hare's wife. He supposedly died a pauper in London in 1859. Burke was hanged in 1829; the
doctor was never charged.(353f)
Other than accidents such as car wrecks, construction cave-ins, falling beverage vending machines
(surprisingly common, and usually due to people trying to rob the machine, or to irate customers
trying to get their money back(354f)), and stampeding mobs (most frequently soccer or music fans),
the main incidence of fatal chest compression is in the course of police arrests. If a prisoner is
face down on the ground or in the back of a police car, with hands forced behind in cuffs and the
weight of the policeman on his back, there may be lethal results. This is especially, but not only,
true if the prisoner is struggling violently or has taken alcohol or other depressant drugs.
Compression is also the method used by "constrictor" snakes to kill their prey: they wrap
themselves around their victim a bit more closely each time it exhales. Inhalations become
progressively more difficult until the victim dies of asphyxia. It is not "crushed" in the sense of
having broken bones, except incidentally. There are four recorded cases of deaths due to
constrictor snakes in the U.S. Three were due to large pet snakes; two killed infant children of
the owners; one adult was killed while sleeping on the floor. The fourth death was that of a
zoo-keeper.(355) None were considered suicides; nor is it a recommended method of suicide.
"Smothering" is the blockage of the nose and mouth . This is sometimes seen in homicide since it
simultaneously minimizes the injuries that generate suspicion of foul play, and noise (screams,
gunshots, etc.) that might attract unwanted attention. However, unless there is a major mismatch
in strength, the chances of killing someone quickly and without producing visible injury are
In the 18th and 19th centuries the accidental smothering of infants was common in England.(357f)
This was called "overlaying" and was attributed (by the upper classes) to widespread drunkenness
amongst the lower classes, supposedly due to the availability of cheap gin. Since young children
generally shared their parents' bed, if the parents were drunk, they might innocently (or otherwise)
lie on and asphyxiate a small child. In our more enlightened time, infants are usually kept in their
own cribs, and their occasional mysterious deaths are now attributed to "Sudden Infant Death
Syndrome" or SIDS.(358f)
Sometimes people are gagged in the course of other crimes. If the gag slips upward to also block
the nose, or is inhaled, death from asphyxia can result.
Suicidal smothering is rare, requiring extraordinary will power, but is occasionally seen amongst
prisoners and mental patients. One prisoner killed himself by stuffing pieces of cloth into his
mouth and nose, and holding them in place with a handkerchief.(359) Another was found dead in a
mental hospital with a pebble lodged in each nostril and mouth stuffed with cloth.(360) It's also
possible to smother oneself by lying face down on soft bedding or clothing. This is occasionally
the cause of death for people who are drunk, or incapacitated for other reasons; but I'm not aware
of cases in which a physically and mentally unimpaired adult has committed suicide by this means.
Accidental smothering occurs mostly in small children. Some of these cases are due to an infant being unable to turn over from its stomach. (The recent decrease in SIDS cases in England has been credited to a campaign to get mothers to put their babies face up in cribs.(361)) This situation is made more dangerous by the use of waterproof (and thus airproof) bedding covers. There exist "safety pillows" with holes cut throughout, intended to allow breathing even face down. In one case of infant asphyxia, such a pillow was used---but covered with a plastic liner.
There have been rare, but well-documented, cases of infants being smothered by cats sitting on
their faces or chests. In one instance a five-week-old baby was discovered in her baby carriage
with a cat lying on her face. Her father got her breathing again with mouth-to-mouth
resuscitation, but she died seven months later. Autopsy showed evidence of brain damage
consistent with asphyxia.(362)
Plastic bags, especially the thin, clinging sort used for garments, are notorious for smothering
young children. Though flimsy, they tend to, well, cling. Older children and young adults are
sometimes accidentally asphyxiated when sniffing fumes (glue, propane, solvents, etc.) from a
plastic bag, if they become unconscious. This is in addition to the sometimes-serious toxicity
caused by the vapor itself.
In suicide, a small plastic bag is generally placed over the head and tied or taped around the neck.
The oxygen in the bag is used up by rebreathing. This plastic bag technique, however, seems
unreliable, since most garden-variety bags are more-or-less easily torn in the course of
convulsions or semi-conscious movement. Plastic bag(s) or sheets may instead be wrapped tightly
around the nose and mouth, which is faster but more traumatic.
A small bag is said to become unpleasantly warm; if so, some ice, wrapped in a towel and resting
on the head or neck, should help. My experiments with larger bags have not found heat to be a
problem; but one might as well be comfortable.
A more gradual asphyxia can be achieved by use of a large plastic bag. A would-be suicide could
combine drugs with this slow asphyxia to cause death less traumatically, more rapidly, and more
reliably than either method could do alone.(363f) The seal around the neck doesn't need to be
painfully tight---rubber bands, elastic, or velcro will do---and small air leaks are not significant, at
least in the 30-gallon and tube tent sizes. In fact, there are examples of fatalities where the
bottom of the bag was not closed at all.(364)
Interestingly, there is often no sign of asphyxia---the faces are pale and uncongested---after
plastic-bag suicides. This may be important in assisted-suicide, where the assistant wishes to avoid
legal entanglements. It also suggests that the mechanism of death is not always, or not entirely,
hypoxia, but rather cardiac arrest set off by hypoxia.(365)
The combination of asphyxia and drugs would decrease one of the major difficulties with drug
overdose as a suicide method: besides being unreliably lethal, most drugs take a long time, making
a suicide attempt subject to intervention. But if one were to use a drug(s) that quickly induced
unconsciousness, simultaneous use of a large plastic bag or a tube tent would substantially
increase the chance of a lethal result. (Obviously, this is counterproductive if one wants to
survive the suicide attempt.)
And the time-window for permanent injury would be smaller than with the drug alone: done
properly, if one were interrupted within, say, 20 minutes, there would be good chance of full
recovery (since the drug dosage alone could be sublethal and there would be enough air for about
a half an hour in a 30 gallon bag); after an hour or so, it would be too late.
However, there are some practical problems with combining plastic bag asphyxia with drug
overdose. For example, the huge number of available drugs(366) and doses makes it difficult to
know what and how much to use to achieve unconsciousness. In addition, the effects of drugs are
somewhat uncertain for many reasons, among which are individual sensitivity and the possibility
of vomiting part of the swallowed dose; and most oral drugs are unpredictable in how long they
take to cause insensibility.
Thus, simultaneous use of a small plastic bag might cause you to run out of oxygen while still
conscious. This is not a big deal if you're alert---open the bag and try again---but may cause panic
and bag tearing or removal during semi-conscious movement. Waiting to use the bag until the
drug(s) start to take effect does not seem like a entirely reliable alternative, but may be your best
bet here, unless you have help available.
Multiple-bagging, thicker plastic, or wearing gloves will decrease the chance of tearing or
removing the bag in the course of involuntary movements. If you are terminally ill, you may have
friends or family who are willing to assist by sealing the bag and restraining your hands after you
lapse into unconsciousness; however this will have legal repercussions if detected.
Since thin plastic bag material tends to fall onto your face (especially if you're lying on your back),
wearing a brim-hat or a dust (or painters') mask (cut holes in it for easier breathing), is
Most of these problems can be avoided by using a plastic tube tent instead of a small plastic bag:
it's cooler, unlikely to drop onto your face, less critically dependent on drug speed, and will cause
asphyxial death after roughly 4-5 hours.
One could even build a coffin with an easily lifted lid. Having taken some
unconsciousness-inducing drug, one might lie in the coffin, holding the lid open. Upon losing
consciousness, the lid would fall, cutting off the air supply and leading to asphyxial death a few
minutes later. If the drug dose was insufficient, or for any other reason one woke unexpectedly, it
would be an easy matter to open the lid.
However, note that while the combination of sedative drugs and large plastic bag (or functional
equivalent) might seem to allow time and opportunity to change your mind, as a practical matter
such drugs will likely prevent you from making, or acting on, any coherent decision once they
start to take effect.
Exclusion of Oxygen
The effects of oxygen depletion have been described as consisting of four distinct stages.(367)
However, the following oxygen percentages are only approximate and vary from person to
(1) "Indifferent" stage: arterial blood is more than 90% saturated with oxygen; only effect is
decreased night vision;
(2) "Compensatory" stage: 82-90% oxygen saturation; body compensates by increase in heart and
breathing rate; lower pH -->change in Hb dissociation curve: check [tedeschi [I] p76] [may also
increase anaerobic glycolysis: check]--> this level of oxygen saturation causes no additional
difficulties in people in good health; those with heart, lung, or blood problems may show early
(3) "Disturbance" stage: 64-82% oxygen saturation; increasing air hunger, headache, exhaustion,
(4) "Critical" stage: less than 60% oxygen saturation; unconsciousness in a few minutes, followed
by brain damage and death. This corresponds to 6-8% oxygen in the breathing mixture (normally
Oxygen can become unavailable to the body by four general means:
Let's examine each of these in more detail.
Displacement of oxygen from the breathing mixture
Many gases that are more-or-less non-toxic can cause asphyxia by replacing oxygen from the
breathing mixture. Some common ones include acetylene, argon, butane, carbon dioxide, freons,
helium, hydrogen, liquified petroleum gas (LPG), methane, neon, nitrogen, and propane. As a
result, they are dangerous in enclosed areas or via gas mask, but not otherwise. People start
showing signs of asphyxia when the concentration of these gases is around 30%; severe symptoms
at around 50%; death at around 75%.(368)
In the above list, argon, butane, carbon dioxide, freons, and LP gas are heavier than oxygen, and
may displace it from the bottom of closed spaces, and, occasionally, even open spaces that are
protected from wind.
Tunnels that are open only through manhole covers occasionally contain lethal concentrations of
carbon dioxide. Someone entering such a location unknowingly would become unconscious
within a couple of minutes---perhaps within seconds(369)---and dead after five to ten minutes. A
standard gas mask is useless under these circumstances; supplemental oxygen is necessary.
A mass asphyxia occurred near Lake Nyos in Cameroon, in August 1986. A large amount of
cold, dissolved carbon dioxide exists in the bottom layers of this volcanic lake water. Probably as
a result of turbulence from a mudslide, this carbon dioxide-rich water rose. As a result, the
pressure on it from water above was decreased. The result was like opening a soft drink bottle:
bubbles of carbon dioxide gas left the water.
People living in the valley below were engulfed by an invisible wave of carbon dioxide gas which,
being heavier than oxygen, displaced it. There was no warning. Everything that needed oxygen
died within minutes: human beings, domestic and wild animals, even insects. Birds that were on
the ground or flew too low perished. People dropped like flies (so did the flies) in the midst of
whatever they were doing. The human death toll was over 1700. [For a link to a recent newspaper article, click here.]
However, for the purpose of suicide, carbon dioxide would be an unpleasant choice, since its
presence stimulates both breathing reflexes and the sensation of smothering.
The hydrocarbons methane, butane, liquified petroleum gas (LPG), and propane, while readily
available as fuel gases, are normally mixed with bad-smelling "warning" gases (mercaptans),
related to skunk scents.
Acetylene is used for gas welding and is easy to acquire, but contains somewhat-toxic acetone.
Don't bother making your own acetylene from calcium carbide (formerly and still occasionally
used in carbide lanterns for caving), because it contains an ammonia-like contaminant, phosphine
Freons are bad for the ozone layer and neon is expensive.
Hydrogen is flammable (remember the Hindenberg) and raises the pitch of your voice.
The remaining gases, argon, helium, and nitrogen, are your best bets in this category. They are all
tasteless, odorless, non-irritating, and under these conditions, chemically and physiologically inert.
In fact, nitrogen comprises about 80 percent and argon 1 percent of sea-level air, while a roughly
90 percent helium-10 percent oxygen mix (precise ratio depends on dive depth) is used for
deep-water diving (to avoid the intoxicating effects of high pressure nitrogen, called "nitrogen
narcosis" or, more poetically, "rapture of the deep").
Since these inert gases are not poisonous and your lungs have something to inhale, such asphyxias
will be minimally traumatic. That is, they will not cause feelings of suffocation (which are due
mostly to carbon dioxide buildup, rather than lack of oxygen) or hemorrhages (caused by high
blood pressure from blocked jugular vein or struggling to breathe against a closed airway).
Most medical use of inert gases is for animal euthanasia,(370) however there have been human
fatalities from them, too. For example, face masks were mistakenly hooked up to inert gas (generally nitrogen)
cylinders instead of to oxygen at least ten times during the 1980s in the U.S. The fact that these
people died without attracting attention is consistent with non-traumatic death.(371)
Argon is commonly used for inert-gas electric welding and helium for balloons. Nitrogen has a
variety of uses and may be purchased either as a gas or as a cold (-196 deg C; -321 deg F) liquid.
All of these are available from industrial gas suppliers. Helium can also be found at party-supply
stores, and argon at welding suppliers. None of these gases are dangerous(372f) unless they displace
oxygen from the breathing mixture.
Probably the easiest way to use inert gases for suicide is to enter a tube tent with a gas cylinder,
flush the tent with any of the three gases, and seal the ends of the tube. The volume of a tent is
such that you won't produce enough carbon dioxide to stimulate breathing reflexes before dying.
Since there's little or no residual oxygen in the breathing mixture, minimal amounts of carbon
dioxide ought to be exhaled, suggesting that a large inert-gas-filled plastic bag over the head
should work as well as the tube tent.
Only slightly more complicated is hooking up a gas delivery mask (available at military surplus or
medical supply stores) to a cylinder of compressed inert gas. This may, in fact, be the easiest
method if you're using supplemental oxygen, and have a gas delivery system already in place.
The main hazard of this (and all) asphyxia is the possibility of brain damage if the process is
interrupted due to intervention, running out of gas, or tearing or removing the gas mask, plastic
bag or tube tent while unconscious. This can be minimized by using a high concentration of the
anoxic gas, which causes most rapid loss of consciousness. These gases are not a danger to
others in anything but a small, sealed space; however it's important that a gas cylinder not be
mis-labeled, lest it imperil subsequent users.
In experiments, animals (dogs, cats, rabbits, mink, chickens) show little or no evidence of distress from inert gas asphyxia,(373)(374f) become unconscious after 1-2 minutes, and die after about 3-5 minutes.(375f)
Thus, use of any of these three gases, combined with a plastic bag, should be less traumatic than
plastic bag asphyxia alone, since there will be little discomfort from carbon dioxide buildup and
unconsciousness will be swift.
Removal of oxygen from the breathing mixture
Oxygen can be removed either physically, by pumping it out along with the other components of
air; or chemically, by combining it with other substances and so making it unavailable to the body.
Physical removal of oxygen may become a means of suicide in the future, if there is space travel
through the near-vacuum between planets. I'm not familiar with any use of hard vacuum to
commit suicide on earth (though there at least one instance of suicide in a high-altitude test
chamber). Don't try to become a footnote in the Guinness Book of World Records by being the
first: if a vacuum was generated quickly, your blood would boil most unpleasantly from the low
pressure before you had time to die from asphyxia.(376f)
Using up the available oxygen is often the cause of accidental death, as when children are trapped
in abandoned refrigerators and asphyxiate. Despite laws in every state and widespread publicity,
the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) reported 76 of these deaths between
Similarly, glue sniffers who use plastic bags are at risk of unexpected unconsciousness, followed
by death in the absence of prompt intervention.
Rough calculations 100 mol air --> 21 mol oxygen --> 28 mol Fe x 56 gm/mol=1.6 kg Fe=3.5 lbs
Fe--> show that it's possible for much of the oxygen in a SCUBA tank to be used up if the inside
of the tank rusts severely; so don't go diving with old air in your tanks. The same hazard exists in
other iron tanks, such as ship's holds. Here, also, the damp steel walls can rust enough to use up
the available oxygen. Such deaths tend to occur too quickly to be directly due to hypoxia; instead,
the immediate cause seems to be sudden cardiac arrest, brought on by lack of oxygen.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Until recently, in Europe you could open the oven gas valve (unlit), stick your head into the oven, and be fairly confident of dying quickly. (Death from opening the stove-top valves was much slower since the entire room needed to reach a lethal gas concentration, unless your head was near the unlit burner.) Yet if you tried this in the U.S., it would hardly ever work.
The reason is that the U.S. and Europe used different gases for household heating. In the U.S.
"natural" gas---composed largely of the non-toxic hydrocarbon methane---is cheap and plentiful;
Western Europe, until discovery of the North Sea oil and gas fields in the nineteen sixties, had
very little. In Europe, the gas generally used was a mixture of hydrogen, hydrocarbons, and (7-15
percent) carbon monoxide. The hydrogen is as non-toxic as methane, but carbon monoxide is
deadly.(378f) This mixture was called "water gas" or "coal gas", and is a perfectly good fuel except
for its deplorable tendency to kill anyone in the same (or sometimes even a nearby) room as a gas
leak, deliberate or accidental.
As various parts of the world switched from a water-gas based mixture to natural gas (no carbon
monoxide), the head-in-the-oven method of suicide became much less frequent. For example,
between 1946 and 1996, the fraction of U.S. households using natural gas increased from 45
percent to 98 percent. During the same span, the household-gas suicide rate decreased
twelve-fold, from 0.926/100,000 to 0.079/100,000.(379) In England, the number of suicides due to
gas fell from 2368 (plus another thousand or so accidental deaths) to 11 between 1963 and
1978.(380) Similarly, in West Germany the percentage of suicides by household gas fell from 11.6%
to 0.3% from 1963 to 1976; meanwhile, however, the percentage of suicides due to drugs/poisons
went from 24.4% to 36.5%.(381)
It is possible that some Americans (including the poet Sylvia Plath(382f)) who were familiar with
low-lethality natural gas died by accident/mistake in Europe when they intended a suicidal gesture
with methane and died from carbon monoxide. This may also account for the common
misconception that natural gas contains toxic amounts of carbon monoxide: it doesn't (though a
mis-adjusted natural gas burner that produces a yellow or sooty flame is generating significant
There was a bizarre case where a man tried to commit suicide by the head-in-the-oven method.
Since the gas was methane, this wasn't working well. After a while, the man got bored, took his
head out, and lit a cigarette. The match ignited the gas/air mixture and he was killed by the
explosion. The legally-interesting question arose, was this a suicide or an accident? The inquest
ruled it a suicide.(383)
Household gas does have a bad-smelling additive (methyl mercaptan) intended to warn you if
there's a gas leak. This "warning gas" is also added to bottled gas for the same purpose.
However, old and internally corroded propane and butane tanks absorb the mercaptans, leaving an
odorless explosive gas, which probably won't be detected if it leaks.
A second factor that lowered the frequency of head-in-the-oven suicide attempts has been the
general introduction of ovens containing thermocouples and either pilot lights or electronic
igniters. Instead of manually lighting the oven with a match, these devices, unless disabled or
defective, will light the oven moments after gas enters it. This makes gas asphyxia unlikely and
substantially decreases the chance of an explosion caused by filling a room with an unburned gas
mixture waiting only for a spark or flame to blow sky high. However, the stove-top burners will
continue to emit gas if, for whatever reason, they fail to light or blow out.
Comparison of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen cyanide: How do these gases
work? (See, also, "Drug" chapter)
There's a lot of confusion concerning these poisonous gases.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the product of the complete combustion of carbon by oxygen, and is
non-toxic at low concentrations. Your exhaled breath is normally 4-5 percent CO2. Inhaling
CO2 does increase the acidity of your blood, and cause you to breathe faster, but at high CO2
concentrations these don't have time to become serious problems.
CO2 kills by two different mechanisms: (1) it displaces oxygen (and most other atmospheric
gases, since carbon dioxide is denser than almost all of them), leaving you with nothing else to
breathe. (2) Carbon dioxide in concentrations of 30 percent or more is also a rapid anesthetic,
causing unconsciousness within 1-2 minutes, and death in about 5 minutes, without much
evidence of distress in experimental animals.(384)
It is widely used for theatrical "fog" (ever notice how it stays near the ground? and a good thing,
too) and as a portable refrigerant in its frozen state, "dry ice". There is at least one case report of
a death from transporting dry ice in an enclosed car. As the dry ice evaporated, a dangerous
concentration of gaseous carbon dioxide was created. (385)
In addition to dry ice, CO2 also is available as a compressed gas. (You need a special CO2 valve
for these tanks, as standard valves freeze up.) Carbon dioxide gas has the additional merit of
being non-explosive, cheap, and will put out most fires.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is colorless, odorless, and tasteless; it has one fewer oxygen atom than
carbon dioxide (CO2). It will be produced by any carbon-fueled flame that doesn't get enough
oxygen. If a flame is yellow or puts out visible soot, you can be sure it's also generating carbon
monoxide; if a flame is blue, carbon dioxide is the principal carbon oxide. You may have noticed
that the outer part of a candle flame is blue, while the inside is yellow. This is because the outer
portion burns hotter due to its greater oxygen supply.
Carbon monoxide's biological effects are mostly due to the fact that it's 200-250 times more
strongly attached to the oxygen-transporting molecule in red blood cells, hemoglobin, than is
oxygen. And a hemoglobin molecule can't carry both carbon monoxide and oxygen. Thus a low
concentration of CO in the air can occupy a large fraction of your hemoglobin. For example,
0.01%, 0.02%, 0.10% and 1.0% CO in the breathing mixture would tie up 11, 19, 54, and 92%,
respectively, of a person's hemoglobin at equilibrium.(386)
Carbon monoxide is also directly toxic to cells by interfering with their ability to use oxygen, by
binding to a number of iron-containing enzymes and other proteins. Carbon monoxide causes
blood to be a bright, cherry red, which produces a ruddy corpse. This unusual coloration can be
used for preliminary identification of CO poisoning.
The toxicity of carbon monoxide is shown by a case in which a car accident victim was put on a stretcher, which was placed 8-10 feet behind the tailpipe of an idling ambulance while another person was attended to. Upon reaching the hospital, the first man was discovered to be dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. His other injuries were minor.
Since smoldering tobacco contains about 4% carbon monoxide,(387) pack-a-day smokers have
5-6% of their hemoglobin tied up by carbon monoxide. This level causes small, but measurable,
impairment of both physical and mental performance.(388) Frequent cigar smokers have peak
carbon monoxide blood levels of around 20%.(389) A 50% carbon monoxide blood level is often
fatal, but levels as low as 15 percent may also kill those with heart or lung problems.(390)
It takes about five and a half hours of breathing fresh air to remove half the carbon monoxide
from hemoglobin, another way of showing the high affinity between the two; 100% oxygen
reduces this to 80 minutes; 100% oxygen at three atmospheres pressure gets rid of half the carbon
monoxide in 23 minutes,(391) but may cause permanent eye damage. However, even 23 minutes is
often too long: a few minutes of asphyxia is enough to cause brain damage which may be fatal,
and has a good chance of being permanent.
These injuries include dementia, psychosis, paralysis, cortical blindness, memory deficits, and
parkinsonism; the latter two are the most common. The frequency of permanent injury from
carbon monoxide overdose ranges from 0.3% to 43% in various studies,(392) even if high-pressure
oxygen used. "Some survive [in] a coma for weeks or months before succumbing to
Alcohol and other central nervous system depressants (e.g. sedatives) may increase the toxic
effects of carbon monoxide. A 0.20% blood-alcohol concentration combined with a serious (but
generally not fatal in a healthy individual) 35-40% carbon monoxide saturation of the blood has
been fatal.(394) However, this is association is controversial.(395) Carbon monoxide is also hazardous
to unprotected rescuers, and will explode should CO concentration reach 10 percent and there is a
spark or flame present. This concentration will not be reached from combustion, but may be
achieved from compressed CO (in tanks) or chemically-generated CO.
Automotive carbon monoxide poisoning is becoming less frequent in the U.S. The reason is that
car engines are required to get better gas mileage and produce fewer toxic emissions than in the
recent past. A new, well-tuned engine may emit 0.06% carbon monoxide, compared to 6-9%
from an engine of the 1960's, a hundred-fold decrease. As a result, it takes longer to kill yourself
by filling a garage with carbon monoxide from a tuned engine. It can be done, but is no longer
either fast or certain.
How long does this take? For a given-volume garage, it depends primarily on the age,
state-of-tune, and size of the engine. If a "clean" 2-liter engine idles at 750 rpm, then it will take
about an hour for 20 x 20 x 8 (feet) garage to reach 0.06% carbon monoxide. This is not a
reliably lethal concentration.
What would happen if the exhaust gases are piped directly into the car (garden or vacuum-cleaner
hose is commonly used)? It would take about 3 min to reach 0.06% atmospheric carbon
monoxide. However, the atmospheric CO concentration can't be greater than that of the exhaust
mixture; it just takes less time to get there. Once again, not reliably lethal.
If we had a "dirty" engine of the same size with 6% carbon monoxide emissions (100x clean
engine), it would take about 35 seconds for the garage to reach 0.06% carbon monoxide; 70
seconds for 0.12%, 140 seconds for 0.24%, and so on. Thus, a lethal concentration of CO would
be produced in a minute or two. Death could occur in less than a half an hour. Note that, while
running such exhaust into the car would generate a lethal concentration of CO within a few
seconds, one would have to continue breathing it for a fatal result.
These calculations are illustrative rather than precise because (a) garages differ widely in size and
leakiness to gases; (b) most cars emit somewhere between 0.06% and 6% CO.
Alternatively, one may be able to buy a small tank of carbon monoxide from a chemical, science
supply, or industrial gas supply company (you will need a gas regulator/valve, too). Loosely
sealing yourself in a plastic tube tent, car, or functional equivalent, and releasing the gas should be
quickly (5-15 min) fatal.(396f)
A simple and reliably lethal source of carbon monoxide is a charcoal grill, hibachi, or other burner.
If charcoal (or any other handy carbon fuel, like wood or coal) is burned in one, a deadly CO
concentration will be quickly generated in any small, enclosed space, such as a tent. Using this
method inside a building is a bad idea, both due to fire hazard and because of the CO danger to
Dr. Kevorkian's current suicide apparatus consists of a gas mask attached to a tank of carbon
monoxide. The gas flow is controlled by a valve that is opened by the patient, who is wearing the
mask. Under these conditions, death should occur in less than 5 minutes. The advantage is that
the gas concentration will probably be higher than with a tent, with faster results. The
disadvantage is that the hookup is a bit more elaborate, and is correspondingly more likely to
require someone else's help.
Effects of carbon monoxide: A century ago the eminent British scientist J.B.S. Haldane studied
the effects of carbon monoxide on himself---a time-honored, but sometimes hazardous, medical
tradition. While sitting and taking notes, he breathed a 0.21% carbon monoxide mixture for 71
minutes. A summary of his observations follows: after 20-34 minutes he had a slight feeling of
fullness and a throbbing of the head; 17% of his blood hemoglobin was tied up by carbon
monoxide as carboxyhemoglobin. After 40-45 minutes the headache was worse, his breathing
was slightly fast and he felt abnormal (39% carboxyhemoglobin). After 59-65 minutes, he was
breathing fast, looked pale, was starting to become confused, and couldn't move in his chair
without feeling worse (44.5% carboxyhemoglobin). After 71 minutes his vision was dim, he
couldn't get up without help, and he stopped the experiment (49% carboxyhemoglobin). There
were no long-term ill effects.(397) A chart showing the correspondence between CO concentration,
duration, and symptoms is shown in the Website Appendix Table A-3.
As always, there is individual variability: in 7% of fatal CO poisonings, less than 40% of the
victim's hemoglobin was tied up by CO.(398) Another study found that 0.32% CO for an hour
caused unconsciousness; 0.45% caused death.(399)
In animal experiments, carbon monoxide is about as fast as inert gases: unconsciousness occurs in
1-2 minutes and death after around 5 minutes, using 4-8 percent CO.(400) Death is preceded by
convulsions and muscle spasms, but the fact that there are frequent accidental carbon monoxide
poisonings among sleeping people shows that it doesn't cause enough discomfort to reliably
awaken someone. However, first taking enough of a sedative (e.g., alcohol, opiate, barbiturate)
to achieve unconsciousness would probably result in an easier death.
If low concentration of CO is anticipated, such as from new-car exhaust, it may be useful to
premedicate with anti-nausea (e.g. some antihistamines) and anti-seizure (e.g. Valium) drugs, but
this is speculative. Better is to avoid this situation: don't use CO for a suicidal gesture and don't
use low concentrations for suicide.
We close this section with a suicide note from Japan, written while a car was filling with carbon
monoxide.(401) The first 11 items of the note were personal messages and instructions for the
disposal of assets. The last entries are quoted below, in translation:
"12. Although I had attempted suicide with several methods, I could not commit it yesterday. I hope I am successful in killing myself today.
13. I have written too much. Finally, goodbye my life! I believe in Rin-ne [Buddhist concept of reincarnation as human or animal, depending on one's conduct in the most recent life.]
[At 6:15 p.m.] The inhalation of exhaust gases is begun.
[After 7 minutes] My eyes and throat are slightly irritated. Put on a bathing towel. There are tremendous water drops on the door glasses [This is condensation of water vapor from the exhaust]. The tank is full of gasoline.
[After 8.5 min] Slight shortness of breath. Ha-ha-ha. The powers of Nissan's engine are great!
[After 10 min] Swallowed a cup of Japanese sake [rice wine]. I could not control myself to stay in the cabin [of the mini-van] at this level of shortness-of-breath yesterday.
[After 11 min] To the mistress of a grocery store: "Yes, you were right. The size of this hose, 30 mm in outer diameter and 25 mm in inner diameter, fits the exhaust pipe perfectly."
[After 12.5 min] Swallowed another cup of sake. I wish I could have a can of beer. I wonder what the concentration of carbon monoxide is now.
[After 14 min] Breathing can only be done by mouth.
[After 15 min] Water is pouring out of the hose.
[After 16 min] Goodbye, Mum and Papa! [and a list of six people].
[After 17 min] Still I am living. It is asthmatic breathing. Now, I will sleep."
This was the last entry.
Cyanide is one of the fastest acting poisons [see "Drug" chapter for more information], though
sources differ with regard to just how long (mostly between 1 and 15 minutes in large (1500 mg)
doses, longer with lower doses(402)) it takes to kill. The lethal dose is estimated to be 50-300
mg;(403) however much larger amounts have been survived with prompt medical attention.
The gaseous forms, hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen, are rarely used in suicide, but, in high
concentration, should act more quickly than the oral poison; solid cyanide salts (potassium,
sodium, and calcium cyanide) are the commonly sold forms, but hydrogen cyanide gas can be
easily made by mixing a solid cyanide and a liquid acid (e.g., hydrochloric [muriatic] acid); this is
what is done in gas chambers.
Cyanide works by causing asphyxia at the cellular level; it binds to iron ions found in some
enzymes and makes them unavailable for cellular respiration, essentially strangling your cells. The
cells try to survive by switching to a non-oxygen-requiring metabolic pathway (the same one your
muscles use when you're exercising faster than you can breathe in oxygen), but this quickly builds
up lactic acid to toxic levels. The fastest-metabolizing tissues, brain and heart cells, are most
quickly affected; and if they die, so do you. Cyanide also has a direct poisonous effect on the
central nervous system and depresses breathing, but this is overkill. As with carbon monoxide,
some survivors have permanent nervous-system injury, such as memory deficits and tremor.
If you use cyanide, it would be a good idea to leave a conspicuous note to that effect, because of
possible hazard to rescuers who might otherwise apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation---some
people lack the ability to detect the almond-like smell of cyanide.
Thus, all three substances, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and cyanide are asphyxiants: carbon
dioxide displaces oxygen, keeping it from getting to your lungs; carbon monoxide prevents your
red blood cells from picking up oxygen and also blocks cellular respiration directly; and cyanide
stops your cells from "breathing" despite plenty of available oxygen in the air and in your red
1. None of the methods discussed in this chapter should be used for a suicidal gesture; all are
potentially lethal and don't give enough warning of unconsciousness to allow you to count on
being able to change your mind.
2. Strangulation, like hanging, is quickly fatal. If the front (throat/airway/trachea) part of the neck
is well-protected, it should not be particularly painful. Quick and complete compression of the
neck arteries will prevent engorgement of the head with blood. For someone who is terminally ill,
has no help available, and is bed-ridden, strangulation may provide the best combination of speed,
ease of application, and lethality.
3. Carbon monoxide is probably the only readily-available toxic gas worth considering for suicide,
but internal combustion engines are highly variable as sources for this gas. This is relevant either
if you are contemplating filling a garage with a lethal carbon monoxide concentration, or running
a hose from the exhaust pipe into a sealed car. A charcoal grill is more reliably lethal. In general,
carbon monoxide is both slower and probably more subject to interruption than hanging or
strangulation, and has caused brain damage in some survivors.
4. Perhaps the least traumatic of these methods consists of achieving unconsciousness with drugs,
combined with plastic-bag, carbon monoxide, or inert gas asphyxia. However, this requires
arranging and coordinating two methods, which may be difficult to do without help, particularly
for people who are severely ill. Finding the right drug(s)/doses is also sometimes a problem.
Especially in the absence of sedative drugs, either carbon monoxide or inert gas (nitrogen, helium,
or argon) will probably make plastic-bag asphyxia less unpleasant since they speed
unconsciousness and minimize carbon dioxide buildup.
"Many are cold, but few are frozen." --Anon.
Introduction Hypothermia (hypo=low, thermia=temperature) is an effective, but infrequently used
suicide method. It is a poor choice for a suicidal gesture, unless one is sure of timely intervention.
Fatality rate: More than 30%
Permanent injury: Moderately likely
What are the pros and cons of hypothermia for suicide?
What is hypothermia?
The freezing point of water, under standard conditions, is 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) and its
boiling point is 212 degrees F (100 degrees C). Normal human body temperature is around 98.6
degrees F (37 degrees C), and is tightly regulated by a variety of physiological mechanisms. Even
a 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) change is significant; a 5.4 degrees F (3 degrees C) fever is a
Systemic hypothermia is generally defined as a body temperature below 95 degrees F (35 degrees
C). Severity is rated by how low the core body temperature falls: 89.6-95 degrees F (32-35
degrees C) is "mild" hypothermia; 80.6-89.6 degrees F (27-32 degrees C) is "moderate"; below
80.6 degrees F (27 degrees C) is "severe".
Hypothermia is also divided into "acute" and "chronic" categories. Acute hypothermia occurs
quickly, roughly within two or three hours; chronic hypothermia takes longer. While the
boundaries are fuzzy, the distinction is more than academic, since both treatment and prognosis
differ between the two. This will be discussed in more detail in the "Rate of cooling" section.
What causes hypothermia?
Hypothermia occurs when the quantity of body heat lost to the external environment substantially
exceeds the heat generated from metabolism. This can be caused by a decrease in heat
production, or an increase in heat loss, or both.
Low heat production is usually due to insufficient food, illness, injury, or some drugs.
An average resting body gives off about 50 kilocalories (kcal) or "kitchen" calories---the
"calories" you see on food labels---of heat per square meter of skin per hour. Multiplied by the
average person's 1.7 square meters of skin and 24 hours, you lose around 2000 kcal per day to the
outside world, which is about the amount that you generate at rest from the food that you've
eaten. This is called "basal metabolism".
If your muscles are working, metabolic heat production goes way up. For example, while you're
shivering, you generate roughly five time as much heat as when sitting quietly; while exercising,
ten times as much.(404)
However, exercise is a two-edged sword in hypothermia. While it produces heat, which is needed
to keep body and mind functioning, it also increases blood flow to your active muscles, and thus
heat loss from them. In addition, it uses up energy stores quickly. The decision whether to
exercise in a potentially hypothermic situation depends on the circumstances: how long the
conditions are expected to last, availability of food and shelter, and need for clear thinking.
To some degree there is no choice in the matter: shivering is a form of involuntary exercise. It
increases heat production by 200-700%,(405) but is accompanied by an increase in blood flow
to/from the muscle, resulting in about a 25% increase in heat loss, too. Shivering is an effective
means of generating heat, until muscles run low on energy.
The common warning against going to sleep in the cold is certainly appropriate if you're in the
process of walking out of trouble; but that is not always the right thing to do. For example,
someone with reasonable cold-weather clothing caught in a mountain blizzard might be better off
building a snow-hole or shelter, staying as dry and warm as possible, and sleeping through the
Excessive heat loss is due to cold surroundings or to a failure in the body's temperature regulating mechanism.
There are four physical mechanisms of heat loss:
(1) convection: heat loss by means of molecular transfer of energy via air or water currents.
(2) conduction: heat loss by touching something that's colder than you are. This is,
fundamentally, the same process as convection, but mostly applies to solids.
(3) radiation: heat loss from invisible infrared-wavelength energy you give off.
(4) evaporation: heat loss from the cooling effect of changing a liquid into a gas.
Looking at these in more detail:
Convection and conduction
Most heat loss in hypothermia is from contact with cold air or cold water: you're always
generating a micro-environment of warm air (or water, if that's where you are) around your body,
but this is easily stripped away by air/water currents or your own movements. You can easily
demonstrate this by putting your hands into a container of cold water, and holding them still for a
few seconds. If you then move your hands, they will feel suddenly colder, as unwarmed water
At a molecular level, what happens is that cold air/water molecules hit your skin, pick up some
heat (energy) and bounce off, leaving cooler skin behind (hot air/water warms you by the same
process, with the hot molecules transferring energy to your skin). This cooler skin, being in
contact with the rest of the body, is in turn warmed by the body core, which is thereby cooled.
The colder the air/water molecules, the faster this occurs.
The rate of convective heat loss also depends on the density of the moving substance (heat loss in
water is much faster than in air of the same temperature) and the velocity of the moving substance
(the faster the air/water current, the faster the heat exchange).
Another variable in heat loss is surface area. The more surface area, the more heat transfer.
Curling up in the fetal position minimizes heat exchange by minimizing surface area, and thus
evaporation, radiation, and convection. It may also be comforting for atavistic reasons.
With cold air, some of the variables that affect heat loss are: temperature, wind speed, insulation,
and humidity. We'll look at their effects in a bit more detail.
Wind speed is the cause of the often-misunderstood "wind chill factor". "Wind chill" is just a
practical demonstration of air convection, and is nothing more complicated than wind removing
the warmed (by you) air molecules from near your body and replacing them with cold ones. This
results in your body being hit by more cold air molecules per minute, and so being cooled more.
For example, 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C) with no wind causes heat loss at the same rate as 30
degrees F (-1 degrees C) and 25 mile-per-hour (40 kilometer-per-hour) breeze.(406) However, the
latter case would not drop below 30 degrees F (-1 degrees C), in the absence of evaporative
A second consideration, which is not technically part of wind chill factor calculations but may be
biologically important, is that more wind will cause faster evaporation of sweat. This will remove
from your body around two a half kilocalories per teaspoon of sweat, if any is present, and thus
Evaporation cools you because energy (heat) is always required to change a liquid into a gas. If
the liquid is on or near your skin (sweat, water, or wet clothing), the heat comes from you,
leaving you cooler. This is handy in the desert, but not so good if you're trying to keep from
freezing. Thus, a dry body will cool faster in the presence than absence of wind ("wind chill"), but
it won't get below ambient temperature. A wet body in the wind will cool both faster and further,
and may drop far below ambient temperature.
Another way heat is lost is by radiating it away in the form of infrared (electromagnetic)
energy.(407f) This requires a temperature difference between you and the outside world. The
greater the difference, the larger and faster the heat loss (or gain, if the environment is at a higher
Infrared wavelengths are longer than the unaided human eye can detect, but electronic
enhancement permits these wavelengths to be "translated" into our visible range.(408f) One sort of
night-vision goggles is sensitive to infrared wavelengths, allowing you to see things that are at a
different temperature than their background. (Another kind amplifies existing light.) Since about
a fifth of the heart's output of blood goes to the head (15% to the brain)(409), it's not surprising that
in cold weather an uncovered head may be responsible for more than half the body's total heat
loss.(410) Under these circumstances a bare head shows up, on an infrared detector, like a beacon.
External insulation consists of clothing and shelter. In cold climates both function to keep the air
nearest your body, which you have spent precious calories warming, from leaving quickly and
being replaced by cold air.
Sweating increases heat loss in two ways: in addition to causing heat loss from evaporation, it
replaces some trapped air in clothing and blankets. Since water conducts heat about 25 times
faster than does dry air, this will increase heat loss under cold conditions.(411)
Some materials,(412f) like wool and a variety of synthetics (Fiberfill, Holofil, Capilene, Thermax,
etc.) maintain their loft (and thus insulating ability) better than others (cotton, down) that mat
down when they get wet.(413f) Nevertheless, any clothing that gets wet or even damp will allow
faster heat loss than would the same item dry, both because water conducts heat better than air
does, and from increased evaporation.
Internal insulation involves fat and bulk. It is not an accident that mammals in cold climates are,
as a rule, larger than closely related warmer-environment species.(414f) They also have a smaller
surface-to-volume ratio; are rounder, and have smaller ears, nose, and tail, and thus less heat loss.
You can see these differences if you compare, say, cold- and warm-region rabbits or bears.
Fat is very useful in cold climates. Because fat tissue has relatively low blood flow, it acts as a
good barrier to heat loss from important core organs. Equally important, it also is a concentrated
metabolic energy (heat) source, providing about 9 kilocalories per gram, compared to some 4 kcal
per gram of protein or carbohydrate.
The low humidity level of frigid air can play a role in hypothermia. On the one hand, the higher
the humidity (gaseous water molecules), the more particles will be available to snatch heat from
the skin (though this is offset by the lower density of warm air). On the same side of the equation,
humidity will decrease the insulating properties of clothing. However, the humidity is limited by
the temperature. For example, the maximum possible humidity at 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) is
only one tenth the maximum at 98 degrees F (36.6 degrees C). Thus, at temperatures below the
freezing point of water there simply isn't enough gaseous water in the air for these processes to
On the other hand, low humidity increases the net evaporation of sweat, which is a major cooling
mechanism (and which is why people are much less comfortable on a hot, humid day than a hot,
dry one). Low atmospheric humidity can also contribute to dehydration for other reasons, since
(1) the body sweats to keep skin from drying out (a humidity level of 70% nearest the skin is
ideal); (2) exhaled air is close to 100% relative humidity. (The condensation you see from your
breath on a cold day is a visual reminder of this.) I estimate the daily amount of water lost in
breath at freezing temperatures to be about 1.3 pints (0.6 liters). ~0.4 gm water/min --> ~0.6
L/day...... x 600 kcal/L to heat & evaporate -->~~350 kcal/24 hrs If the heat capacity of air is ~
1/1,000 that of liquid water (check) 1L x 10 br/min x 60 x 24 x 1mol/20L = 720 mol air.... x
.018gm/mol x 40 (delta T) =~ 0.5 kcal/24 hrs. Thus, very little heat is used to warm up the air
that you breathe. Whew! -->
Demographics: who dies from hypothermia?
In a recent study of 234 cases of hypothermia in Switzerland, 43 (18 percent) were attempted
suicides; 141 were due to accidents or mountaineering-related; the rest to a variety of causes.
Three quarters occurred in cold air; the others in cold water. 68 (29%) of the 234 died. The
coldest survivor had a core temperature of 63.5 degrees F (17.5 degrees C) and the longest heart
stoppage (in a survivor) was 4.75 hours(415).
Hypothermia is not uncommon among the elderly, who often are in frail health, frequently live
alone, and may not be able to afford adequate heating or food. These people are at high risk of
dying of cold. In some British studies, 3-4% of elderly admissions to hospitals were
hypothermic(416). Similar circumstances apply to the homeless; in Chicago, 8 of 22 (36%)
hypothermia deaths were among the homeless(417). In the U.S. there were an average of 780
annual deaths attributed to hypothermia between 1979-1990(418); however only a handful (less
than ten a year) are officially suicides.
You might be surprised---I certainly was---at the geographical distribution of the top ten
hypothermic-death-rate States in the U.S.(419) While Alaska and Illinois are northern states with
severe winters, the others are not: Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona,
New Mexico, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
What's going on here? Cold weather turns out to be only one of several relevant factors. Another
is how quickly and unpredictably temperatures change, due to unstable weather patterns, as in the
Carolinas and Virginia. High elevation and clear skies cause large temperature drops from day to
night time; this is the situation in New Mexico and Arizona (23 people died of hypothermia in
New Mexico during the 1993-94 winter). It may also be that people in the South have little
experience with severe cold and underestimate its danger. Two other inter-related factors are
poverty, such that people can't afford adequate shelter and heat, and a high proportion of older
residents; older folks are more susceptible to cold injury, more likely to be poor, and more likely
to live alone and unnoticed. Half of hypothermia deaths in this country are among people 65 or
What are the physiological effects of cold?
Central temperature regulation in mammals is located in the anterior hypothalamus section of the
brain. It is sensitive to blood temperature changes of as little as 1 degree F (0.5 degrees C) and
also reacts to nerve impulses sent from nerve endings in the skin. Injury or tumors in the
hypothalamus can lead to fatal loss of thermal control even at room temperatures.
In cold conditions, heat is first conserved by decreasing blood flow to the skin and skeletal
muscles, and is controlled by the "sympathetic" nervous system.
Interestingly, some marine mammals, such as seals, have an additional full-time heat conservation
method called "countercurrent" blood flow. Normally, warm-blooded creatures in cold water
would be expected to lose a lot of heat from their flippers and fins, which have and need a large
surface area for propulsion. However this heat loss is decreased because the arteries and the veins
in the flippers/fins run right next to each other. This allows heat transfer between the two and
means that some of the heat contained by the arterial blood warms the returning venous blood
rather than being wasted in warming the seawater. Very crafty.
In humans, typical blood flow to the skin is 300-500 ml/min. Maximum physiological constriction
can decrease this to around 30 ml/min. One of the consequences of this is that blood will pool in
the core organs at higher-than-normal pressure.
This, in turn, forces the kidneys to increase urine output ("cold diuresis"), which is only a minor
heat loss, but may be a significant cause of dehydration, and increases the load on the heart
because the blood is more viscous. Nothing has only one effect.
Additional heat is generated by shivering. This reflex is set off by lowered temperature either in
the skin or deeper in the body. The fact that it is not under voluntary nervous control is shown by
its existence in paraplegics and in people temporarily paralyzed by curare.(421)(422f) Shivering
continues down to a core temperature of around 90 degrees F (32 degrees C), but falters below
there, and stops altogether at around 86 degrees F (30 degrees C)(423). It also ceases, during slow
hypothermia, if muscles use up their energy stores (glucose/glycogen); this occurs after a few
hours. In either case, body temperature drops precipitously after the shivering reflex fails.
"Goosebumps" (piloerection), which lift hairs or feathers away from the body, increase the
amount of trapped air---insulation---near the skin. Unfortunately, since humans are more-or-less
hairless(424f) over most of their bodies, this process doesn't do us much good. But it was a fine idea
when we were furry and is still an interesting sensation.(425f)
Rate of heat loss
As a practical matter, most hypothermia is the result of contact with either cold air or cold water.
Since air has a much lower ability to remove heat than does water, hypothermia in air normally
takes many hours and is usually "chronic" or "slow". "Acute" (fast) hypothermia, generally in or
due to water, has some significantly different characteristics from the chronic variety.
In slow, as compared to fast, hypothermia, the body has more time to make some physiological
responses: blood flow to the limbs and skin decreases, blood pools in the core organs, and
shivering continues until metabolic energy supplies are depleted. People develop the physical and
mental lethargy commonly associated with hypothermia.
One of the hazards specific to fast hypothermia is a phenomenon called "afterdrop" in which the
core temperature continues to fall even after a person has been taken to a warm place. This is
because blood vessels in the arms and legs get larger (dilate) as they start to be rewarmed. As a
(1) blood moves from the core into the limbs (which, despite warming, are still colder than the core), and gets chilled further. This results in more cold blood moving from the periphery into the core, further decreasing core temperature, which can be lethal;
(2) redistribution of blood from the core to the periphery decreases blood pressure, and may lead
to heart failure ("shock");
(3) the stagnant blood from the limbs is very acidic (from lactic acid and carbon dioxide buildup)
which may cause cardiac arrhythmias and death.
Afterdrop can best be avoided by not rewarming the periphery until after warming the core. This
was observed by one of Napoleon's army doctors during the retreat from Moscow, when he
noticed that the hypothermic soldiers placed closest to warming fires tended to die more often
than those further away.
Fatal chilling may occur before physical and mental abilities are seriously retarded: in 1980, 16
Danish fishermen spent about one-and-a-half hours in the North Sea when their boat went down.
When rescued, all could climb into the cargo net, and walk across the deck of the rescue vessel.
They went below to the galley for hot drinks (good idea) and to warm up quickly (bad idea).
Every one of them died of afterdrop hypothermia.(426)
Susceptibility to cold
There are age, racial and gender differences in susceptibility to cold. Infants and the old are much
more likely to be injured than are young adults. Fat people are less subject to hypothermia than
are thin ones. Fashion models drop like flies. Men are more vulnerable to hypothermia than are
women, even though they are larger, because women have more subcutaneous fat, which is better
insulation (less blood flow) and energy store (more calories per gram) than muscle. Blacks seem
more sensitive to cold than are Inuit or caucasians.(427) Interestingly, Australian Aborigines
apparently lower their body temperature (and, as a result, metabolism and food needs) to around
95 degrees F (35 degrees C) on cold nights.(428)(429f)
Effects of cold
Behavior and reflexes
In slow hypothermia, by the time body temperature drops to 90 degrees F (32 degrees C) both the
central and peripheral nervous systems are impaired, primarily due to decreased blood flow to the
brain (6-7% per degree C(430)): people are physically and mentally clumsy, show decreased
sensitivity to pain, have slowed reflexes, and may hallucinate. Thus, a medical school mnemonic
for hypothermia symptoms: "stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles", which summarizes
changes in motor coordination and consciousness.
Sleepiness ("cold narcosis") occurs at around 86 degrees F (30 degrees C) core temperature. At
around 81 degrees F (27 degrees C), people stop responding to verbal commands, and some
reflexes (such as the reaction of eye pupils to light) stop working entirely. Knee jerk is the last
reflex to go,(431f)(432) at 79 degrees F (26 degrees C). The body's temperature regulating
mechanisms also fail and there is quick cooling until the body reaches ambient temperature.
However, there is the usual individual variability, with recorded reflexes as low as 68 degrees F
(20 degrees C).(433)
The heart's response to hypothermia is usually the actual cause of death. Initially, the heart merely
slows down and shows some electrocardiograph changes. Dehydration---blood really is thicker
than water---makes it harder for the heart to pump increasingly viscous blood. Ventricular
fibrillation is often---but not always---seen below 89.6 degrees F (32 degrees C), and reaches a
maximum between 82.4-86 degrees F (28-30 degrees C).(434)
Ventricular fibrillation occurs when different parts of the muscle surrounding the main pumping
chambers beat in a chaotic, unsynchronized fashion; as a result the heart can't send blood through
the arteries---with fatal consequences unless reversed. In hypothermic conditions fibrillation may
easily be set off by even minor exertion. If the heart escapes fibrillation, it slows further as the
temperature drops. In one case, a woman had a pulse of four beats per minute (room-temperature
normal is around 75 per minute) with a body temperature of 52 degrees F (11 degrees C), and the
heart stopped pumping entirely at 51 degrees F (10.5 degrees C). Her heart restarted when she
At normal body temperature, brain damage starts in about five minutes, in the absence of blood
flow; at lower temperatures the length of time before brain (and other organ) injury is
substantially longer. This is because cellular metabolism and oxygen needs drop sharply with
lowered temperature. For example, oxygen consumption is reduced by 50% at 82.4 degrees F
(28 degrees C); 75% at 71.6 F (22 degrees C); 92% at 50 F (10 degrees C).(436)
However, people whose bodies cool down faster than they run out of oxygen (e.g. fast
hypothermia in air, drowning in icy water), can be revived longer. Those who run out of oxygen
faster than their temperature drops (e.g. avalanche, drowning in warmer water) will not be
revivable as long. Some hypothermic people have been given CPR for up to 3.5 hours and have
recovered without neurological damage.
Cause of death
Death is generally from circulatory failure: the heart either goes into ventricular fibrillation or
slows down and stops altogether. In people who have survived the first couple of days after
rescue, organ failure, particularly of the pancreas, may lead to delayed death.(437) A wide range of
other organs also may show acute damage from cold, but these injuries, while sometimes severe,
are not usually fatal.
Signs and symptoms of hypothermia associated with specific temperatures
Looking at signs and symptoms in relation to temperatures, rather than by organ systems, give a
somewhat different perspective.
The following chart(438) shows the body core temperature and corresponding signs and symptoms.
Not all hypothermic people exhibit all of these symptoms, which will also change as the person's
core temperature changes.
Core temperature Signs and symptoms
99 to 97F (37 to 36C) Normal temperature range, shivering may begin.
97 to 95F (36 to 35C) Cold sensation, goose bumps, unable to perform complex tasks with
hands, shivering mild to severe, skin numb.
95 to 93F (35 to 34C) Shivering intense, muscle incoordination becomes apparent,
movements slow and labored, stumbling pace, mild confusion, may appear alert, unable
to walk straight.
93 to 90F (34 to 32C) Violent shivering persists, difficulty speaking, sluggish thinking,
amnesia starts to appear and may be retrograde, gross muscle movements sluggish,
unable to use hands, stumbles frequently, difficulty speaking.
90 to 86F (32 to 30C) Shivering stops in chronic hypothermia, exposed skin blue or puffy,
muscle coordination very poor with inability to walk, confusion, incoherent, irrational
behavior, but may be able to maintain posture and the appearance of awareness.
86 to 82F (30 to 27.7C) Muscles severely rigid, semiconscious, stupor, loss of awareness of
others, pulse and respiration slow, pupils can dilate.
82 to 78F (27 to 25.5C) Unconsciousness, heart beat and respiration erratic, pulse and heart
beat may be unobtainable, muscle tendon reflexes cease.
78 to 75F (25 to 24C) Pulmonary edema, failure of cardiac and respiratory centers, probable
death. DEATH MAY OCCUR BEFORE THIS LEVEL
What are the clinical signs of hypothermia?
In addition to the behavioral symptoms mentioned, there is often swelling, especially of the face
and ears, as fluid leaks out of the circulation. This is another cause of viscous blood, which
overworks the heart. Blood pressure is low and sometimes unmeasurable, as are pulse and
respiration. There may be no signs of life whatsoever below temperatures of 64-81 degrees F
(18-27 degrees C)(439). And with good reason: most of these people are dead. However, there
have been occasional cases of survival despite extreme temperatures. Perhaps the most
astonishing was that of a man found with a body temperature of 32 degrees F (0 degrees C), who
felt frozen and had no signs of life(440). Yet, when thawed, he revived.(441f) Thus, in the felicitous
phrase of Dr. R.T. Gregory, "No one is dead until warm and dead."(442)
Some risk factors for hypothermia: alcohol, other drugs, exercise
The role of alcohol in hypothermia is controversial. On the one hand, it predisposes to
hypothermia by several mechanisms:
(1) It produces an increase in blood flow (and thus heat loss) near the skin ("cutaneous
vasodilation"). Since the skin contains many temperature receptors, drinking alcohol generates a
sensation of warmth, but this comes at the expense of internal heat;
(2) Alcohol causes hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which decreases the body's ability to produce
(3) As a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, alcohol slows metabolism and promotes
(4) And certainly alcohol impairs judgment, which may be critical under adverse conditions.
Many hypothermia victims have blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) ranging from 0.13 to 0.25
gm/100 ml blood(443). "Legally impaired" in most of the US is 0.08-0.10 gm/100 ml BAC. Since
exercise also increases blood flow to the skin, the combination of alcohol with strenuous exercise
would seem to cause maximum heat loss.
On the other hand, alcohol appears to protect the heart against fibrillation (and has been used for
that purpose during low-temperature medical operations, at levels of 0.40 gm/100 ml blood(444)).
Perhaps this protective effect causes the observed higher survival rate in hypothermics who had
been drinking, compared to those who were sober.(445)
In addition, alcohol protects limbs against frostbite (freezing) by increasing their blood flow, but
again, this is at the expense of core temperature.
Some other drugs that have central nervous system depressant effects can also produce
hypothermia, for example barbiturates, opiates, and the "major tranquillizer" chlorpromazine and
related compounds; but also some non-sedatives like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and lithium ion
(used to treat manic-depressive behavior). A more complete list is found in Appendix Table
C-1. These drugs interfere with temperature regulation at the hypothalamic regulatory center in
the brain, and may cause hypothermia even at room temperatures. Of 103 consecutive Intensive
Care Unit drug overdose admissions, 27 were hypothermic(446).
In the Swiss study of 234 cases of hypothermia,(447) some of the factors that tended to be
associated with the death of the victims were, in decreasing order of importance: (1) asphyxia
(e.g. in avalanche); (2) invasive rewarming methods; (3) slow rate of cooling. Positive survival
factors were (1) fast cooling rate; (2) presence [sic] of ventricular fibrillation in cardiac arrest
cases; (3) presence of alcohol and/or narcotics in the body.
What are the medical treatments for hypothermia?
Treatment depends on the severity of the hypothermia, it's underlying cause, and the age and
general condition of the patient. In the mildest cases, warm, non-alcoholic drinks, food, and a few
blankets are enough.
If the hypothermia is moderate, or if the patient has low heat production due to exhaustion,
illness, drugs, or malnutrition, more active warming is appropriate. This usually involves heating
pads/blankets, hot water bottles, or other external sources of heat applied to the trunk. In
wilderness situations, the best emergency rewarming may consist of sandwiching the (dried)
hypothermic person in between two warm people, all inside or under a sleeping bag.
In severe or acute hypothermia "active core rewarming" (ACR) is often used. There are many
varieties of ACR. For example, heated liquids may be circulated around the stomach by a tube
running through the nose, or heated IV fluids may be administered. In the most critical cases,
those whose hearts have stopped, blood is often withdrawn from the femoral vein(448f) (the largest
vein in the leg, conveniently close to the surface near the groin), heated to 104 degrees F (40
degrees C) and oxygenated, and reinjected into the femoral artery(449)
How long do people survive under cold stress?
In one recent study, 8 of 11 people with deep hypothermia and cardiac arrest were
resuscitated(450). Five of the eleven had no heartbeat and six had ventricular fibrillation. None
were breathing and all were clinically dead with wide, non-reactive pupils, and were supported by
external heart massage and ventilation (CPR). The average (mean) length of exposure to the cold
in the survivors was 4.4 hours, and average core temperature was 72.5 degrees F (22.5 degrees
C). All three of the patients who died had also been asphyxiated (1 avalanche, 2 drownings).
Data from shipwrecks and accidents suggest that a well-nourished man can survive roughly two
hours in water at 39 degrees F (4 degrees C).(451) At 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) survival time is
only about a half an hour.(452f)(453) Since swimming, like other exercise, increases heat loss (as well
as heat production) due to increasing blood flow near the skin, this may account for some
accidental "drownings" in cold water amongst good swimmers. On the other hand, at
temperatures above around 68 degrees F (20 degrees C), fit swimmers can continue for many
hours. Swimmers attempting the English Channel, which has summer water temperatures in the
mid-to-upper 50s F (13 to 15 degrees C) coat themselves with grease (more for insulation and to
decrease water absorption than for buoyancy), and take hot drinks and quick-energy carbohydrate
foods provided by their support boat every half hour or so.
However, if one is not exercising and taking in lots of calories, the same water temperature can be
deadly: in March, 1995, four US Army Rangers died of hypothermia in Florida after spending
several hours in water between 52-59 degrees F (11-15 degrees C) while training. Similarly, a
man died of hypothermia after getting stuck in the mud of a 15-foot-diameter pond, nowhere
more than 3 feet deep.(454) Air temperature was 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) and water temp was
52 degrees F (11.5 degrees C). Even warm (e.g., 95 degrees F, (35 degrees C)) water will chill
you after an hour or so unless you are actively exercising.
As always, there is substantial variability between people. For example, the lowest temperature
water in which different young men and women at rest could maintain a steady body temperature
ranged from below 53.6 degrees F (12 degrees C) to 89.6 degrees F (32 degrees C). This
depended on both insulation (primarily thickness of the fat layer on the trunk) and metabolic heat
production. Each of these factors was about equally important: fast metabolizers could maintain
body temperature in water 18 degrees F (10 degrees C) colder than slow metabolizers who had
the same amount of body fat.(455)
Immersion in cold water seems to cause loss of body heat about twenty-five to thirty times as fast
as air at the same temperature.(456f) As a result, survival time in cold air is much longer than in
water of the same temperature. Consequently, secondary factors, such as wind speed,
precipitation, and amount and type of clothing worn, are more important in cold air than in cold
Cold Comfort: how to do it
On land: Make arrangements so you won't be looked for: e.g., tell people you're going away for a
few days. Go to a cold, secluded spot where you won't be seen. Drink alcohol and/or take
sedatives. You can speed up the process by removing clothing and/or getting wet. Obviously,
the amount of time needed will also be very dependent on temperature and wind conditions, and
your size, weight, and fat content. These are too many variables to make even rough time
Use of a home freezer has been recommended(457) but the air supply in such freezers is so limited
that asphyxia will occur long before hypothermia. Commercial freezers are a possibility, but the
risk of untimely discovery must be considered.
In water: Since heat loss in water is much faster than in air of the same temperature, the amount
of time that one is subject to being saved is correspondingly less. The main concern will be to
avoid being seen, both to avoid unwanted rescue and to prevent risk to potential rescuers.
Depending on the temperature of the water and your physical condition, fatal hypothermia can
occur in as little as 30 minutes or so; less after alcohol and/or sedatives. Be aware that unless the
water is very shallow (and even then if you end up face down), you are likely to actually die of
drowning while insensible from cold, rather than from hypothermia.
Hypothermia is an under-appreciated means of suicide: it is relatively painless, though certainly
uncomfortable, and generally fatal if not interrupted. The main disadvantage is that it normally
takes several hours on land (but much less in water), during which time permanent injury is quite
possible if rescue occurs. A second major disadvantage is that the availability of hypothermia is
limited by climate and season.
As a suicidal gesture, hypothermia is a bad choice, because the length of time is so dependent on
both weather and individual variables. And while, in principle, you can change your mind, in
practice you lose too much capacity to think and/or act rationally when hypothermic for this to be
a reliable survival net.
"We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately." --Ben Franklin
Hanging and strangulation are effective methods of suicide. Both can be carried out by people
with limited physical abilities. Hanging doesn't require complete suspension. Death occurs within
about 5-10 minutes after cutoff of oxygen or blockage of blood flow to the brain (anoxia);
however convulsions are common and the noise may attract attention. Pain can be minimized by
protecting and padding the front of the neck. Since finding the body will probably be traumatic,
care should be given to choosing a location. These are highly lethal methods and cannot be done
safely as a suicidal gesture.
Lethal intent: High
Mortality: High, around 80%
Permanent injuries in survivors: Moderately infrequent
What are the pros and cons of hanging as a means of suicide?
Suspension hanging is often lumped (and confused) with judicial-type ("drop") hanging,
suffocation, strangulation, and even choking. This is entirely understandable, since the subject is
confusing, but there are some important, and sometimes critical, differences between them.
Short definitions of these terms may be helpful in making sense of what follows.
(1) Suspension hanging: suspension by the neck, with little or no drop. Death is due to
compression of the airway (trachea, or windpipe) and/or the major blood vessels connecting the
heart and the brain. These latter are the carotid and vertebral arteries, and the jugular veins. We
will use "hanging" to mean "suspension hanging" unless otherwise specified.
(2) Judicial-type (drop) hanging: a several foot drop, with rope attached to the neck. If
everything goes right, death is due to a broken neck. While this is quicker than suspension
hanging, it may or may-not be less traumatic.
(3) Strangulation: manual compression of the airway and/or blood vessels to/from the brain. In
suicide, this generally requires a ligature (rope, wire, cloth, etc.). In homicide, there may be a
ligature, or there may be direct pressure from hands or forearm on the neck.
(4) Choking: blockage of the airway by mechanical obstruction, e.g., a lump of food.
(5) Suffocation or asphyxiation: interference with the ability to take in or use oxygen; related to
choking, suspension hanging, and strangulation, in that oxygen is prevented from reaching the
brain in each case; however there is no direct pressure on the airway in suffocation or
asphyxiation. Examples are, use of a plastic bag, or carbon monoxide. This topic is treated in
another chapter [See "Asphyxia" chapter].
Demographics: How many people hang themselves, and who are they?
About 4,000 people hang themselves annually in the U.S.(458) More than 95% of these are
suicides. This is similar to the hanging rate in Great Britain, though the overall British suicide rate
is about 50% lower than in the U.S.(459)
U.S. National Statistics
There are roughly 30,000 suicides per year in the U.S.. The annual average number of suicides by
hanging, strangulation, or suffocation between 1979-1994 was 4270. This is about 14.4% of
official U.S. suicides for those years. Sex, and racial data for U.S. 1994 and 1979-94 are
presented below. (More tables and graphs.)
Table H-1 Suicide by Hanging, E953.0 Rate is per 100,000 people per year.
|1994 Deaths||1994 Population||1994 Rate||1979-94 Rate|
Suicide by Plastic Bag Asphyxia, E953.1 Rate is per 100,000 people per year.
|1994 Deaths||1994 Rate||1979-94 Rate|
|E-numbers are International Classification of Disease (ICD) codes. Source: Centers for Disease Control.|
Interestingly, the average (mean) age for suicidal hangings in the U.S. is 34.5 years. In Great
Britain it's 50.2 (with a peak at 50-59)(460) and in Denmark, 53.(461) The reason for these
differences is that older people tend to use more lethal methods for suicide attempts. In the U.S.,
that's guns; in Europe, where civilian guns are much less common, it's hanging. Consistent with
this notion are data from New York City, where guns are restricted. The NYC age distribution
for hangings was similar to that in Great Britain and Denmark, with a mean age of around 54
Details: To find out more about those who hang themselves, we can take a look at some data on
age, sex, race, site, and motive on hanging suicides in parts of Seattle (1978-82) and Atlanta
The Seattle region surveyed had about twice the population as that in Atlanta (1.26 million vs
0.62 million). The Seattle suicide rate was 14.0/100,000; Atlanta averaged 14.6. (The U.S.
national rate was around 13/100,000.) Hangings were 9.3% of suicides in Seattle and 10.7% in
Atlanta (14.4% in U.S. (1982)). The population of the Atlanta area covered was 51% black, 49%
white; 53% female, 47% male. In Seattle, the population was about 80% white, 8.5% black, and
11.5% other (mostly Asian or Native American.)
The age range was 14 to 89; average (mean) was 41.3 and median (half above, half below) was
37. A note was found associated with 22 of 61 hangings (36%), considerably higher than the
10-20 per cent of suicides in general. The peak at age 60-69 was attributed to people with health
The study from Atlanta(464) was a bit more informative in that it
compared hangings with other suicides. Age ranged between 12 and 88 years. Average (mean)
age was unspecified and median was 31 years, six years less than for all suicide victims. Notes
were found in 10 of 56 cases (18%), one as a computer screen display.
In Atlanta, black men hang themselves at twice the rate of their other suicide methods; white
women tend to use different means. White men and black women hang themselves at rates
corresponding to their overall suicide frequency.
The reason(s) for these differences are unknown, according to the authors of this study.
However, as they also point out, 60% (9/15) of jail hangings were among blacks, and twice the
percentage of blacks as whites who hanged themselves did so in in jail (38% vs 19%). Since (a)
the Atlanta jail population is disproportionately black and; (b) the suicide rate among prisoners in
the U.S. is several times higher than that of the general population(465f) and; (c) about 90% of
prison suicides are by hanging, this could account for some of the unusual hanging data for black
men in Atlanta(466)
Fifteen of the total of 56 hangings (28%) took place in jails.(467f) Another 24 (43%) hanged
themselves at home, 5 (9%) in woods, 4 (7%) in hotels, 3 (5%) in health care facilities, and 5
In looking at the "reasons mentioned", we find that the reasons/motives are roughly similar to those cited for other suicides, except for the disproportionate number of "arrest" (jail) hangings.
Alcohol use seems to be less common in hanging than in some other, e.g., gunshot or leaping
from height, suicides. In one study, only 11% showed "legal intoxication".(468) Another report
showed 18% legally drunk.(469) A third cited alcohol in 34%, but included levels well below
By contrast, between 25% and 40% of gunshot suicides have legal intoxication levels above 100
mg alcohol/100 ml blood. Possibly, greater manual dexterity is needed to tie knots than to pull a
trigger. Or it may be harder to work up the courage to shoot than hang yourself without
alcohol---somehow it seems more final. Or, as always, perhaps "none of the above".
How dangerous is hanging compared to other methods of attempted suicide?
Tables 16-1 through 16-4 show that hanging is one of the more lethal methods of attempting
suicide, with reported fatality rates of 78-88%. However, since minor injuries tend to be
under-reported, the actual fatality rates are probably lower (but not equally for all methods) than
the figures cited.
Somewhat more recent (1978-1990) data give similar results: of 306 hangings (92% were
suicides), 59% were found sufficiently dead at the scene that paramedics weren't called; another
19% were declared dead at the scene by paramedics. 22% were transported alive to hospitals, of
whom more than a third (8% of total) died. The overall fatality rate was 86 percent (263/306).
Almost all the deaths were due to asphyxia, rather than spinal cord or neck injury.(471)
Physiology: Just what is "hanging", and how does it kill?
Short answer Hanging can kill by four distinct mechanisms: compression of the carotid arteries,
compression of the jugular veins, compression of the airway (trachea), and breaking the neck.
The first three can result from suspension hanging; the last from drop hanging.
Carotid artery On the right side of your neck, just under the side of the jaw, is one of your carotid
arteries. Put your fingers there and gently feel your pulse. It should be quite strong. (If you can't
find one, either you're looking in the wrong place or you don't need this book.) The carotid artery
carries much of the blood to your brain, which uses around 15% of the entire blood supply of
your body.(472) Anything which interrupts that blood-flow for more than a few seconds will cause
loss of consciousness.
Jugular vein On both sides of the neck, under the angle of the jaw, are the jugular veins, which
carry the "used" blood back to the heart. If the jugulars are blocked, blood backs up, much like
water in a stream that has been dammed. The carotids and jugulars can be compressed with just a
few pounds pressure; a moderately tightened rope will do nicely. Death occurs within a few
minutes. There does not need to be any pressure on the airway (trachea or windpipe), though
there often is.
Trachea/airway The airway, down the front-center of your neck, can be blocked internally, (e.g.,
by inhaling a foreign object), or externally (e.g., by a rope). When the interference is internal, it is
termed "choking". In either case, obstruction of the airway takes a good deal longer to produce
unconsciousness than does carotid pressure, and is much more painful. Details are in the
"Asphyxia" chapter. Sometimes choking is the cause of accidental death ("cafe coronary") when
a piece of food lodges in the airway and can't be dislodged---so learn the Heimlich maneuver,
don't make a pig of yourself when eating, and chew your food thoroughly; Ma was right about
"Suffocation" is related to choking, but is an interference with successful breathing, rather than
direct blockage of the trachea. Examples include smothering with a pillow or plastic bag, and
being killed by a boa constrictor. More on suffocation in the "Asphyxia" chapter.
Pressure on the neck is sometimes a method of homicide, typically by the use of two thumbs
against the airway and the other fingers grasped round the back of the neck. If the neck
constriction is due to the body's weight pulling on a ligature, it is called "hanging"; otherwise it is
some form of strangulation. This is of some practical significance, since almost all hangings are
suicide, accident, or judicial, while most stranglings are homicide.
Hanging Judicial (drop) hanging is quite a different kettle of worms from suspension hanging. In (properly done) judicial-type hanging, the victim falls several feet before coming to an abrupt halt at the end of a rope. Often, this is the bitter end. Such a precipitous change in velocity is supposed to cause a broken neck and quick unconsciousness and death. However, exhumation of judicial hanging victims has shown that the breaking of the neck was frequently not the cause of death.(473)
An excessively long drop can result in separation of head from body, and is considered bad form
by professional hangmen.(474f)
Suspension hanging can cause compression of the carotid, jugular, and/or airway, depending on
how it is carried out.
More detailed answer
There are similarities between suspension-hanging and choking, as well as the
previously-mentioned differences. Your blood carries oxygen and nutrients to your brain.
Enough pressure on the airway (trachea/windpipe) compresses it and prevents oxygen from
reaching the lungs. Your body has built-in reflexes to keep this from happening; pressure against
your trachea causes quick pain, and you have an irresistible urge to relieve the pressure and
cough; one reflex (pain) gets your attention and tries to get you away from the stimulus---say,
someone's thumbs---and the other reflex (cough) attempts to clear the airway. If these attempts
are unsuccessful, blood will continue to be pumped to the brain (and elsewhere) by your heart, but
it won't carry enough oxygen and you will lose consciousness in a couple of minutes.
Time to death As asphyxia proceeds, first temporary, then permanent, brain damage from lack of
oxygen will occur. Death follows in 5-10 minutes (10-20 minutes, according to Polson;(475)
however his number seems to be based on the fact that the heart may continue beating for up to
20 minutes after judicial hanging,(476) and ignores that the heart may continue to beat after brain
death). While human data are lacking, unanesthetized dogs die after around eight minutes of
asphyxia(477)). On the other hand, it's also true that unconsciousness and death will be delayed if
blood-flow to/from the head is only partially obstructed.
Carotid reflexes Curiously, you don't have the same protective reflexes along the carotid artery,
so that pressure sufficient to block the artery doesn't elicit much in the way of defensive reaction.
In fact, one of the reflexes that is present may be counterproductive: near where the carotids
divide are some nerve cells, the "carotid sinus". These nerve cells have the normally-useful
function of maintaining blood pressure at a steady level. They respond to a decrease in blood
pressure (e.g. when you stand up) by constricting arteries and telling the heart to beat harder.
Without this, you might pass out every time you stood up suddenly, because not enough blood
was reaching your brain. (The dizziness many people feel when they stand up suddenly is another
way of appreciating how quickly and exquisitely sensitive your brain is to absence of enough
blood.) Similarly, the carotid sinus responds to an increase in blood pressure by relaxing the
arteries and inhibiting the heart.
So far, so good. The problem arises because these pressure-receptor nerves aren't smart enough
to tell the difference between blood pressure and externally-applied pressure----for example a
forearm or billy-club across the right-front side of the neck.(478f)
"Sleeper" hold Those of you who are wrestling (t.v. variety) fans are probably familiar with the
sleeper hold; it is nothing more than a forearm pushed against the right carotid artery,
compressing it, and cutting off blood flow to the brain [see "Asphyxia" chapter]. This causes
unconsciousness in about eight(479) to fifteen(480) seconds.(481f)
However the sleeper hold is forbidden in tournament wrestling and is faked in the t.v. stuff. The
reason is that the amount of pressure needed to compress the artery is enough to cause the carotid
sinus to kick into overdrive and send the heart a priority message to SLOW DOWN, which is
sometimes enough to stop the heart altogether. Despite being quite aware of this, some police
departments continue to use this hold to restrain people they arrest, with the altogether
predictable result of infrequent, but entirely unnecessary, deaths.(482)
Another hazard with the sleeper hold is that, during a struggle, the constricting forearm can shift
from the side to the front of the neck, compressing the airway and becoming a "choke hold"
[drawing 4, Reay p256]. This requires greater pressure than the sleeper hold, with a
corresponding increase in injuries to neck structures, e.g., fracture of the thyroid cartilage. More
dangerously, the lack of oxygen to the heart muscle can trigger fatal cardiac arrest.
In one case, a man's wife
"...sought an involuntary psychiatric commitment order because of his withdrawn behavior and refusal to take medication. The order was granted and two police officers were dispatched to his residence to bring him to the hospital. Coaxing by the police officers proved futile. In an attempt to overcome and handcuff him, one police officer stepped behind the victim and grabbed him about the neck. The hold intended by the officer was the carotid sleeper with the neck of the victim in the crook of the arm and forearm of the officer. After a brief but violent struggle during which both the officer and the victim fell to the floor, the victim became lifeless. He did not respond to cardiopulmonary resuscitation. An electrocardiogram taken during resuscitation showed cardiac arrest. Witnesses including family members stated that the entire struggle lasted only a short time with the neck hold in place several seconds .An inquest jury ruled that the death was natural because of the victim's previous cardiac history and the brief time during which the neck hold was applied."(483)
Pressure needed to compress the carotid How much pressure is needed to compress the carotid?
Surprisingly little. To quote the eminent Doctors Polson and Gee,
"By experiment I have confirmed that the carotid artery is appreciably obstructed by a ligature under low tension. Having first established free flow of fluid between the common carotid artery, exposed in the upper chest, and the internal carotid artery, seen inside the skull after removal of the calvarium, I then applied a ligature with a running noose round the neck. Weights were added and injection was repeated, below the level of the ligature. The tests showed that a pull of as little as 7 lb (3.2 kg) was sufficient to reduce free flow through the artery to a mere trickle."(484)
Obviously, this will vary from person to person, and also with the width of the ligature; other
published values are as high as 11 pounds (5 kg).(485) Two problems with these calculations are
that, in a living person, (a) the carotids are located deeper in the neck than jugular veins and are
shielded by a living sterno-mastoid muscle; (b) blood pressure might open the compressed artery
on each heartbeat. More on that in a moment.
Pressure needed to compress the jugular Since veins operate at lower pressures than do arteries (if
you cut an artery, blood spurts out; blood only flows from a severed vein) one might expect the
jugular veins to be more easily compressed than the carotid arteries. Experimentally, this is
exactly the case, with only around 4.5 pounds (2 kg) pressure needed to block the jugulars.
Pressure needed to compress the airway and other arteries in the neck About 33 pounds (15 kg)
will compress the airway, and 66 pounds (30 kg) the vertebral arteries leading to the face.(486)
What this means, practically speaking, is that someone who wants---or wants to avoid---a lethal
result should be aware that full suspension is quite unnecessary. Death will occur after only a few
pounds of pressure on a neck ligature; a sitting or semi-reclining position is sufficient.
Suspension Hanging Hanging does not have a very good image. For example:
"The discovery of a grotesquely hanging corpse whose swollen, sometimes bitten tongue protrudes from a bloated blue-gray face with hideously bulging eyes is a nightmarish sight upon which only the most hardened can gaze without revulsion."(487)
However, while some look livid, about 60 percent of hangers have a "pale and placid" face.(488)
Some have small hemorrhages, caused by capillaries leaking (due to high blood pressure in the
absence of oxygen), on the face, eyelids, and/or scalp; others don't.
What accounts for these differences? Basically, it's a question of how quickly and totally the
ligature cuts off blood circulation to and from the head. If suspension is fast and complete, the
blood supply both to and from the head will be cut off simultaneously, so there is no excess blood
or blood pressure in the head, and thus a more-or-less normal-colored corpse. Similarly,
activation of the carotid sinus pressure receptor would cause a decrease in blood flow to the head,
leading to paleness in the cadaver.
If, on the other hand, the pressure on the neck gradually increased as consciousness was lost, it's
probable that the jugular veins were shut off before the carotid arteries (and almost certainly
before the hard-to-clamp vertebral arteries), since it requires less pressure to do so. Thus, in this
case blood would continue flowing into the head while having no way to leave it; hence
engorgement and blue/purple color. This is most likely when the suicide is in a sitting or lying
position, because there is less (and less sudden) pressure on the neck than when she/he is
Placement of the ligature An additional variable is the placement of the ligature [drawings in
Simonsen, 1988] The least pressure corresponds to the location of the knot in the rope, since that
point is pulled up and away from the neck. It is thus possible to avoid compressing the trachea is
the knot is along the centerline of the face.
Further complications arise because the noose can be placed high or low on the neck, with
potentially different intermediate results. When high, it is less likely to compress the airway
because some of the pressure from the ligature may be transferred to the jaw or skull.
Do people die from airway blockage, or from cutoff of blood circulation to the brain? Bodies with
little weight on the ligature, e.g., prone or seated, have a greater chance of death from asphyxia,
according to a standard forensic text. Since the jugular vein (blood out) is easier to compress
than the carotid artery (blood in), enough blood accumulates in the head and neck to compress the
airway, leading to asphyxia.(489)(490f)
Medical experts disagree about the frequency and importance of airway blockage in hangings.
For example, one says, "Occlusion of the air passage by constriction on the neck is probably
extremely rare if existing at all."(491) Others hedge their bets: "Suicidal hanging is earmarked
characteristically as causing death by compression of the anatomic airway and the blood vessels in
the neck."(492) or cover all the bases: "Reports in the forensic literature have stated that death may
be due to either asphyxiation, coma, carotid artery or jugular vein injury, or any combination of
the above."(493) Certainly, airway blockage is not essential to successful hanging. In one case a
woman with a tracheotomy(494f) killed herself despite attaching the ligature above the site of the
breathing hole. She would have continued breathing until dying from lack of blood to her brain.
Airway blockage is more likely when:
Was it Suicide, Homicide, or Accident?
" a farmer who, living at a distance from his cattle herd, came to tend the herd alone, only to find the submersible pump in the well which supplied them with water to be broken. He used a piece of angle iron as a bridge across the well head, and a peculiarly flimsy and inadequate piece of rope to lower himself into the well to retrieve the pump: the rope broke and he was drowned---or at least this was the story received by telephone from the local coroner. When the body was received for autopsy the first finding was a ligature mark around the neck; I telephoned the coroner to point out with some acerbity that this was an obvious suicide. `But Doc,' the coroner replied, `that was the only way we could pull him out of the well!' "(495)
There are four possible definite verdicts in a hanging death: homicide, accident, judicial, or
Homicidal hanging is very rare because there are many easier ways to commit murder. Simulating
suicidal hanging is generally done to disguise a murder, often an impulsive one. It is also unusual,
mostly because it is difficult to pull off without leaving signs of drugging, struggle or improbable
For example, in a notorious case from Great Britain, Sergeant Emmett-Dunne killed a fellow
soldier, Sergeant Watters, by a karate-chop to the throat and then suspended the body from a
staircase to make it look like a suicidal hanging.
Autopsy showed an unusual fracture of the cartilage around the thyroid gland, and vertical tears in
the carotid artery that are typical of drop-type (judicial, not suspension) hangings where there is
sudden force applied to the neck. Despite this, a verdict of suicide was rendered by an
inexperienced army pathologist due to lack of any other suspicious circumstances.
Nevertheless, military gossip persisted about a relationship between Emmett-Dunne and Watters'
widow, which was reinforced when, six months later, they married. It was not until a year later
that the military police reopened the investigation (as well as the body). Photographs of the
original scene showed that blood had pooled both above and below the ligature, in the head, neck
and upper chest regions, which is inconsistent with hanging. There were no tiny hemorrhages
which are often found in asphyxiation.
Under questioning, Emmett-Dunne's half brother (Emmett) came undone and confessed to helping
Emmett-Dunne suspend the body. Further circumstantial evidence was discovered,
Emmett-Dunne was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
He was saved from hanging because of jurisdictional quirks: he was a citizen of the Irish Republic
serving in the British army. The crime had taken place in Germany. The question arose as to
where, and under what laws, he should stand trial. Eventually it was decided that there was no
authority to send him to England; he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by British
military court in Dusseldorf in June, 1955. However, there was no death penalty in the Federal
Republic of Germany, (though there was in England at that time), nor, by treaty, could military
executions be carried out in German territory. The sentence was commuted to life in prison; he
was, however, released after 7 years, when passions had cooled.(496)
How often are hanging deaths due to accident? Combining four studies of hanging(497), we find
that 96% (range 94-98%) were suicidal, and 4% (range 2-6%) accidental.
Of the 19 accidental deaths, 5 were children. For the most part, they were toddlers snagged by crib slats and/or their own clothing. The remaining 14 were all males who had gotten wrapped up in auto-erotic asphyxiation. To quote from an interesting review of hanging:
"Add sexual perversion to the woes of mankind. When men or women try to improve on nature's biological methods, they not only become frustrated, but worse, act unnaturally, and usually to their own detriment. Any sexual behavior that strays from the confines of normal physiological compatibility is considered to be a perversion .One may add to the list another deviation, described by the Marquis de Sade: self-induced asphyxia as a means of ejaculatory gratification in the form of masturbation .When propelled by concupiscence, the unfortunate person with autoerotic propensities does not suspect that death lurks nearby."(498)
It seems that increased sexual gratification can be had by partial interruption of oxygen to the
brain. There may also be elements of masochism here. Whatever the motivation, the trick is to
make sure the interruption is, and remains, partial. The problem is that unconsciousness can
occur without warning; if it does, and if the ligature doesn't slip off or loosen, death follows.
These are accidental deaths. The victims are alleged to share some psychological traits with suicides: depression, death fixation, and isolation.(499) However the circumstances and details of the hangings are usually quite different; in autoerotic hanging:
Note, especially, points 5 and 6; these people die because they lose consciousness quickly and unexpectedly.(501)
Some of the case reports are truly bizarre,(502) but interestingly, asphyxia as a means of sexual arousal is a centuries-old practice documented by anthropologists.(503)
For example, Eskimos (Inuit) apparently choke one another as part of their normal sexual repertoire, and Eskimo children suspend themselves by the neck in play.
"The state of unconsciousness is so important and so familiar to the Eskimos that even the children play at it. It is a favorite pastime of theirs to hang themselves by their hoods. When these tighten about their necks, the blood is kept from their heads, and in time they lose consciousness. The other children in the house take them down when their faces turn purple. But they say that the state of unconsciousness is so delightful that they play this game over and over again."(504)
Legal consequences The distinction between suicidal and accidental hanging (or other means of
death) has legal, as well as emotional, ramifications. Most life (i.e., death) insurance policies,
understandably enough, have limitation or total exclusion of payments for suicidal death, at least
for the first two years.
Some pay extra in case of accidental death, for no obvious reason.(505f) Is autoerotic hanging an accident or suicide? We must go back to the definition of "accident". To quote an attorney:
"The legal definition of accident has not always been the same. Variations have been stated legally in different court decisions. Among these are that an accident is:
1. Any event that take place without the foresight or expectation of the person acted upon or affected thereby;
2. A happening or coming by chance or without design; casual, fortuitous, taking place unexpectedly, unintentionally, or out of the usual course of events; and,
3. Something unforseen, unexpected, or extraordinary.
The word, accident, is derived from the Latin verb, accidere, signifying "fall upon," "befall," "happen," "chance," or "unexpected." In a etymological appraisal, anything that happens can be interpreted as an accident. In its more formal accepted meaning, accident is defined as a fortuitous circumstance, event, or happening. It is an event happening wholly or partly through human agency, an event which, under the circumstances, is unusual and unexpected by the person to whom it happens. An accident is an untoward occurrence in the usual course of events. It may be without known or assignable cause. In its proper use, the term excludes negligence."(506)
After all this, it should be no surprise to learn that insurance companies differ as to whether
autoerotic hanging qualifies as an "accident", and will examine such a death very closely. So, if
you go in for that sort of thing, read your life insurance policy carefully.
Should you be in the military, "If the injury or death was incurred as a result of erratic or reckless
conduct or other deliberate course of conduct without regard for personal safety(507f), or the safety
of others, it was incurred not in the line of duty, but was due to misconduct." and the deceased
can expect to be court-martialled for destruction of government property.
"My father could dispatch a man in the time it took the prison clock to strike eight---leading him from his cell on the first stroke and having him suspended dead on the rope by the last stroke. That seemed a very worthy intermediate ambition for me."(508)
One hesitates to ask what his ultimate ambition was. In any event, Albert Pierrepoint followed in his father's footsteps and became one of the small number of
"qualified executioners" in Great Britain.
The art of hanging was taught both by apprenticeship and by schooling at some British prisons.
There was widespread need for this skill, since as late as 1832, 220 separate crimes, including
poaching, and picking pockets, were punishable by death. Hangings were public cautionary
spectacles and were covered by the newspapers. There are accounts of executioners---sometimes
family and friends---pulling on the legs of young boys who were not heavy enough to be
successfully hanged in order to add sufficient weight to strangle them.
The theory of deterrence-by-example was in vogue. It was satirized by a contemporary painting
of a public hanging in which a pickpocket was working the crowd.(509) As a result of critical
newspaper reports of botched hangings, the Home Office prepared a standard table of drops in
1888. The formula was basically:
1260 divided by the weight of prisoner in pounds = length of the drop in feet.
For example, the calculated drop for a 154 pound person would be 8.2 feet, a bit less than the 9
feet in the drop table shown below.
Another source(510) provides similar data:
Hanging Drop Heights
14 stone (196 lbs)
13.5 stone (189 lbs)
13 stone (182 lbs)
12.5 stone (175 lbs)
12 stone (168 lbs)
11.5 stone (161 lbs)
11 stone (154 lbs)
10.5 stone (147 lbs)
10 stone (140 lbs)
9.5 stone (133 lbs)
9 stone (126 lbs)
8.5 stone (119 lbs)
8 stone (112 lbs)
These numbers apply to people of average build with no unusual physical characteristics. The
author (James "Hangman" Barry) noted that when executing "persons who had attempted suicide
by cutting their throats to prevent reopening the wounds I have reduced the drop by nearly half."
This would probably not cause a broken neck, however, and the victim of Mr. Barry's aesthetic
sensitivities would then be left to strangle, very unpleasantly, over several minutes.
"A master executioner is responsible for every detail of his craft. He has to come to his own decision on the length of the drop based on the Home Office table, varied by his own experience, and adjusted to the weight of the prisoner, his height, his age, and an estimate of the musculature and tensile strength of his neck."
In order to carry out a perfect hanging, the noose must, of course, be properly applied:
"Draw it firm and tight with the free end of the rope emerging from the metal eye just under the jawbone. There is no knot. That fancy cowboy coil of a `hangman's noose (knot)' is something we abandoned to the Americans a hundred years ago. In Britain, the rope runs free through a pear-shaped metal eye woven into the rope's end, and the operative part of the noose is covered with soft wash-leather. Always adjust it to the left, because with the pull of the drop the noose gyrates a quarter-circle clockwise and the tug of the rope finishes under the chin. This motion throws the neck back and breaks the spinal column, separating it at about the third vertebra of the neck. Adjust it on the right and it gyrates to the back of the neck, throwing the head forward, not breaking the neck, eventually killing by suffocation."
At this point I should mention that one had best not use mountain-climbing rope for a drop
hanging, since it is designed to stretch in case of a fall. Thick manila rope is a much better choice.
It is commonly believed that a black bag is placed over the condemned's head just before
execution. Alas, contrary to all the movies, the bag is white.
Actually, there's a bit more to say about it. The bag,
"...has been used in British executions from the later days of batch-strangulation(511f) in public, long before the introduction of the long drop designed to sever the cervical vertebrae and cause spontaneous death. Its original purpose was to mask the contortions of slow strangulation, which were considered too horrible even for the ghoulish British public to witness, although the logic that public executions were a public deterrent against crime might have been followed strictly by exposing the ultimate horror in order to achieve the maximum deterrence."(512)
The number of capital crimes was reduced to 15 in 1837, and, "In 1861, the death penalty was
reduced to the offences of murder, treason, piracy with violence, and arson in the Sovereign's
vessels, arsenals, or dockyards." Further restrictions ended judicial executions in 1964.
More recent events, especially those related to Northern Ireland, have led the British public to
favor the reintroduction of the death penalty for terrorism and other violent crimes. Interestingly,
this was rejected by the House of Commons despite the largest Conservative majority in modern
parliamentary history and the support of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (who, it should
be noted, freed members of her party from party discipline (she wasn't known as "The Iron
Maiden" for nothing) to vote their consciences). The result was due to an unusual alliance
between those opposed on humanitarian grounds and those who wished to avoid producing
martyrs for the IRA.(513)
Pierrepoint looked back on his career with very mixed emotions:
"I believed with all my heart that I was carrying out a public duty. I conducted each execution [about 400] with great care and a clear conscience. I never allowed myself to get involved with the death penalty controversy. I now sincerely hope that no man is ever called upon to carry out another execution in my country. I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people. It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. All the men and women whom I have faced at the final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder."
Scene: Since over 95% of non-judicial hangings are suicides, there is sometimes a predisposition
on the part of investigators to see hangings through suicide-colored glasses. This can lead to
overlooking or misinterpreting evidence. The previously mentioned case of Emmett-Dunne is
Ligature: Most suicidal people are not very picky, and use whatever is handy. Household
clothesline remains a big favorite except in the wealthier population that owns electric or gas
clothes dryers.(514f) On the other hand, amongst people lacking clotheslines, use of electric cords
sometimes takes up the slack.
Articles of clothing are also perennially popular. People have used belts, suspenders, shoelaces,
scarves, handkerchiefs, neckties, shirtsleeves, pantlegs, and undershirts, among other things.
As previously noted, death occurs after 5-10 minutes of complete brain anoxia. A broad ligature,
such as a pant leg, may not produce enough pressure to fully cut off blood flow to the brain, let
alone air through the trachea, and thus may take much longer to be fatal.
Though a forensic medicine text warns, "Unusual ligatures arouse suspicion [of foul play]",(515) it
is not clear why that should be so, given the tendency to use whatever is available at the moment.
Indeed, the same authors cite a case of a man who hung himself using some of the roots of a pine
tree as the ligature, looped over a low branch of the same tree.
Two studies, one of 61 consecutive hanging deaths in Seattle, Wa.,(516) and the other of 106
hangings in New York City(517) show the range of materials used:
Table H-6 Ligatures used in suicidal hangings
|Luke, 1985||Luke, 1967|
|Seattle, Wa.||New York City|
Rope or clothesline
|32 (52%)||49 (46%)|
|8 (13%)||15 (14%)|
Soft belt or necktie
|7 (11%)||7 ( 7%)|
Length of sheet or other cloth
|6 (10%)||7 ( 7%)|
|8 ( 8%)|
String or twine
|5 ( 5%)|
Not specified by coroner
|8 ( 8%)|
Other (dog leash, venetian blind cord, clothing, etc.)
|8 (13%)||7 ( 7%)|
One inch or less
More than one inch
Number of wraps around neck
Three or more
|3 ( 5%)|
If the suspension point is inconveniently high, ligature material, similar or dissimilar, may be tied
together. For example, bed sheets may be torn into strips and connected by knots.
Usually a single simple loop is used, but multiple loops are not grounds for suspicion; quite the
contrary, for the presence of more than one loop is unusual in murder, taking longer to apply and
being harder to tighten.
Type of knot: Most common are the running noose (loop at one end, through which the other end
is pulled) and the fixed noose with a granny or reef knot.
Multiple knots are uncommon: "A ligature which is knotted firmly at the first turn and then
knotted again after a second turn is unlikely to have been applied by a suicide; it is possible but
Position of the knot: The location of the knot is just about evenly distributed between left side,
right side, and back of the neck; rarely is it in front. Some data on this are shown in Table H-7.
Table H-7 Location of knot in suicidal hangings(519)
Left side of neck
Right side of neck
Back of the neck
Front of the neck
|3 ( 5%)|
In one case, a 57-year-old man hanged himself with a rope whose knot was in the front of the face
at eyebrow level. All of the pressure was thus on the back, and to a somewhat lesser extent, sides
of the neck, as can be seen by the location of the post-mortem rope grooves. The exact cause of
death was not clear. There was no sign of asphyxia, which is understandable since the airway was
not obstructed, but pressure on the carotid arteries probably cut off the blood supply to the brain;
or pressure on the carotid pressure receptors might have caused the heart to stop.
The position of the ligature around the neck provides some distinction between hanging and
strangulation, and thus clues to distinguish suicide (mostly hanging, rarely strangulation) from
murder (almost always strangulation). In most suicides, the victim's weight causes the ligature to
slide up to the top of the neck, under the jaw. Exceptions can usually be accounted for if:
(1) the position of the body doesn't put much weight on the ligature. This can occur if the body is
partially supported by, say, a chair. Similarly, if the victim was in a reclining position, there is
little tendency for the ligature to move towards the top of the neck.
(2) the victim has a particularly large thyroid cartilage (Adam's apple), which will limit the upward
movement of a ligature.
(3) a quickly-tightening running noose, or a thin ligature, may clamp down pretty much where it
was originally placed.
In two studies of 279 suicidal hangings, the ligature was above the thyroid cartilage in 215 (77%),
at the level of the thyroid cartilage in 43 (15%), and below in 19 (7%).(520)
Suicidal hanging typically causes a "caret" (inverted v) shaped ligature mark. The tip of the caret
is at the site of the knot, since the weight of the body normally causes the knot to be the highest
point of a loop around the neck. This will not be seen if the body was at a reclining angle, and
the ligature mark will make the death look like a strangulation. A running noose can also produce
a horizontal mark, because it tightens quickly. If a soft, wide ligature is used, e.g., a t-shirt, and
the victim is cut down soon after death, there may be no visible external marks at all.
Legal consequences can hinge on the ligature marks. In one case a man walked into the house
and found his wife who had hanged herself. To avoid the social stigma of suicide, he cut her
down and hid the cord, before calling the police and telling them that he had found her collapsed
on the floor. Had the rope marks on her neck not been clearly suicidal, he might well have been
charged with murder.
The ligature does not have to go entirely around the neck, as long as it compresses either the sides
(blocks blood circulation to the brain) or the front (blocks airway) of the neck. In fact, there does
not need to be a flexible ligature at all: people have died from resting their necks on stair tread
edges, car steering wheels, and sofa or chair arms.
In one case a 60-year-old man was found dead in a kneeling position with the bottom of his chin
balanced on the arm of a chair . The compression mark on his neck matched the chair arm, and
extended to the carotid arteries. There was no bruising of neck muscle, or injury to neck cartilage
or bones. There was no evidence of alcohol or other drugs, nor of injury or debilitating illness.
He had a history of severe coughing, and death was attributed to an attack of violent coughing or
choking that had caused him to crouch down and then be unable to rise.(521)
Point of suspension As with their indiscriminate choice of ligatures, suicidal people suspend
themselves from whatever site is handy. Stair rails are popular, as is tying one end of the ligature
to a doorknob and tossing the other end over the top of the door. Hooks and nails are useable,
but may bend or pull out if not sturdy, and firmly attached. Often a chair that the victim stood on
is nearby, but total suspension is quite unnecessary; a majority of such suicides have their feet
touching the ground.(522)
It's not generally appreciated that even low suspension points are sufficient; a table leg, door
knob, or bedpost have all been used. In one case a 77-year-old woman hanged herself from the
leg of a table, with the rope tied only 17 inches off the floor. She was found lying face-down.(523)
In another case, of a completely suspended woman, the seeming absence of a platform caused the
police to suspect her husband. Luckily, the victim's footprints were found on top of a sewing
machine near the body.(524)
Position of the body In one study, 37% (30/80) of hanging victims were completely suspended;
63% (50/80) were in contact with the ground(525) This is credible, since all it takes to carry out a
standing hang is to bend the knees enough to tighten the ligature. In 261 cases of incomplete
suspension, 64% (168) had both feet touching the ground, 16% (42) were on their knees, 11%
(29) were lying down, 7% (19) were sitting, and 1% (3) were huddled or squatting.(526)
Suicide pacts and hanging While suicide pacts are not uncommon, dual hangings are rare. In one
case, two men were found dead in their hotel room, one on either side of the closet door. The
bedsheet had been tossed over the door and opposite corners tied to their necks. Each had been
on a chair and had stepped off simultaneously.(527) In another instance a woman and a man,
despondent lovers, tied a rope to a branch of the tree under which they were sitting. They
attached the free ends to their necks and leaned back.(528) Acts like these require planning,
coordination, and trust.
Suicide by hanging combined with other methods There exist several reports where a person
attempted to commit suicide by one method, became impatient, and finished the job by hanging.
In one instance a man drank ammonia (Not Recommended) and then hung himself. Presumably
the ammonia was too slow or too painful.(529)
In another case, a 53-year-old woman was found hanged in a loft. There was considerable blood,
widely scattered, from a depressed skull fracture and other scalp wounds. She had apparently
first cut herself with a knife, found in her pocket, followed by a blow to the head from the butt of
a hatchet. Pouring blood (scalp wounds tend to be messy), she found a rope, formed a running
noose, and hanged herself.(530)
Finally, there was a 48-year-old man who slit his left wrist and throat. The wrist injury was deep
but the throat cuts were too shallow to be fatal. He followed this by two gunshots, one through
his left palm and the other to the right temple. This latter bullet did not penetrate the skull.
Understandably frustrated, he then hung himself from the stairs.(531)
Strangulation is defined as pressure applied to the neck without suspension of the victim. It is
uncommon in suicide, but not unknown. Nevertheless, most strangulations are homicide, and will
be treated as such by medical examiners and police, in the absence of clear evidence to the
contrary. Strangulation was used as a method of execution in some countries, e.g., Turkey and
Spain. In Spain, the sitting victim was tied to a post. A metal collar was placed around the neck
and the post, and then tightened. In one version, a metal spike stuck out of the post and was
forced into the base of the prisoner's neck by the pressure of the tightened collar.
The physiology of strangulation is essentially the same as that of suspension hanging, and needs
not be treated separately. In self-strangulation, the ligature is applied more slowly and less tightly
than in suspension hanging. As a result, the jugular veins are more constricted than are the
carotid arteries, leading to a blue, swollen, head. Neck injuries, however, are rare. Because the
ligature cannot slide up the neck or be supported by the chin, compression of the airway is more
likely than in suspension hanging.
In suicidal hanging, people generally use the materials at hand. Women tend to use stockings or
scarves; men most often use cord. In one case a man strangled himself with two bow ties.(532) In
another instance, a man, mistaking himself for a bobbin, wrapped 35 turns of twine around his
neck, tied a knot, and attached the free end to his right thumb in order to increase pressure.
Blood alcohol level was 0.26 percent.(533)
Two or more turns tied with a half knot or half hitch (double knots are more characteristic of
murder) is strong evidence of suicide, but there are exceptions. The murdered 42-year-old
woman described in the "Asphyxia" chapter was such a case.
More typical of self strangulation were two women who killed themselves with stockings. In one
case, a 73-year old woman, depressed and about to be committed to a mental hospital, wrapped a
stocking twice about her neck. There was a half-knot at each turn. Because the ligature was only
tight enough to compress the jugular vein (blood out) but not the carotid artery (blood in), her
face was purple and congested. In the other example, a similar stocking was pulled more tightly
and the face was not engorged or cyanotic.
It's possible for a person to strangle him/herself with one arm: a woman with incapacitating burns
on her right hand rolled a shawl and scarf into a ligature, wrapped it two-and-a-half times around
her neck and tied two knots.(534)
Another method is use of a tourniquet. A single loop of rope is loosely tied around the neck with
a good knot, e.g., square or reef knot. A rod is put between the ligature and the neck and is then
twisted until the desired degree of tightness is achieved. The rod tends to unwind a bit when the
person becomes unconscious, but usually snags on the side of the jaw, maintaining enough tension
to cause death. See "Asphyxia" chapter for details.
CONSEQUENCES: What are the effects of hanging?
There is not much information from survivors for two reasons: (1) there are not many survivors,
and (2) often, survivors have more-or-less complete amnesia. In one case, a woman tried to hang
herself from the foot of her bed, while in jail. She was saved by a fellow prisoner. She later
mentioned having had severe pain, followed by unconsciousness.(535)
In another instance a public entertainer, who hung himself briefly as part of his act, made a
mistake of timing. He said (afterwards) that he could not breathe---quite understandable, under
the circumstances---and felt as if a heavy weight was on his feet. He quickly lost consciousness
before he could move his hands to release himself.(536)
There is additional information from experimental hanging. In one description, the subject
mentioned flashes of heat and light, and deafening sound. Legs were numb and weak. Pain was
not severe and unconsciousness was sudden.(537)
More detailed information came from another self-experimenter named Minovici. With 5 kg (11
lbs.) pull on the ligature, loss of consciousness was rapid. When he leaned on the rope
(incomplete suspension), within 5-6 seconds his eyes blurred, he heard whistling, and his face
turned red-violet. With the knot on the side instead of the back of the neck, these effects took 8-9
seconds to appear.
When he tried complete suspension, as soon as he left the ground, he couldn't breathe or hear his
assistant. He experienced such severe pain that he immediately stopped the test. Within 10
minutes, many small hemorrhages could be seen near the site of the rope; these remained visible
for 8-11 days. For 10-12 days later he had watering eyes, trouble swallowing, and a sore
After unconsciousness, convulsions follow. In thrashing around, the victim may make enough
noise to attract attention, wanted or unwanted. For instance,
"A man aged 20 made a noose with a silk stocking and hung it on a hook behind the door of his room. He climbed on to a chair, put his head through the noose and stepped off `to see if his feet would touch the floor'. He found his feet were a few inches short. The slip knot tightened and he was unable to release the pressure on his throat. During his struggles he kicked a chair over and, when his mother heard the noise, she went to discover the cause. The man was then unconscious but she had the presence of mind immediately to cut the stocking. After a brief stay in hospital he was able to return home."(539)
External appearances The face color can range from pale to cyanotic blue, depending on whether
or not much blood was trapped in the head region. If the ligature put only enough pressure on the
neck to close the jugular veins but not the carotid arteries, a swollen, blue, blood-congested face
is the result.
The tongue may be swollen for similar reasons. In 14 of 40 (35%) cases, the tongue protruded
from the mouth.(540)
The small hemorrhages previously mentioned occur in about 10% of cases, generally the same
ones that have blood-engorged faces.
Interestingly, the faces of many (21 of 40) hanging victims were described as placid, in
contradistinction to those strangled, choked or smothered.(541) And, curiously, sometimes the right
eye stays open and has a large (dilated) pupil while the left eye is closed and pupil constricted.(542)
The reason for this is not understood.
CONSEQUENCES: What happens to hanging survivors?
Drop (Judicial-type) Hanging. There are no survivors of a properly-done drop hanging; the
broken neck (similar to some car-crash neck injuries) is invariably fatal. Even when the neck is
not broken, injury is severe and debilitating, and the victim strangles.
Suspension Hanging. Since only around 1% of suicidal hangings are of the drop type,(543) there
are correspondingly few spinal cord injuries. In suspension hangings, damage to neck structures
occurs about 1/3 to 1/2 of the time, but is not normally life-threatening.
Both death and permanent injury are due to cutting the oxygen supply to the brain. The severity
of brain damage depends on how completely and how long the brain is oxygen-starved. Mild
hypoxia (not enough oxygen) causes behavior resembling drunkenness: physical and verbal
incoordination, but no permanent harm.
With complete anoxia (no oxygen taken in, but heart and blood circulation uninterrupted),
unconsciousness occurs after about two minutes and coma in about five. If blood circulation to
the brain is totally stopped, loss of consciousness follows in 8-15 seconds.(544) Recovery may take
minutes to days, and may not be total. After about four to five minutes of anoxia, permanent
brain damage becomes increasingly likely.(545) Five of 39 people rescued from near-hanging had
such persistent injury.(546)
On the positive side, there are rare, but well-documented, cases of spontaneous remission of
depression after near-hanging.(547)
Drop Hanging. Drop hanging may not be instantly fatal and, " the possibility of briefly retained
consciousness in some cases appears quite real."(548) You might be wondering how this was
determined. In a study of 34 skeletons of people who had been judicially hanged between 1882
and 1945, a substantial number did not have a broken neck. Interestingly, the average drop for
this group was 83 inches; for those whose neck was broken the average drop had been only 74
inches(549) Thus, " the length of the drop, though important, does not produce expected or
In the event of miscalculation leading to an inadequate fall, the victim will undoubtedly suffer
some more-or-less severe neck injury, but will die within 5-10 minutes of asphyxiation,
carotid/jugular compression, or tears of the vertebral arteries (leading to massive hemorrhage).
Suspension Hanging. In addition to brain damage, there may be heart and/or lung injury. For
example, there is a syndrome found, among other cases, in hanging survivors; it's called Adult
Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and is characterized by progressive respiratory failure
that is hard to treat and is not helped much by supplementary oxygen administration. The cause is
not well understood: it may be due to brain injury from lack of oxygen; an alternative explanation
is that fluid fills the lungs (edema) because of the high negative pressure in the lungs due to trying
to inhale against a blocked airway; other possible mechanisms have been proposed.(551) In any
case, various types of lung damage are the most frequent cause of delayed death in
Some case reports may be useful.
(1) A 33-year-old man was jailed for shoplifting. He tried to hang himself with his shirt and was
cut down after an undetermined time. Examination two hours later showed deep coma which did
not change over 12 hours. Gradual improvement occurred over the next two days, and he
became awake and alert; however an EEG (electroencephalogram) after 5 days showed residual
brain injury. On the seventh day, lung damage appeared; potentially fatal infection followed
quickly. Two weeks of intensive care saved his life. A month after the initial admission he was
committed to a state mental hospital.(553)
(2) A 29-year-old man was jailed for assault on his ex-wife and a police officer. Later that night
he hung himself with a t-shirt "for several minutes" before being cut down. He was also in a deep
coma and unresponsive to deep pain. On the second day he began to improve, but his speech
was, and remained, halting and often incoherent. After 12 days he was committed to a state
(3) A 14-year-old boy was found hanging from bleachers by (means of) a jacket he had wrapped
around his neck. He was released after being suspended for an estimated 5-10 minutes. He
opened his eyes spontaneously, but had no verbal or motor response to painful stimuli. In the
hospital his coma score improved (he responded to pain), but lung damage quickly appeared.
After four days he was transferred to another hospital, but his neurological improvement at that
time was limited to opening his eyes when told to.(555)
(4) Finally, there is a fascinating case in England from 1650.(556) Anne Green was a 22-year-old
maid in the house of Sir Thomas Read. She became pregnant by Sir Thomas' grandson, Geoffrey,
and gave birth to a stillborn boy. She hid the baby's body, was discovered, convicted of murder,
and hanged. She was suspended for half an hour during which time some of her friends were
" hanging with all their weight upon her legs, sometimes lifting her up, then pulling her down
again with a sudden jerk, thereby the sooner to dispatch her out of her pain " until forced to
stop by the under-sheriff who was worried about the rope breaking. When she was considered
dead the body was removed, put into a coffin, and taken to a nearby house.
When the coffin was opened, she was seen to take a breath. The physicians, intending a
dissection, tried to revive her instead. Because of (and despite some of) their efforts, she
recovered fully, except for amnesia about some of the events of the hanging. She was
subsequently pardoned, in an attempt to co-operate with what was taken to be divine intervention.
She eventually went back to the country, taking along her coffin as a souvenir. She married, had
three children, and lived another fifteen years.
Practical Matters: HOW TO DO IT
If you intend to hang yourself, the next major decision is whether to do a drop (judicial-type) or
suspension job. Each has some advantages and disadvantages.
Suspension: (1) can be done with a wide range of ligature materials---most anything will work;
(2) can be carried out by invalids, without leaving their room; (3) is fairly quick, probably not
painless (but unconsciousness is rapid), but may have severe consequences---brain damage---if
interrupted; (4) doesn't require much knowledge to accomplish.
To carry out a suspension hanging, you can simply tie one end of the ligature to a fixed point
(doorknob, hook, rafter, etc.) and the other end to your neck. You can and should protect the
airway from unnecessary compression and pain by firmly padding the front quarter of the neck
and (better) by placing the knot high and at the front of your face.
Complete suspension is unnecessary and is probably more painful than partial suspension;
however, standing on and kicking away a chair is sometimes done in the same spirit as diving,
rather than wading, into icy water. Unconsciousness occurs quickly and without enough warning
to count on time to change your mind: this is a lethal method and is not suitable for a "suicidal
You need an uninterrupted twenty minutes (half an hour to take into account last-minute
vicissitudes) to be sure that you won't be cut down and "saved" with permanent brain damage.
Since you may thrash around while unconscious, take into account the possibility of attracting
unwanted intervention because of the noise. Because the cadaver is sometimes gruesome and
always shocking, consider not hanging yourself where loved ones will find the body. If you use a
hotel or motel, leave a good tip for the cleaning person.
Drop: (1) requires a strong, low-stretch rope. Manila (sisal) or hemp works (2) requires a 5-15
foot drop (see drop table or calculations); (3) is quick, possibly painless---nobody really knows,
and none of the questionnaires have been returned---and generally cannot be interrupted once set
into motion; (4) requires detailed knowledge of how and where to attach rope, how and how far
to jump (down, but not out), and a place to jump from.
To execute a drop hanging, the drop distance can be estimated as follows,
drop in feet = 1260 divided by your weight in pounds
The type of knot is not important as long as it doesn't loosen. However, its position is, unlike in
suspension hanging, critical. The knot should be as near the chin as convenient, and in any case
no further back than the cheekbone. Note which way the knot rotates when pulled up, and adjust
it to the side of your head so that it will rotate toward the chin and snap the head backwards. If it
ends up behind the ear, it will be much less likely to produce a cleanly broken neck, and may leave
you to strangle unpleasantly.
The drop should be as close to straight down as possible; don't take a running jump.
The rope should be at least an inch thick and must not be one intended to stretch in order to ease
a fall, e.g., mountain-climbing rope. Attach it (the other end) to something that won't break or
This method is harder to get the hang of than is suspension, and is not recommended unless you're
confident that you fully understand its details. Mistakes usually transpose into some unappealing
form of suspension hanging, unless the rope breaks.
If, for some reason, there is no attachment point available for a ligature, strangulation is a
possibility. This method consists of wrapping a cord around your neck and tightening it. The
disadvantages are: (a) depending on the amount of tension applied, it may compress your airway
as well as the major blood vessels (carotid and/or jugular) unless you protect the front of the
neck; (b) since there is no weight on the ligature, it may loosen when you become unconscious.
Some methods to solve this latter problem are:
(1) use a high-friction ligature that will stay in place;
(2) use a double knot;
(3) wrap thin cord, as many times as possible in 5-10 seconds, around your neck, relying on
friction to maintain the tension. A slip knot is helpful, but may loosen unless wrapped;
(4) Make a loose loop around your neck. Insert a thin, rigid item, e.g. mixing spoon or pen,
between the neck and the loop, and twist the rod until it tightens the ligature; then tuck the end of
the rod between the neck and the cord to keep it in place. If you use a bar that is around 8 inches
(20 cm) long, there is a good chance that it will stay in place under your chin even if not tucked
(5) The most reliable of these methods is to buy a ratcheting "tie down". These are available at
auto, motorcycle, and some hardware stores for between $5 and $10 and are generally used for
attaching cargo. Once tight, a spring-loaded cam release (or equivalent) must be pressed to
remove tension. The main caveat is that, if you're not familiar with them, it may take a few
minutes to figure out how the ratcheting mechanism works. A friction-actuated version is easier
to use and is also easier to release but can't be tightened as much, which doesn't matter for this
use. In all cases, (a) bending forward increases the diameter of the neck, and thus the constrictive
effect of the ligature; (b) if a friend or cadaver is not available, you may wish to practice on your
leg to see if the ligature stays in place.
Drop hanging, suspension hanging, and ligature strangulation are effective and lethal means of suicide, and are not suitable for a suicidal gesture. Drop hanging requires knowing what you're doing and is unforgiving of mistakes; its main virtue is that it is quick and, allegedly, painless. Suspension or ligature asphyxia needs about an uninterrupted half hour, does not require complete suspension, and can be carried out by people with limited physical abilities. Pain can be minimized by protecting the front of the neck. Since finding such a cadaver may be traumatic, care should be given to choosing a location.
Suicide remains paradoxical: it is legal to do but illegal to assist; and if you express
the intention to carry out this legal action, you will, most likely, find yourself locked
As of this writing (early 1999), the central legal, legislative, and ethical suicide issue is
Physician-assisted suicide (PAS). PAS is the most reliable and least traumatic
approach to suicide, and has been carried out since at least the time of the early
Greeks. (Hippocrates' Oath was partly in response to this practice.) The current
ethical arguments, for and against it, were laid out in the early 1870s and have
changed remarkably little.(557) Meanwhile, medical ability to prolong dying has
increased to the point where the public is often more afraid of dying than of death.
This is the driving force for legalization of assisted suicide.
The ethical situation is not entirely clear-cut; both sides have valid points. Under
the circumstances, there is really no way of knowing if PAS opponents' fears will
come to pass. Thus, the ongoing experience with PAS in Oregon will be of great
importance and interest, and should answer some of the questions of potential
abuse. The three-decade-long history of PAS in the Netherlands is also generally
reassuring, though the differences between Dutch and American society makes
I do not expect many of the already-decided to change their position quickly as a
result of the information from Oregon starting to trickle in; people are quite capable
of reaching divergent conclusions from the same data. The debate will continue, as
it should; but we will, at last, have some facts and evidence to guide us.
The literature on suicide is immense. I mention here only a few of the books
available that I found particularly valuable.
Alvarez, A. The Savage God, [Random House, 1972]. A brilliantly-written study
of suicide, somewhat schizophrenically divided into an opening essay about
Sylvia Plath, and material about everything else.
Colt, George Howe, The Enigma of Suicide [New York: Summit Books, 1991].
Readable and erudite. Much of the book is in the form of stories of the suicides
of young people, interspersed with interviews and research findings. The
historical material is especially well done.
Hendin, Herbert Suicide in America. [New York: W. W. Norton, 1982, 1995].
One of the best general works on American suicide. More medically and
psychiatrically oriented (and less anecdotal) than Colt. I prefer the 1982
edition, because I feel it's more evenhanded than the 1995 revision. They are
interesting to read side-by-side.
Polson, Cyril J., Gee, D.J., Knight, Bernard The Essentials of Forensic
Medicine, [4th ed. 1985. Pergamon]. The best single book on the subject.
Knight, Bernard, Forensic Pathology, [2nd ed. 1996, Oxford Univ Press] and
Spitz W.U., Fisher, R.S. Medicolegal Investigation of Death [3rd ed, 1993,
Thomas, Springfield Ill.] are more up-to-date and have better printing (useful
for photographs), but can't match the breadth of Polson.
Blumenthal SJ and Kupfer DJ, eds Suicide Over the Life Cycle [American
Psychiatric Press, 1990]. Excellent academic study of risk factors, assessment,
and treatment. Articles written by some of the leading researchers in the field.
Lester, David Why People Kill Themselves: a 1990s summary of research
findings on suicidal behavior, [3rd ed. Springfield, IL; Thomas, 1992]. You
want numbers, correlations, associations? Look no further.
Opposing Viewpoints Series Greenhaven Press. Consists of several books on
bioethics (Suicide, Medical Ethics, Euthanasia, Death and Dying), all in the
same format: 1 to 10 page excerpts or articles (and an occasional cartoon),
paired up as "opposing viewpoints". They treat the topics fairly and
understandably, if not in great depth. Perhaps the best place to get an
overview of the issues, as presented by their advocates.
Medical Ethics Series [Indiana University Press] Smith DH and Veatch RM (eds)
covers the same material as the preceding series, but in much greater depth
and academic focus. About twenty volumes as of 1998.
Humber-JM, Almeder-RF, and Kasting-GA (eds) Physician-assisted Death in
Biomedical Ethics Reviews (series), [Totowa NJ, Humana Press, 1993].
Intermediate in depth and range between the two preceding titles.
Hastings Center Reports/Magazine [Hastings-on-Hudson, New York] looks at
topics in biomedical ethics through a quarterly magazine. Timely coverage and
Maguire, Daniel C. Death by Choice. [New York: Schocken Books, 1984]. A
thoughtful, wide-ranging set of essays, examining the concept of "death by
choice" as it applies to suicide, abortion, capital punishment, and war.
Rachels, James The End of Life [Oxford Univ. Press, 1986]. This is a straight-up
philosophy book, tightly reasoned and clearly laid out. It examines the
question of why killing is wrong, and under what circumstances it might not
Battin, M Pabst and Lipman, A. G. (eds) Drug Use in Assisted Suicide and
Euthanasia, [New York : Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1996]. The title is a
bit misleading; the book is a good collection of essays covering a wide range of
issues related to physician-assisted suicide: legal, ethical, and medical.
Battin, M. Pabst. The least worst death: essays in bioethics on the end of life
[New York, Oxford University Press, 1994]. This book provides a timely and
cross-cultural perspective on end-of-life issues.
1f.The tone of some of the footnotes (and occasionally text) may strike readers as inappropriately flippant, given the nature of the subject. On the other hand, you might find it a therapeutic respite from page after page of unrelentingly earnest examination and preachy advice. (back to text)
2f.I will use male pronouns for most suicides and female ones for most suicide attempts. This reflects the relative male/female numbers in each category, as well as the lack of grammatically "correct" sex-neutral pronouns in the English language. (back to text)
3.Phillips DP; Sanzone AG "A comparison of injury date and death date in 42,698 suicides." Am J Public Health 1988 May; 78(5):541-3. (back to text)
4.Miller, Ted R. Databook on nonfatal injury : incidence, costs, and consequences Washington, D.C. : Urban Institute Press, 1995. (back to text)
5.Langone, John Dead End p2. (back to text)
6f.Final Exit recommended plastic-bag asphyxia or drug overdose for suicide. It was published in 1990 and became a best-seller. Comparing the number of suicides by those methods in 1990 and 1991, we find that plastic-bag asphyxias increased from 334 to 437 (up 31 percent), and intentional overdose deaths increased from 3,143 to 3,314 (up 5 percent). However, the total number of suicides decreased from 30,906 to 30,810. This is consistent with the idea that the book influenced the method used by a few people, but certainly did not unleash a wave of suicide, as some had predicted. The issue was debated by Derek Humphry and P.M. Marzuk [Marzuk PM; Tardiff K; Leon AC "Increase in fatal suicidal poisonings and suffocations in the year Final Exit was published: a national study [see comments]" Am J Psychiatry 1994 Dec;151(12):1813-4 COMMENT: Am J Psychiatry 1995 Dec;152(12):1832-3], but curiously neither side mentioned (or perhaps noticed) that twice as great an increase in plastic bag suicides (up 70 percent) occurred between 1985 and 1986---5 years before Final Exit. (back to text)
7f.To give you some idea, "Over the past two centuries people have committed suicide by jumping into volcanoes, vats of beer, crocks of vinegar, retorts of molten glass, white-hot coke ovens, or slaughterhouse tanks of blood; by throwing themselves upon buzzsaws; by thrusting hot pokers down their throats; by suffocating in refrigerators or chimneys; by locking themselves into high-altitude test chambers; by crashing airplanes; by jumping from airplanes; by lying in front of steamrollers, by throwing themselves onto the third [high voltage] rail; by touching high tension wires; by placing their necks in vices and turning the handle; by hugging stoves; by freezing to death; by climbing into lions' cages; by blowing themselves up with cannons, hand grenades, or dynamite; by boring holes in their heads with power drills; by drinking hydrochloric acid or Drano; by walking in front of cars, trains, subways, and racehorses; by driving cars off cliffs or into trains; by swallowing poisonous spiders; by piercing their hearts with corkscrews or darning needles; by starving themselves; by swallowing firecrackers; by holding their heads in buckets of water; by beating their heads with hammers; by pounding nails or barbecue spits into their skulls; by strangling themselves with their hair; by walking into airplane propellers; by swimming over waterfalls, by hanging themselves with grapevines; by sawing tree limbs out from under themselves; by swallowing glass; by swallowing underwear; by stabbing themselves with spectacles sharpened to a point; by cutting their throats with hand saws, sheep sheers, or barbed wire; by forcing teams of horses to tear their heads off; by decapitating themselves with homemade guillotines; by exposing themselves to swarms of bees; by injecting themselves with paraffin, cooking oil, peanut butter, mercury, deodorant, or mayonnaise; by crucifying themselves." [Colt, G.: The Enigma of Suicide, p235]; by swallowing coins; by swallowing crucifixes; by hanging themselves with tree roots from the branches of the same tree; by cutting their wrist with their teeth; by cutting off their arm with a kitchen knife; by stuffing rags into their mouth and pebbles up their nose; by exploding a stick of dynamite in their mouth; by sawing their skull with a band saw; by inhaling talcum powder; by injecting themselves with HIV-positive blood. (back to text)
8.Stengel, Erwin Suicide and Attempted Suicide, [Baltimore, Penguin] 1964, p73. (back to text)
9.Retterstol, N Suicide: A European Perspective, [Cambridge Univ P] p IX; 1990; trans: 1993. (back to text)
10.US Mortality Stats, 1994. CDC [Centers for Disease Control] web site. http://wonder.cdc.gov (back to text)
11f.The 1980-91 U.S. age-adjusted suicide rate averaged 12.5 per 100,000 population per year. During the same period the homicide rate was 10.2 per 100,000 per year. [Statistical Abstract of the US, 1994, #128] (back to text)
12f.There are many reasons these estimates vary widely. In addition to social and economic disincentives for people to seek help, medical data is both scanty and unreliable. For example, of 72 people who reported suicide attempts in an anonymous survey, only 18 (25 percent) sought medical care and 7 (10 percent) were hospitalized. [Meehan, 1992] In addition, hospital records are notoriously unreliable. [Lee RK, 1991; Birkhead, 1993; Blanc, 1993] (back to text)
13.Miller, Ted R. Databook on nonfatal injury: incidence, costs, and consequences Washington, D.C. : Urban Institute Press, 1995. pp166-7. (back to text)
14.Colt, G The Enigma of Suicide 1991, p373 [Summit, NY]. (back to text)
15.Miller, 1995, Databook p167. (back to text)
16.Nat Center for Heath Stats, 39 Monthly Vital Stats Nov 28, 1990; Table 125, CDC, 1992 data. (back to text)
17f.While in most of the world about 3 males kill themselves for each female suicide, in China, India and much of Southeast Asia a majority of suicides are female. The mid-1980s Chinese rates were 17.7 for males and 24.3 for females (per 100,000 population per year); the corresponding US rates were 20.7 and 5.4 (1986). [Li, 1991; Pritchard, 1996] (back to text)
18.Clark, DC, " `Rational' suicide and people with terminal conditions or disabilities." Issues in Law and Medicine 1992 Fall 8(2); p147-66. (back to text)
19f.Comparative international suicide data are particularly unreliable. Religiously devout societies that consider suicide a major sin have low official rates of suicide, but it is unclear how much of this is due to unwillingness to report suicides, especially at the local level. For example, the official suicide rate in Egypt is 0.0/100,000; yet the rate of suicide attempts in Cairo is 38.5/100,000, leading the researchers to state, "Official government records are misleading & do not represent the true rate." [Okasha, 1979] Similarly, the suicide rate in India (1972 data) was 7.8/100,000 but varied by State: from 0.70 in Muslim Jammu and Kashmir to 20.5 in Hindu Kerala. [Headley, p216] (back to text)
20.Phillips DP; Ruth TE "Adequacy of official suicide statistics for scientific research and public policy." Suicide Life Threat Behav 1993 Winter; 23(4):307-19. (back to text)
21.Litman, Robert in Curran, W.J. et al Modern Legal Medicine Psychiatry and Forensic Science [Davis, 1980] p842. (back to text)
22.Stengel, E. Suicide and Attempted Suicide 1964, p39.// Shneidman, E.S. & Farberow, N.L. Clues to Suicide, [New York: McGraw-Hill] 1957, p197-215.// Tuckman, J. "Emotional Content of Suicide Notes" Am J Psychiatry, 1959, 116, p59-63.//Lester, D. The Cruelest Death: the enigma of adolescent suicide, [Phil., Charles Press] 1993, p35. (back to text)
23.Cooper-PN; Milroy-CM "The coroner's system and under-reporting of suicide." Med-Sci-Law 1995 Oct; 35(4): 319-26. (back to text)
24f.A well-known fictional example is the suicide of Willy Loman, in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, who killed himself in a car crash in order to provide life insurance money for his family. (back to text)
25f.A probably apocryphal Irish coroner came up with a verdict of "accidental death" in a self-inflicted gunshot death: "Sure, he was only cleaning the muzzle of the gun with his tongue." [Alvarez, p82] (back to text)
26f.This is the International Classification of Death (ICD) category 797-799. There were ten times as many of these deaths as there were `undetermined' (ICD 980-989) ones, 8.3 times as many as single motor vehicle deaths, and more than the total number of official suicides. Until recently, these `ill-defined' deaths were "systematically overlooked" in suicide studies, as were pedestrian deaths. [Phillips-DP, 1993] (back to text)
27.Wallace, SE and Eser, A, eds. Suicide and Euthanasia, [Knoxville, U Tenn. Press] 1981, p74-76. (back to text)
28f.In prisons, some "suicides" are probably murders committed by guards [Smith, R, 1984]; however, there are also misclassifications in the other direction. For example, in one study of Ohio prisons, L.M. Hayes found 46 suicides in 1981-2; prison records showed 22. [Hayes, 1989] (back to text)
29.Diekstra-RF, Gulbinat W "The epidemiology of suicidal behaviour: a review of three continents." World Health Stat Q 1993 46(1) p52-68. (back to text)
30.Rich, CL et al "San Diego Suicide Study: I. Young vs. Old Subjects" Arch Gen Psychiatry 1986, v43, p577-8. (back to text)
31.Baker SP, The Injury Fact Book [NY, Oxford U Press] 2nd ed, 1992, p65.// Weissman, MM "The epidemiology of suicide attempts, 1960 -1971." Arch Gen Psych 1974 v30 p737-46.//Bland-RC; Newman-SC; Dyck-RJ "The epidemiology of parasuicide in Edmonton." Can-J-Psychiatry. 1994 Oct; 39(8): 391-6. (back to text)
32.Flanders, Stephen Suicide, Published by Facts on File, 1991, p21. (back to text)
33.Garrison-CZ "The study of suicidal behavior in the schools." Suicide-Life-Threat-Behav. 1989 Spring; 19(1): 120-30. (back to text)
34.Colt, Enigma p96. (back to text)
35f.Of several hundred homicides examined, over 25% were overtly victim-provoked or "suicide by means of victim-precipitated homicide." [Wolfgang, 1959][Wolfgang, M "Suicide by means of victim-precipitated homicide." J Clin Experimental Psychopathology and Quarterly Review of Psychiatry and Neurology 1959, v20; 335-49.][Also in Resnik, 1968, pp90-104] (back to text)
36.Hendin, Herbert Suicide in America, 1st ed. 1982, p49 [Norton, NY]. (back to text)
37.Menninger, Karl Man Against Himself, [Harvest/Harcourt, NY], 1938. (back to text)
38.Carroll, James The Winter Name of God [KC, Sheed and Ward] 1975, pp87-8. (back to text)
39.Dunkel, Tom "A Brief Handhold on a Dream" Wash Post, pE1 May 14, 1996. (back to text)
40.Alvarez, A. The Savage God [Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London] 1971, p253. (back to text)
41.Breasted, JH Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt [NY, Scribner's Sons] 1912, pp163-9. (back to text)
42f.Samson, Saul, Saul's armor-bearer, Abimelech, Zimri, Razis, and Achitophel. The precise number (3-to-11) and identity depend on the definition of suicide, whether the Apocrypha are included, and which version of a death one accepts. [Barraclough, 1992] (back to text)
43f.Origen's father was a martyr and he (Origen) reportedly wanted to carry on the family tradition. Dissuaded from this course of action by his mother, he did, however, perform a self-castration. [Rosen, G, 1975] Her views on that are unknown. (back to text)
44.Alvarez, Savage God p49. (back to text)
45.Matthew 5:39; 43-4. (back to text)
46.Tertullian, De Corona, p11, quoted in Rachels, James. The End of Life: Euthanasia and Morality. Oxford and New York; Oxford University Press, 1986, p10. (back to text)
47f.Curiously, the most adamantly anti-suicide religions---Islam, Christianity and Judaism---have had no trouble in coming up with exceptions to the "Thou shalt not kill" principle. Equally interesting is that about the time Christianity came out against suicide, its pacifistic opposition to war and capital punishment also flip-flopped. The price of becoming the Roman State Religion was to defend the State. Thus arose the doctrine of the "just war" and the redefinition of "murder" to mean only the killing of the "innocent". We also eventually arrived at the concepts of "proportionate" and "collateral" damage, whereby even the innocent could be justifiably slaughtered if there were a sufficiently important military objective. There were some nit-picky limitations, but these have been ignored whenever they were inconvenient.
Augustine's justification of killing in war and capital punishment is based on the argument that
such killing is either commanded directly by God (e.g. Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac), or by God's
divinely constituted authority on Earth, that is, lawful government. At the same time, "private
killing" of self (or in self-defense, it would seem) is forbidden.
However, this argument can be turned around not only to permit suicide (e.g. Samson pulling
down the pillars, presumably after an ok from God ["And when Samson destroyed himself, with
his enemies, by the demolition of the building, this can only be excused on the ground that the
Spirit, which performed miracles through him, secretly ordered him to do so." [Augustine, City of
God]]), but to require suicide under some circumstances (e.g. Socrates' drinking poison, as
demanded by the Athenian court [" one who accepts the prohibition against suicide may kill
himself when commanded by one whose orders must not be slighted." [Augustine, ch 26]). This,
of course, makes hash out of the blanket Christian condemnation of suicide. [Battin, 1994,
There is also the problem of distinguishing a genuine divine command from a diabolical one, or
from a psychotic delusion; but that's another issue.
(back to text)
48f. 49. 50f. 51f. 52f. 53. 54. 55. 56f.
48f.Alvarez, Savage God p49. For a more detailed (and acerbic) discussion, see Amundsen, DW "The significancce of innaccurate history in legal considerations of physician-assisted suicide" in Weir, RF (ed) Physician-assisted Suicide 1997, Indiana Univ Press, pp3-32. (back to text)
49.Alvarez, Savage God p50. (back to text)
50f.The stake was to keep the restless ghost from escaping and going back to haunt its old neighborhood; the crossroads were to confuse any ghost---they apparently weren't very good at reading road signs---that escaped the stake, so that it couldn't find its way back home. Busy crossroads were preferred, because the traffic was supposed to discourage the evidently timid ghost from coming out. [Alvarez, part 2, chap 1] In fact, the increase in vehicle traffic due to the automobile has decreased ghost sightings to an all-time low. The last recorded crossroads-cum-stake burial in England was in 1823, when a certain Mr. Griffiths was interred at the intersection of Eaton Street, Grosvenor Place, and King's Road in London [Stengel, 1974 p69]. (back to text)
51f.News from London newspapers around 1860, in a letter from Nicholas Ogarev to his mistress, quoted in E.H. Carr The Romantic Exiles, [MIT Press, 1981; originally London, Gollancz, 1933], p389; cited in Alvarez p43 [Random House ed] (back to text)
52f.Odin, proprietor of Valhalla, was both the God of War and the God of the Hanged. (There was a sacred grove of Odin in Scandinavia where people went to hang themselves, and several popular jump sites on cliffs.) He also held the Poetry and Wisdom portfolios. Valhalla (which apparently functioned like Hilbert's Hotel---always room for one more guest) had 540 doors, and every day its heroes would go out and do battle; every night they would feast and drink and listen to sagas. The Valkyries (Norse maidens who are invariably large blond sopranos in Wagner operas) would serve at the banquets, but also got to ride through the air and visit battles and suicide spots. With their spears, they would choose who were to die and carry them back to Valhalla to take part in the festivities. (back to text)
53.Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1897 (English trans, 1951) p218 [Glencoe, Ill. Free Press]. (back to text)
54.Alvarez, p65 [RH]. (back to text)
55.Alvarez, p67 [RH]. (back to text)
56f.The actual situation was, as always, much more complicated. It seems to have been precipitated by a dispute in Roman North Africa over whether a man, who had evaded martyrdom by co-operating with the authorities, should be a member of the commission that was choosing the local bishop. The faction later known as Donatists said `no' and installed their own candidate.
More generally, the Donatists were natives of North Africa (so was St. Augustine, who was a
Libyan Berber, educated in Carthage) who were resisting Roman domination, and the religious
aspect was one facet of the conflict. The modern-day Coptic Church in Egypt is a descendant of
these early nativist Christians.
(back to text)
57. 58. 59. 60. 61f. 62f.
57.Flanders, Suicide, p10. (back to text)
58.Shakespeare, W. Antony and Cleopatra IV, XV:80-82. (back to text)
59.Battin, M.P. The least worst death: essays in bioethics on the end of life [NY, Oxford Univ Press] 1994, p190. (back to text)
60.Clark, N. The Politics of Physician Assisted Suicide 1997, p35-6 [NY, Garland press]. (back to text)
61f.Goethe's Sorrows of Werther (1774) was found so often with bodies of suicides that Goethe was accused of being a murderer, the book was banned in Leipzig, and the whole Italian edition printing was bought up (and, presumably, destroyed) by the Catholic Church in Milan. [Clarke & Lester, p87] (back to text)
62f.It should be noted that psychological views had appeared previously, as far back as Hippocrates (430-377 b.c.), who argued that people's mental state and character, among other attributes, were due to their predominant "humor" (choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, or sanguine); but most notably Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621. He wrote, "In other diseases there is some hope likely, but these unhappy men are born to misery, past all hope of recovery, incurably sick; the longer they live the worse they are, and death alone must ease them." [part of this quote is in Alvarez, p161]
Burton was also the first Christian in many centuries known to advocate treating suicides with
sympathy and charity: " .what shall become of their souls, God alone can tell .We ought not to
be so rash and rigorous in our censures, as some are: charity will judge best: God be merciful unto
us all!" [Alvarez, p162]
(back to text)
63f. 64f. 65f.
63f.Similar arguments have been made about criminal behavior, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Thus in the Soviet Union, political dissidents were sometimes committed to psychiatric hospitals to be "cured" rather than jails to be "punished". This had the added benefits of allowing a wide range of "treatment", and indefinite incarceration. For a critique of psychiatric imprisonment, see Thomas Szasz, e.g., The Manufacture of Madness, 1977]. (back to text)
64f.It is ironic that killing other people (who, presumably, would prefer not to be killed) often generates less moral disapproval than killing oneself; indeed, some varieties of killing-of-others, such as war, are frequently considered heroic. (back to text)
65f.Or perhaps not. In August, 1995, Oklahoma prison officials found a death-row inmate unconscious from a drug overdose suicide attempt. Robert Brecheen was taken to a hospital where his stomach was pumped. After regaining consciousness, he was returned to the prison, where his scheduled execution was carried out, only two hours late.
Corrections spokesmen claimed they were required to revive Brecheen, citing a 1986 Supreme
Court decision specifying that the condemned "has to be aware of his execution, and he has to
know why he is being executed." ["Inmate Survives Overdose, Is Sent Back for Execution" Wash
Post, Aug. 12, 1995, Sec A, p3.]
(back to text)
66f. 67. 68f. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74. 75. 76f. 77. 78. 79. 80. 81. 82. 83. 84. 85. 86. 87. 88. 89. 90f. 91f. 92f. 93f. 94. 95f. 96. 97. 98. 99. 100. 101. 102. 103f.
66f.We don't live in a philosophical age. (back to text)
67.Droge AJ; Tabor JD, A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity 1992 [HarperSanFransisco, SF]. (back to text)
68f.As a curious aside, there are consistently high suicide rates in both Hungary and Finland, which share the same rare linguistic heritage, Finno-Ugric. (back to text)
69.Retterstol, European 1990, p26. (back to text)
70.Retterstol, European 1990, p14. (back to text)
71.Friedman, P. (ed.) On Suicide p110, [NY, International Universities Press], 1967; quoted in Colt, p194. (back to text)
72.Colt, p58-9. (back to text)
73.Minkoff, K-, Beck AT and Beran RE. "Hopelessness, depression, and attempted suicide." American journal of psychiatry 130:455-459. (back to text)
74.Beck, A.T. et al "Hopelessness and eventual suicide: a 10-year prospective study of patients hospitalized with suicidal ideation." American journal of psychiatry 142:559-563, 1985. See also, Breitbart, W. "Suicide Risk and Pain in Cancer and AIDS Patients," in Current and Emerging Issues in Cancer Pain: Research and Practice, C. R. Chapman and K. M. Foley, eds. (New York: Raven Press, 1993), p49-65. (back to text)
75.Greist, JH et al "A Computer Interview for Suicide Risk Prediction" Am J Psychiatry 130 (12), 1973, pp1327-32. (back to text)
76f.Lest the anti-psychiatry crowd get too smug, note that some anti-depressant drugs (e.g. maprotiline) seem to increase suicidal behavior, as do some tranquilizers (e.g. alprazolam). [Rouillon, 1989; Gardner, 1985] (back to text)
77.Moller, HJ "Efficacy of different strategies of aftercare for patients who have attempted suicide." J R Soc Med. 1989 Nov; 82(11): 643-647.// Montgomery SA, et al "Pharmacotherapy in the prevention of suicidal behavior" J Clin Psychopharmacol 1992 Apr; 12(2 Suppl):27S-31S; comment: J Clin Psychopharmacol 1993 Apr; 13(2):159-60]. (back to text)
78.Hale, AS "Juggling cost and benefit in the long-term treatment of depression." Postgrad Med J 1994, v70 (supp2), s2-s8. (back to text)
79.Haberlandt, W ["Contributions to the Genetics of Suicide"] Folio Clin Int, 1967, 17:319-22 //Hafen, Brent Q and Kathryn J Frandsen Youth Suicide, depression and loneliness" Cordillera Press, 1986, p22.// Little KY, Sparks DL "Brain markers and suicide: can a relationship be found?" J Forensic Sci Nov;35(6):1393-1403. (back to text)
80.Kety, S "Genetic Features in Suicide: Family, Twins, and Adoption Studies" in Blumenthal, SJ and Kupfer DJ, eds Suicide Over the Life Cycle: risk factors, assessment, and treatment of suicidal patients [Am. Psychiatric Press, Wash DC], 1990, pp127-33. (back to text)
81.Langone, J. Dead End, [Little, Brown; Boston] 1986, p32. (back to text)
82.Asberg, M. et al "Biological Factors in Suicide" in Roy, Alec (ed.) Suicide 1986 [Baltimore, Williams and Wilkins].//Asberg, M. in Meltzer, H. (ed.) Psychopharmacology: The Third Generation of Progress, 1987, pp655-668 [NY, Raven Press]. (back to text)
83.Montgomery, SA et al, "Differential effects on suicidal ideation of mianserin, maprotiline and amitriptyline." Brit. J. Clinical Pharmacology 1978;5 (suppl 1), pp 77S-80S.//Inman, WHW. "Blood disorders and suicide in patients taking mianserin or amitriptyline." Lancet 1988; ii pp 90-2. (back to text)
84.Retterstol, European p132. (back to text)
85.Lester, David Why People Kill Themselves: a 1990s summary of research findings on suicidal behavior, 3rd ed [Springfield, Thomas] 1992. (back to text)
86.Retterstol, N. "Norwegian data on death due to overdose of antidepressants." Acta Psych. Scand. 1989, v80 (supp 354) pp61-68. (back to text)
87.David C. Clark, quoted in NY Times April 5, 1994. (back to text)
88.Salk, L et al "Relationship of maternal and perinatal conditions to eventual adolescent suicide." Lancet 1985 Mar 16;1(8429):624-7. (back to text)
89.Jacobson, B et al "Perinatal origin of adult self-destructive behavior." Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 1987, v76 pp364-371. (back to text)
90f.For a lucid description of the genetic basis for altruism, see Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976) and E.O. Wilson On Human Nature, 1978. For its specific application to suicide there is a good NY Times Science article ["Quest for evolutionary meaning in the persistence of suicide"] by Natalie Angier from April 5, 1994. (back to text)
91f.The difference between committing suicide by ramming one's plane into an enemy ship and other hazardous military missions (say, flying in an American bomber over Germany in 1942 or being part of a U-boat crew) may be more one of intent than of result. Only one out of seven German submariners survived the war. (back to text)
92f.The Buddhists were also protesting what they considered the anti-Buddhist laws and policies of the (Catholic) Diem regime. The first self-immolation was sparked by the Diem government's revocation of draft deferments for Buddhist seminary students. (back to text)
93f.More recently, stubborn British authorities have allowed several equally-pigheaded IRA (Irish Republican Army) prisoners to starve themselves to death over such critical issues as what kind of clothing they were to wear in jail. The British wanted them to wear standard prison garb; the prisoners wanted uniforms consistent with their claimed status as prisoners-of-war. (back to text)
94.Hyde, Margaret and Forsyth, Elizabeth Suicide: the Hidden Epidemic 1986, ch 4 [Minneapolis, CompCare]. (back to text)
95f."The Jews are a frightened people. Nineteen centuries of Christian love have broken their nerves." ---Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) (back to text)
96.Coleman, Loren. Suicide Clusters, 1987 p18 [Boston and London, Faber and Faber]. (back to text)
97.Coleman, Clusters p17. (back to text)
98.Wolfgang, Marvin. Patterns in Criminal Homicide 1958 [Phil. U Penn. Press]. (back to text)
99.Marzuk PM; Tardiff K; Hirsch CS "The epidemiology of murder-suicide [see comments]" JAMA 1992 Jun 17; 267(23):3179-83; COMMENT: pp3194-5; [Marzuk, 1992a]].//Holinger Paul C et al Suicide and Homicide among Adolescents, 1994 [NY, Guilford]. (back to text)
100.Marquis, Thomas Keep the Last Bullet for Yourself, 1976; Spencer, JD "George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn: Homicide or Mass Suicide?" J Forensic Sci v28, 1983; Scott, DD "Post-mortem at the Little Bighorn" Natural History v95 (6), June, 1986. (back to text)
101.Colt, Enigma p44. (back to text)
102.Hafen, Youth Suicide p107. (back to text)
103f.Data from Australia show that 103 of 509 suicides (20.2 percent) had blood alcohol levels of at least 0.08 mg/100 ml blood, the "legally-impaired" level.
At autopsy there were usually higher alcohol levels in urine than in blood (1.3 to 1 ratio), implying
" that in the great majority of cases alcohol had been consumed some hours before, and that in
only four instances [out of the 29 studied] was the alcohol most likely to have been taken just
prior to death the act had been committed either during, or in the early hours of the morning
following a period of alcohol consumption." [James, 1966]
(back to text)
104. 105. 106. 107. 108. 109. 110. 111. 112. 113. 114. 115. 116. 117. 118. 119. 120. 121. 122. 123. 124. 125f. 126. 127f. 128. 129. 130. 131. 132. 133. 134. 135. 136. 137. 138. 139. 140. 141. 142. 143. 144. 145. 146. 147. 148f.
104.Goodman, RA et al "Alcohol and fatal injuries in Oklahoma." J Studies on Alcohol 1991, v52;2, pp156-161. (back to text)
105.Nielsen-AS et al "Attempted suicide, suicidal intent, and alcohol." Crisis. 1993; 14(1): 32-8. (back to text)
106.Hendin, Suicide in America 2nd ed, 1995, p42. (back to text)
107.Avis, SP, Hutton CJ "Dyadic suicide. A case study." Am J For Med Path 1994, v15(1) pp18-20. (back to text)
108.Fishbain, DA, Aldrich TE "Suicide pacts: international comparisons." J Clin Psychiat 1985, v46, pp11-15. (back to text)
109.Coleman, Loren Suicide Clusters 1987. (back to text)
110.Gould, M.S. "Suicide Clusters and Media Exposure"; in Blumenthal, Suicide Over the Life Cycle pp517-532. (back to text)
111.Coleman, Loren Suicide Clusters pp107-109. (back to text)
112.Fekete-S, et al. ["The role of imitation in suicidal behavior"] "Az utanzas szerepe az ongyilkos magatartasban." Orv-Hetil. 1992 Jan 5; 133(1): 25-8] (back to text)
113.Karlson-Stiber-C; Persson-H, "Ethylene glycol poisoning: experiences from an epidemic in Sweden" J-Toxicol-Clin-Toxicol. 1992; 30(4): pp565-74. (back to text)
114.Phillips DP; Carstensen LL "Clustering of teenage suicides after television news stories about suicide." N Engl J Med 1986 Sep 11; 315(11):685-9. (back to text)
115.Radecki, Thomas "Deer Hunter Deaths Climb to 43" National Coalition on Television Violence News 7:1-2, Jan-Mar 1986; for a contrary view, see Phillips DP; Paight DJ "The impact of televised movies about suicide. A replicative study." N Engl J Med 1987 Sep 24; 317(13):809-11. (back to text)
116.Yoshida, K et al ["Clustering of suicides under age 20--seasonal trends and the influence of newspaper reports"]. Nippon Koshu Eisei Zasshi, 1991, May; v38(5) pp324-32. (back to text)
117.Jobes DA et al "The Kurt Cobain suicide crisis: perspectives from research, public health, and the news media." Suicide Life Threat Behav 1996 Fall; 26(3):260-69; discussion 269-71. (back to text)
118.Busse, E W., Pfeiffer, E. (eds) Mental illness in later life American Psychiatric Association, 1973 [Am. Psych. Press, Wash, DC]. (back to text)
119.Colt, Enigma, p98. (back to text)
120.Dolce, L. Suicide, p23 [NY, Chelsea House] 1992. (back to text)
121.Henry, A.F. Short, J.F. Jr Suicide and Homicide: Some Economic, Sociological, and Psychological Aspects of Aggression 1954 [Free Press, Glencoe, Ill]. (back to text)
122.Lester D "The association between the quality of life and suicide and homicide rates." J Soc Psychol 1984 Dec;124 (2nd half) :247-248 [1984a].// Lester, D Patterns of Suicide and Homicide in the World, 1996, 45-57 [Commack NY, Nova Science]. (back to text)
123.Lester, D "The Quality of Life and Suicide" J Social Psychology v125, pp279-280, 1985; more on the relationship between economics, suicide and homicide in Gibbs, J. P., Martin, W. T. Status Integration and Suicide: A Sociological Study. Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon Press, 1964. (back to text)
124.Lester, D. and Danto, B. Suicide Behind Bars: prediction and prevention 1993, pp17-20 [Charles press, Phil.]. (back to text)
125f.An alternative explanation for the low suicide rate in concentration camps is that a prisoner who wanted to die would not have to do anything---just stop eating or draw the attention of the guards. (back to text)
126.Kwiet, K. Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, v 29, pp135-168, 1984. [NY, Leo Baeck Inst.] (back to text)
127f.This is also the situation in South Africa, where blacks have higher homicide rates and whites higher suicide rates [Lester, D. " South Africa." 1989] (back to text)
128.Stengel, Erwin Suicide and Attempted Suicide, 1974, p28 [J. Aronson, NY]. (back to text)
129.O'Carroll, Patrick "Suicide Causation; Pies, Paths, and Pointless Polemics" in Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 23(1), 1993, pp27-36. (back to text)
130.Shneidman, E. in Bongar, B (ed) Suicide: guidelines for assessment, management and treatment [Oxford Univ Press, NY] 1992, p6. (back to text)
131.Winslow, F. The Anatomy of Suicide [London, Renshaw], 1840; cited in Alvarez, Savage God p212. (back to text)
132.Stengel, E., Cook, N. Attempted Suicide: Its Social Significance and Effects, 1958, p19 [Greenwood Press, Westport Conn.]. (back to text)
133.Dublin, L. I. Suicide.- A Sociological and Statistical Study. New York: Ronald Press, 1963. (back to text)
134.Litman, Robert in Curran, W.J. et al Modern Legal Medicine Psychiatry and Forensic Science [Davis], 1980 p844. (back to text)
135.Dublin, Statistical Study p10-12. (back to text)
136.Ettlinger, RW, Flordh, P "Attempted Suicide" Acta Psychiatrica et Neurologica Scandinavica, Supplement, 103, 1955; in Stengel p75. (back to text)
137.Plutchik-R et al "Is there a relation between the seriousness of suicidal intent and the lethality of the suicide attempt?" Psychiatry-Res. 1989 Jan; 27(1): 71-9.// Greer S et al "Subsequent progress of potentially lethal attempted suicides" Acta Psychiat Scand 1967, v43 p361.// Peterson, LG "Self-inflicted Gunshot Wounds: Lethality of Method Versus Intent" Am J Psychiatry 1985, 142(2) pp228-31.// Card, JJ "Lethality of Suicidal Methods and Suicide Risk: Two Distinct Concepts" Omega 1974 v5 pp37-45. (back to text)
138.Mann-JJ et al "Neurochemical studies of violent and nonviolent suicide." Psychopharmacol-Bull. 1989; 25(3): 407-13. (back to text)
139.L.A. Times, Sept 20, 1991. (back to text)
140.Garrison-CZ "The study of suicidal behavior in the schools." Suicide-Life-Threat-Behav. 1989 Spring; 19(1): 120-30. (back to text)
141."Fatal and nonfatal suicide attempts among adolescents--Oregon, 1988-1993." MMWR-Morb-Mortal-Wkly-Rep. 1995 Apr 28; 44(16): 312-5, 321-3. (back to text)
142.Marttunen-MJ et al "Suicide among female adolescents: characteristics and comparison with males in the age group 13 to 22 years." J-Am-Acad-Child-Adolesc-Psychiatry. 1995 Oct; 34(10): 1297-307. (back to text)
143.Wilber, CG "Some Thoughts on Suicide" Am J For Med and Path, 1987, 8(4), pp302-8. (back to text)
144.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention MMWR-Morb-Mortal-Wkly-Rep. April 20, 1995. (back to text)
145.Runyan, C. and Gerken, EA "Epidemiology and Prevention of Adolescent Injury: A Review and Research Agenda," Journal of the American Medical Association 1989:262, p2273-79. (back to text)
146.Males, M. "Teen suicide and changing cause-of-death certification, 1953-1987." Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior. 1991; 21(3): 245-259.//Males M. `Reply to Kim Smith, PhD, on "Teen suicide and changing cause of death certification, 1953-1987" ' (SLTB, 21-3). Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior. 1991; 21(4): 402-405. (back to text)
147.Leary, W. "Young people who try suicide may be succeeding more often" NY Times April 21, 1995, Sec A, p15. (back to text)
148f.To put it mildly. I quote from the abstract of a journal article:
"Suicide rates between 1960 and 1989 were explored for eight predominantly English speaking
countries with similar national characteristics. New World countries showed significant similarities
but differed from Old World countries. The two North American (NA) New World countries
showed more similarity to each other than the two Australasian New World countries. The NA
countries showed an unique plateau in the 1980s for males aged 15-29 years. Old World males of
all ages showed common rises, suggesting a partial sex-specific influence in the young. However,
trends among the 15- to 19-year-olds were significantly different to trends among the 20- to
29-year-olds in both sexes suggesting a substantial youth-related contribution to the rises. Rates
among 15- to 19-year-old females rose in the early 1960s, ahead of males but in parallel with rises
among older females, suggesting part of the rise was sex- as opposed to age-related. Although
rates among the 15- to 19-year-old females showed little change since 1970, this may be partly a
function of sex-related improvements observable in older females disguising unfavourable
youth-related influences. Possible aetiological factors are suggested but remain speculative."
(back to text)
149. 150. 151. 152. 153. 154. 155. 156. 157. 158. 159. 160. 161. 162. 163. 164f.
149.Lester, D "Youth Suicide: A Cross-Cultural Perspective" Adolescence 1988, v23, pp955-58. (back to text)
150.Lester-D "Changes in the methods used for suicide in 16 countries from 1960 to 1980." Acta-Psychiatr-Scand. 1990 Mar; 81(3): 260-1. (back to text)
151.Colt, Enigma p48. (back to text)
152.Shneidman, E. Definition of Suicide. [Wiley-Interscience, NY] 1985, p229; in Colt, p312. (back to text)
153.Colt, Enigma, p47. (back to text)
154.Colt, Enigma, p47. (back to text)
155.Pinguet, M. Voluntary Death in Japan, [Polity Press] 1993, p35. (back to text)
156.Busse, E., Pfeiffer, E. Mental Illness in Later Life American Psychiatric Association report, [Am. Psych. Press, Wash DC] 1973, p123-6. (back to text)
157.Leenaars, A in Maris, RW (ed) Pathways to Suicide: A survey of Self-Destructive Behaviors, 1981 [Baltimore, JHU Press], p35. (back to text)
158.McIntosh, J. L. "Suicide Among the Elderly: Levels and Trends" American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1985, 55(2), p288-93. (back to text)
159.Hendin, Suicide in America 2nd ed. 1995, p81. (back to text)
160.Conwell, Y. and Caine, E.D. "Rational Suicide and the Right to Die: Reality and Myth," New England Journal of Medicine 1991, 325: p1100-1103. (back to text)
161.Meehan, P.J. et al "Suicide Among Older United States Residents: Epidemiologic Characteristics and Trends," American Journal of Public Health 1991, 81: p1198-1200// Nat Center for Health Stats, 39 Monthly Vital Stats Nov 28, 1990. (back to text)
162.Osgood, Nancy J. Suicide in later life : recognizing the warning signs New York : Lexington Books, 1992, p15. (back to text)
163.Cooper-PN; Milroy-CM "The coroner's system and under-reporting of suicide." Med-Sci-Law 1995 Oct; 35(4): p319-26. (back to text)
164f.However the use of guns, the most lethal method, is fairly constant in different age groups in the U.S.:
|Percentage of suicides by gunshot|
165.Conwell-Y, Caine-ED, Olsen-K, "Suicide and cancer in late life." Hosp Community Psychiatry. 1990 Dec. 41(12): p1334-9. (back to text)
166.Patel, NS "A study on suicide." Med, Sci, Law v14:2, pp129-136, 1973. (back to text)
167.Eisele JW, et al "Teenage suicide in King County, Washington. II. Comparison with adult suicides." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1987 Sep;8(3):210-6.// Rich, CL et al "San Diego Suicide Study: I. Young vs. Old Subjects" Arch Gen Psychiatry 1986, v43, pp577-8. (back to text)
168.Dorpat, 1960, 1968; Miller, 1979.
Dorpat, T.L., W.F. Anderson and N.S. Ripley. "The Relationship of Physical Illness to Suicide."
in H.L.P. Resnik, ed., Suicidal Behaviors: Diagnosis and Management., 1968// Dorpat, T.L. and
N.S. Ripley. "A study of Suicide in the Seattle Area" Comprehensive Psychiatry 1960, v1
pp349-59.//Miller, M Suicide after Sixty: The Final Alternative [NY, Springer] 1979.
(back to text)
169. 170. 171. 172. 173. 174. 175. 176. 177. 178. 179f. 180. 181. 182. 183. 184. 185. 186. 187. 188. 189. 190. 191. 192f. 193. 194. 195f.
169.Barraclough, Brian Suicide: Clinical & Epidemiological Studies. [Routledge Chapman & Hall, Croom Helm UK], 1987. (back to text)
170.Lee MA; Ganzini L "Depression in the elderly: effect on patient attitudes toward life-sustaining therapy" [see comments] J Am Geriatr Soc 1992 Oct; 40(10):983-8; comment: J Am Geriatr Soc 1993 Mar; 41(3):345-6. (back to text)
171.Cicirelli VG "Relationship of psychosocial and background variables to older adults' end-of-life decisions." Psychology and Aging 1997 Mar;12(1):72-83. (back to text)
172.Ganzini L. et al "The effect of depression treatment on elderly patients' preferences for life-sustaining medical therapy" [see comments] Am J Psychiatry 1994 Nov; 151(11):1631-6. (back to text)
173.Lester, David; Tallmer, Margot Now I lay me down : suicide in the elderly Philadelphia : Charles Press, 1994; p9. (back to text)
174.Shneidman, E. S., Farberow, N. L. (eds.). Clues to Suicide. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1957.// Leenaars AA "Suicide across the adult life-span: an archival study." Crisis 1989 Oct;10(2):132-151. (back to text)
175.Trends in Indian Health www.tucson.ihs.gov. (back to text)
176.Phillips DP; Ruth TE "Adequacy of official suicide statistics for scientific research and public policy." Suicide Life Threat Behav 1993 Winter; 23(4):307-19. (back to text)
177.Stengel, E. Suicide and Attempted Suicide 1974, p23. (back to text)
178.Kreitman, N., and Platt, S. "Suicide, unemployment, and domestic gas detoxification in Britain." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 1984, v38, pp-1-6. (back to text)
179f.Perhaps it would be more useful to turn the question around and ask, under what circumstances is suicide rational. G. C. Graber argues that suicide is rationally justified "if a reasonable appraisal of the situation reveals that one is really better off dead." [Graber, p65] Indeed. (back to text)
180.Drake, R.E. et al "Suicide among schizophrenics" Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 1984; v17; pp 613-617. (back to text)
181.Guze, S.B. and E. Robins, "Suicide and primary affective disorders" British Journal of Psychiatry 1970, v117, pp437-448. (back to text)
182.Clark, DC Issues in Law and Medicine 1992 p147-66// higher alcohol figure from F. Lemere, "What Happens to Alcoholics" Am. J. Psychiatry 1953, v109, p674-6// 2-3.4% in Murphy, GE, and Wetzel, R. "The Lifetime Risk of Suicide in Alcoholism" Arch Gen Psych, 1990 (Apr), v47, pp383-392. (back to text)
183.Clark, DC. Issues in Law and Medicine 1992 p147-66// Mackenzie TB "Medical Illness and suicide" in Blumenthal SJ and Kupfer DJ, eds Suicide Over the Life Cycle Am. Psych. Assn. Press, 1990, p205-232.// Whitlock, FA "Suicide and Physical Illness" in Roy, Alec (ed) Suicide, 1988.//Danto, Bruce in Wallace, SE and Eser, A, eds. Suicide and Euthanasia, 1981, pp26-35.// Dorpat, T.L., W.F. Anderson and N.S. Ripley. "The Relationship of Physical Illness to Suicide." In H.L.P. Resnik, ed., Suicidal Behaviors.// Miller, 1979. (back to text)
184.Quill, TE "Physician-assisted death: progress or peril?" Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 1994, 24;4, p317. (back to text)
185.Ellis, Frederick, NY Times, Sept 23, 1995. (back to text)
186.David Eddy, JAMA July 20, 1994; Vol. 272(3), pp179-181. (back to text)
187.Maris, RW in Leenaars, A (ed) Pathways to Suicide: A survey of Self-Destructive Behaviors, 1991, p35. (back to text)
188.Barraclough BM, et al "A Hundred Cases of Suicide: Clinical Aspects", Brit. Journal of Psychiatry 1974, 125, pp355-73. (back to text)
189.Robins, E. The Final Months: a study of the lives of 134 persons who committed suicide [New York : Oxford University Press], 1981. (back to text)
190.Leonard, CV Understanding and Preventing Suicide, [Springfield, Ill. Thomas] 1967. (back to text)
191.Temoche, A. et al "Suicide Rates Among Current and Former Mental Institution Patients" J Nerv and Mental Disease, 1964 v138, pp124-130. (back to text)
192f.Actually, 93 percent [Barraclough, 1974] or even 100 percent [Leonard, p273]. (back to text)
193.Colt, p 343.// Hendin pp189-90// Temoche, A. et al "Suicide Rates Among Current and Former Mental Institution Patients" J Nerv and Mental Disease, 1964 v138, pp124-130. (back to text)
194.Lann, IS et al (eds) "Strategies for studying suicide and suicidal behavior." Suicide and Life-threatening Behav v19, pp1-146, 1989. (back to text)
195f.One historical impetus for this view is that both European (and European-colonized) states and the Catholic Church inflicted severe penalties for suicide (confiscation of property and unconsecrated burial, respectively)---unless the deceased was insane. Thus, there was a tendency for sympathetic coroners (and later, psychiatrists) to find that, in English common-law language, the individual killed himself "while the balance of his mind was disturbed."
And while suicide is associated with mental illness in the West, "In numerous other non-western
cultures the association of suicide with mental illness seems to be much less strong. and in some
cultures is quite low." [Battin Issues, p6] These are societies where philosophic or institutional
suicide is common, e.g. Japan, or India. [Farberow, 1975]
It is also cautionary to remember that until 1973 homosexuality was classified as a psychiatric
pathology---a mental disease in need of treatment---by the American Psychiatric Association.
(back to text)
196. 197. 198. 199. 200. 201. 202. 203. 204. 205. 206. 207. 208. 209. 210. 211. 212. 213f.
196.Green, BR; Irish, DP (eds) Death Education: Preparation for Living [Cambridge MA, Schenkman] 1971, p120; quoted in Colt, Enigma p343. (back to text)
197.Robins, E. et al "Some Clinical Considerations in the Prevention of Suicide Based on a Study of 134 Successful Suicides" A J Pub Health, 1959, v49, pp888-99. (back to text)
198.Szasz, T. "The Ethics of Suicide" The Antioch Review, Spring, 1971, v31 pp7-17. (back to text)
199.Slater, E "Choosing the Time to Die" in Battin M and Mayo D (eds) Suicide: the Philosophical Issues [NY, St.Martin's] 1980, p202-3. (back to text)
200.Hendin Suicide in America, 1982 p224-5. (back to text)
201.Langone, John Dead End 1986 p146. (back to text)
202.Michel K; Valach L; Waeber V "Understanding deliberate self-harm: the patients' views." Crisis 1994; 15(4):172-8. (back to text)
203.Stengel, Erwin Suicide and Attempted Suicide, 1964 p113, supra note 4. (back to text)
204.Hendin, Suicide in America, 1982 p211. (back to text)
205.Rosen, DH "Suicide survivors. A follow-up study of persons who survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge" Western Journal of Medicine 1975, v122, p289-94.//Rosen, DH "The Serious Suicide Attempt: Five Year Follow Up Study of 886 Patients" JAMA, 1976, v235(19), p2105-09. (back to text)
206.Dahlgren, KG "Attempted Suicides 35 Years Afterward" Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, 1977, 7(2); p75-79. (back to text)
207.Hafen, Brent Q and Kathryn J Frandsen Youth Suicide, depression and lonliness, 1986, p 20. (back to text)
208.van Aalst, JA et al "Long-term follow-up of unsuccessful violent suicide attempts: risk factors for subsequent attempts." J-Trauma. 1992 Sep; 33(3): 457-64. (back to text)
209.80 percent figure in Hafen, B. Youth Suicide, 1986; 40% in G. M. Asnis et al., "Suicidal Behaviors in Adult Psychiatric Outpatients, I:Description and Prevalence," American Journal of Psychiatry, 1993, v150: 108-12. Other data in Colt, p98; more refs in Hendin, (1995) [23,24] p291; Rich, CL Arch Gen Psychiatry v43, 1986 pp577-8; Robins, E in Roy Suicide 1986, p129. (back to text)
210.Colt, p238. (back to text)
211.Hendin, 1982 p219. (back to text)
212.Scheinin, Anne-Grace "The Burden of Suicide" Newsweek 1983, Feb 7, p13; in Colt, p229. (back to text)
213f.Lithium is an interesting drug---a simple metal ion like sodium or potassium---that seems to work for reasons that aren't understood. The effect of lithium on suicide rates is in dispute. Some studies found the death rate for long term lithium-treated manic-depressive or schizo-affective patients to be about the same as, or lower than, that of the general population. Without treatment their mortality rate is 2-3 times higher. [Muller-Oerlinghausen, 1992; Coppen, 1991]
Unfortunately, their findings are contradicted by other data showing that both natural- and
suicide-deaths were higher in the lithium-using group. [Vestergaard, 1991]
There's a fascinating study from Texas that claims the rates of suicide, homicide, rape, robbery,
burglary, and theft are all significantly lower in counties whose drinking water is high in lithium.
The authors suggest that lithium moderates aggressive behavior, which is consistent with some
other reports, and go on to suggest adding lithium to municipal (and prison) water supplies as a
means of crime reduction. They may have found a path to world peace---or to Brave New World
(back to text)
214. 215. 216. 217f.
214.Colt, p229. (back to text)
215.Shaffer, D.J. "The Epidemiology of Teen Suicide: An Examination of Risk Factors" Journal-of-Clinical-Psychiatry; 1988, 49, supplement, Sept, 36-41. (back to text)
216.Motto, J.A., D.C. Heilbron and R.P. Juster. "Development of a clinical instrument to estimate suicide risk." American Journal of Psychiatry 142:6; 1985; 680-685. (back to text)
217f.One major problem with identifying potential suicides is that any current screening test or combination of tests that picks up a significant number of people intending suicide generates too many "false positives". (This is a general problem in the use of screening tests for uncommon occurrences. [Rosen, 1954]) Thus any currently-available screen that will detect, say 80 out of 100 future suicides will also (besides missing 20 suicides) wrongly identify many non-suicidal people as suicidal for each correct identification.
The problem is one of designing tests with both high selectivity and high sensitivity. A highly
selective screen is one that distinguishes people intending suicide from all others. An example of
a selective screen population might be the set of all people standing on the edge of a cliff, holding
a gun to their head. A large fraction of such people are probably suicidal; there will be few false
positives. The difficulty with such a selective screen is that it is not very sensitive---it might only
pick up one suicide in a thousand since few meet the screen's criteria.
On the other hand a highly sensitive filter, for example, one that picks out all people who are one
or more of: schizophrenic, depressed, alcoholic, lonely, hopeless, elderly, a psychiatrist or female
physician, have made a previous attempt, or have a family history of suicide, might pick up 90
percent of suicides---but also scores of non-suicidal people for each genuinely suicidal one. Such
a sensitive test is too unselective to be very useful.
(back to text)
218. 219. 220. 221. 222. 223f. 224. 225. 226. 227. 228. 229. 230. 231. 232. 233. 234. 235. 236. 237. 238f.
218.Pokorny AD "Prediction of suicide in psychiatric patients. Report of a prospective study."Arch Gen Psychiatry 1983 Mar; 40(3):249-57; also cited in Colt, p310. (back to text)
219.Greist, JH et al "A Computer Interview for Suicide Risk Prediction" Am J Psychiatry, 1973, 130 (12) pp1327-32; also in Colt, p311. (back to text)
220.Mack, J. E., Hickler, H. Vivienne.- The Life and Suicide of an Adolescent Girl. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981. (back to text)
221.Colt, G The Enigma of Suicide 1991, p39. (back to text)
222.Stoney, G `FAQ'. [email@example.com OR www.grohol.com/helpme.htm] (back to text)
223f.However, note the non-parallel language here: "Two wished to survive two said they did not, but one of the latter two who professed to be furious " [Italics added.] (back to text)
224.Hendin, 1982, p210. (back to text)
225.Seiden, RH "Where are they now? A follow-up study of suicide attempters from the Golden Gate Bridge." Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior v8 1978, pp203-16, quoted in Colt, p333;// also Seiden, R "Suicide Prevention: A Public Health/Public Policy Approach" Omega, 1977, v8, pp267-76. (back to text)
226.Rosen, DH "Suicide Survivors: Psychotherapeutic Implications of Egocide" Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 1976-b, 6(4), p209-15 [quoted in Colt, p333]; "Death Watch at the Golden Gate" Wash Post, July 7, 1995, Sec A, p3; Rosen 1975; Rosen 1976-a. (back to text)
227.Heimerzheim, W , cited in Choron, Suicide [NY, Scribner's Sons], 1972, p50. (back to text)
228.Retterstol, N Suicide: A European Perspective, 1990, p188-9. (back to text)
229.Farberow, NL Genetic Psychology Monographs 1950, 42, pp3-79; Hendin, H. "Suicide" in "Psychiatric Emergencies" in Freedman, A.M. et al, (eds) A Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 1967, p1173. (back to text)
230.Hendin, 1995, p198. (back to text)
231.Colt, p311. (back to text)
232.Doyle, B.B. "Crisis Management of the Suicidal Patient" in Blumenthal SJ and Kupfer DJ, eds Suicide Over the Life Cycle Am. Psych Assn Press, 1990, p382. (back to text)
233.Rosen, DH "View from the Bridge" JAMA, 1985, 254:3314; quoted in Blumenthal, p382. (back to text)
234.Robins, E. et al "Some Clinical Considerations in the Prevention of Suicide Based on a Study of 134 Successful Suicides" Am. J. Public Health v49, 1959, pp888-898. (back to text)
235.Barraclough BM, et al "A Hundred Cases of Suicide: Clinical Aspects", 125 Brit. Journal of Psychiatry, 1974 pp355-73.// Obafunwa-JO; Busuttil A "Clinical contact preceding suicide." Postgrad Med J 1994 june; 70(824) pp428-32. (back to text)
236.Michel K ["Suicide and suicide prevention. Could the physician do more? Results of a questionnaire of relatives of suicide attempters and suicide victims"] Schweiz Med Wochenschr 1986 Jun 7; 116(23):770-4. (back to text)
237.Obafunwa JO; Busuttil A "Clinical contact preceding suicide." Postgrad Med J 1994 Jun; 70(824):428-32. (back to text)
238f.Older anti-depressants---TCAs (tri-cyclic antidepressants) and MAOIs (mono amine oxidase inhibitors)---are both more toxic and have significant unpleasant side-effects; thus patients tend to take them in sub-therapeutic doses. As a result, such people are more likely to remain depressed and have a highly lethal drug available for a suicidal overdose.
More recent SSRI (serotonin-specific re-uptake inhibitor) drugs are not much more effective than
TCAs, but are safer and have fewer side effects. [Montgomery, 1995] There is a new class of
drug currently (9/98) undergoing clinical testing. These drugs block a poorly-understood brain
chemical called "substance P" that seems to be associated with emotion. [Kramer, 1998]
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239. 240. 241. 242. 243. 244f. 245. 246. 247. 248f. 249f. 250. 251. 252. 253. 254. 255. 256f.
239.Black, DW et al "Suicide in Subtypes of Major Affective Disorder" Arch Gen Psych, 1987 v44 pp898-9.// Martin-AJ; Tebbs-VM; Ashford-JJ "Affective disorders in general practice. Treatment of 6000 patients with fluvoxamine" Pharmatherapeutica; 1987; 5(1); 40-49. (back to text)
240.Prien, RF; Kupfer, DJ "Continuation drug therapy for major depressive episodes: how long should it be maintained?" Am J Psychiatry 1986 Jan;143(1):18-23. (back to text)
241.Slaby, Andrew Edmund; Garfinkel, Lili No one saw my pain : why teens kill themselves New York : Norton, 1994, p11. (back to text)
242.Marzuk PM, et al "Use of prescription psychotropic drugs among suicide victims in New York City." Am J Psychiatry 1995 Oct;152(10):1520-2. (back to text)
243.Isacsson-G, et al "Use of antidepressants among people committing suicide in Sweden" Br-Med-J (British-Medical-Journal); 1994; 308 (Feb 19); 506-509. (back to text)
244f.Despite its checkered history, ECT (electro-convulsive threapy; electric shock) is the single most effective treatment for major depression. It's not the first thing to do, but is certainly worth trying for people for whom other methods have failed to help. [SAM, p9] (back to text)
245.Rouillon, F. "[Recurrence of unipolar depression and efficacy of maprotiline]." L'Encephale, 1989, v15, pp527-534; cited in Mann, J. et al. "The emergence of suicidal ideation and behavior during antidepressant pharmacotherapy." Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1991 Nov; 48(11): 1027-1033. (back to text)
246.Mann, J. "The emergence of suicidal ideation and behavior during antidepressant pharmacotherapy." Arch Gen Psych v48, pp1027-1033, 1991 [Review article].// Montgomery, SA "Suicide and antidepressants." Drugs v43 (Supp 2) pp24-31, 1992.//Rothschild, AJ; Locke, CA "Reexposure to fluoxetine after serious suicide attempts by three patients: the role of akathisia." J Clin Psychiatry 1991 Dec v52(12) pp491-3. (back to text)
247.refs in Hendin, 1995, p208-10.// Bridge, TP et al "Suicide prevention centers. Ecological study of effectiveness." J Nerv and Mental Disease, 1977, v164, pp18-24.// Lester, D. "Effect of Suicide Prevention Centers on Suicide Rates in the United States" Health Services Reports, 1974 Jan-Feb; v89#1, pp37-39. (back to text)
248f.Most families use a professional cleaning service, but find that they need to scrub the area again. [Van-Dongen, 1991] (back to text)
249f.To argue, as some do, that suicide should be prohibited because of its damaging effects on other people is a two-edged sword; it can be turned around to recommend or require suicide when that act could be shown to benefit others. (back to text)
250.Van-Dongen-CJ "Experiences of family members after a suicide." J-Fam-Pract. 1991 Oct; 33(4): 375-80. (back to text)
251.Van Dongen, 1991. (back to text)
252.Roy, A (ed) Suicide, 1986. (back to text)
253.Nuland, Sherwin B. How we die : reflections on life's final chapter, 1994 New York : A.A. Knopf, p156. (back to text)
254.Kastenbaum, R. "Suicide as the Preferred Way of Death" in Shneidman, E. (ed) Suicidology: Contemporary Developments, [Grune and Stratton, NY] 1976, pp425-41.// Barrington, MR "Apologia for Suicide" in Downing, AB (ed.) Euthanasia and the Right to Death, [LA, Nash] pp152-170 (1969). (back to text)
255.Biskup, Michael (ed.) Suicide: Opposing Viewpoints, [Greenhaven Press] 1992. See also, Wallace, SE and Eser, A, eds. Suicide and Euthanasia, 1981; Shneidman E. (ed) Suicidology: Contemporary Developments, 1976; Battin MP and David J. Mayo (eds) Suicide; the Philosophical Issues, [New York : St. Martin's Press], 1980; Battin, MP Ethical Issues in Suicide, [Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall] 1995. (back to text)
256f.Physical pain should almost never be severe enough that suicide is chosen---but it often is. While some dying patients kill themselves in order to achieve a sense of dignity, self-determination, and control over their lives, even in terminal illness " persistent and intense suicide thinking is rare in the absence of depression or of uncontrolled physical symptoms such as pain." [Breitbart, 1990a]. Despite the availability of effective drugs, a majority of medical patients who committed suicide had inadequately controlled severe pain [Bolund, 1985]
The unwillingness of too many physicians to provide adequate pain medication, even to dying
people, is well documented---and inexcusable: " the most common reason for unrelieved pain in
U.S. hospitals is the failure of staff to routinely assess pain and pain relief." [American Pain
Society, 1992] Seventy-six percent of cancer specialists expressed similar views. [Von Roenn,
There have been attempts to teach physicians better pain management, but this has not been a
generally high priority. In my opinion, this problem will not go away as long as pain-medication
decisions remain in the hands of the physician rather than the patient.
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257. 258. 259f. 260. 261f. 262. 263. 264. 265. 266. 267. 268. 269. 270. 271. 272. 273. 274. 275. 276. 277. 278. 279. 280. 281. 282. 283.
257.Nuland, How We Die p151. (back to text)
258.Biskup, M (ed.) Suicide: Opposing Viewpoints, p20; from Momeyer, R.W. Confronting Death, [Bloomington: Indiana University Press], 1988. (back to text)
259f.However, this "limited-paternalist" argument, that someone else can decide what is in a person's best interests when the latter's thinking is impaired, can turned around to require euthanasia when death is seen to be in the person's interest. (back to text)
260.Logue, Barbara Last rights : death control and the elderly in America [New York : Lexington Books] 1993, p81-83. (back to text)
261f.And nothing has only one effect. For example, Haloperidol [Haldol] is a drug widely used with schizophrenic or psychotic patients. Because of its sedative effects, it's often the drug-of-choice to control aggressive or agitated behavior. However, following large doses, serious "side-effects" (i.e., not the effects one wants) are common: "Herein is an example of a medication administered as a modality of psychiatric therapy that has possible side reactions that sound like a symptomatic litany of a major disease." [Tedeschi, pp1206-7] (back to text)
262.Brandt, A. Reality Police: the Experience of Insanity in America [NY, Morrow] 1975, p146; quoted in Colt, Enigma p342. (back to text)
263.Hendin, p231, 1995. (back to text)
264.Gibbs J.P. "Rates of Mental Hospitalization: A Study of Societal Reaction to Deviant Behavior" Am. Sociological Review v27 p782-92, 1962. (back to text)
265.Wenger, DL; Fletcher, R "The effect of legal counsel on admissions to a state mental hospital: a confrontation of professions." J. Health and Social Behavior v10(1), p66-72, 1969. (back to text)
266.Ennis, B., Litwack, T "Psychiatry and the Presumption of Expertise"; Greenberg, D. "Involuntary Psychiatric Committments"; Dix, G " `Civil' Commitment of the Mentally Ill and the Need for Data in Prediction of Dangerousness" [3 articles] in American Behavioral Scientist v19 pp318-334, 1976. (back to text)
267.Hendins, 1982, p210. (back to text)
268.Ellis, F. in NY Times Sept 23, 1995, Letter to Editor. (back to text)
269.Hendin, p217, 1995. (back to text)
270.Taiminen, T et al "A suicide epidemic in a psychiatric hospital." Suicide and Life-threatening behavior, 1992, v22(3), pp350-63. (back to text)
271.Moss, LM. Hamilton, DM. "The Psychotherapy of the Suicidal Patient" Am. J Psychiatry, 1956, v112 pp814-20; cited in Hendin, 1982, p190. (back to text)
272.Litman, R. Farberow, N "The Hospital's Obligation Toward Suicide-Prone Patients" Hospitals, Dec 16, 1966, v40, no.24 pp64-68. (back to text)
273.Hendin p217-8, 1995. (back to text)
274.Seiden RH, "Suicide Among Youth: A Review of the Literature, 1900-1967" Supp to Bul of Suicidology, Dec 1969, p415. (back to text)
275.Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the Masses, 1932. [NY, WW Norton, 1993] (back to text)
276.Choron, 1972, p4. (back to text)
277.Choron, p105. (back to text)
278.Holmes, VF "Suicide Among Physicians" citing AMA, Physician Mortality and Suicide, 1986, in Blumenthal SJ and Kupfer DJ, eds Suicide Over the Life Cycle Am. Psych Press, 1990, p599. (back to text)
279.Thomas, CB "What Becomes of Medical Students: the Dark Side" Johns Hopkins Med J, 1976, 138:185-95; in Blumenthal, p599. (back to text)
280.Scientific American Medicine, 1995 13/II/7. (back to text)
281.Rich CL "Suicide by Psychiatrists" J Clin Psych, 1980 41(8):261-3; also in Blumenthal, p601. (back to text)
282.Schlicht-SM et al, "Suicide and related deaths in Victorian doctors." Med-J-Aust. 1990 Nov 5; 153(9): 518-21. (back to text)
283.Heim, E "Job stressors and coping in health professions."
Psychotherapy and Psychomatics 1991; v55(2-4) pp90-9.
(back to text)
284. 285. 286. 287. 288. 289. 290. 291. 292. 293. 294. 295. 296. 297. 298. 299f. 300.
284.Wekesser, C. Euthanasia: Opposing Viewpoints [Greenhaven] 1984, p21. (back to text)
285.Battin, MP The Least Worst Death Oxford, 1994, p13. (back to text)
286.The President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research, Deciding to Forego Life-sustaining Treatment (Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, 1983), p102. (back to text)
287.Logue, Last Rights p68. (back to text)
288.Aries, Philippe. Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present [Baltimore, JHU Press], 1974. (back to text)
289.Pridonoff, J; in Wekesser, C (ed.) Euthanasia: Opposing Viewpoints, 2nd ed [Greenhaven press] 1995, p74. (back to text)
290.Bolund C: "Suicide and cancer: I. Demographic and social characteristics of cancer patients who committed suicide in Sweden, 1973-1976." Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 1985, 3(1): 17-30.// Bolund C: "Suicide and cancer: II. Medical and care factors in suicides by cancer patients in Sweden, 1973-1976." Journal of Psychosocial Oncology, 1985, 3(1): 31-52.// Fox BH, Stanek EJ, Boyd SC, et al.: "Suicide rates among cancer patients in Connecticut." Journal of Chronic Disease, 1982, 35: 89-100. (back to text)
291.Kasting, G.A. in Humber, JM Almeder, RF Kasting, GA (eds) Physician-assisted Death in Biomedical Ethics Reviews (series),[Totowa NJ, Humana Press] 1993, pp25-45. (back to text)
292.Kamisar, Y. "Some Non-religious Views Against Proposed `Mercy-killing' Legislation," Minnesota Law Review, 1958, 42, pp969-1042. (back to text)
293.Shavelson, Lonny A chosen death : the dying confront assisted suicide New York,: Simon& Schuster, 1995, p221. (back to text)
294.Ogden, Russell Euthanasia and assisted suicide in persons with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) [New Wesminster, B.C. : Peroglyphics Pub.], 1994, p10; [from Vancouver Sun]. (back to text)
295.Battin, MP The Least Worst Death Oxford, 1994, p107. (back to text)
296.Quill, T.E. "Death and Dignity: A Case of Individualized Decision Making" New England Journal of Medicine, 1991 Mar-7, v324 (10) pp691-4; see also his August 18, 1993 JAMA article entitled "Doctor, I Want to Die. Will You Help Me?" v270 (7), pp870-3]). (back to text)
297.Cox, D.W. Hemlock's Cup, Prometheus, 1993, pp234-7. (back to text)
298.Flew, Anthony in Carse, J.P. and A.B. Dallery, (eds) Death and Society: a book of readings and sources, [Harcourt, NY] 1977, pp101-2. (back to text)
299f.There is debate about the boundaries, as when an adolescent boy recently (1995) refused to continue anti-cancer chemotherapy. "It is now the case that a child patient whose competence is in doubt will be found rational if he or she accepts the proposal to treat but may be found incompetent if he or she disagrees." [Devereux, 1993] (back to text)
300.Bajwa K, Szabo E, Kjellstrand CM "A prospective study of risk factors and decision making in discontinuation of dialysis." Arch Intern Med 1996 Dec 9-23;156(22):2571-7.
Roberts, JC; Kjellstrand, CM "Choosing death. Withdrawal from chronic dialysis without medical
reason."Acta Medica Scand, v223, pp181-6, 1988.
(back to text)
301f.Since potassium build-up is one of the dangerous consequences of kidney failure, a dialysis-withdrawal patient could speed up his/her death by eating potassium-containing salt-substitutes [see Drug chapter] or high-potassium foods, like avocados.
About 23,000 Americans started long-term dialysis in 1983; only 6,000 received kidney
transplant, due to a lack of kidney donors. If you plan on killing yourself, it would be a
thoughtful gesture to fill out an organ donor card beforehand.
(back to text)
302. 303. 304. 305. 306f. 307. 308. 309f. 310. 311. 312. 313. 314. 315. 316. 317. 318. 319. 320. 321. 322. 323. 324. 325. 326f. 327. 328. 329. 330. 331. 332. 333. 334. 335. 336. 337. 338. 339. 340. 341. 342f. 343. 344f. 345. 346. 347. 348. 349. 350. 351f. 352. 353f. 354f. 355. 356f. 357f. 358f. 359. 360. 361. 362. 363f.
302.Catalano-C, et al "Withdrawal of renal replacement therapy in Newcastle upon Tyne: 1964-1993." Nephrol-Dial-Transplant. 1996 Jan; 11(1): 133-9. (back to text)
303.Schloendorf v. Society of New York Hospital, 211 N.Y. 125 (1914); cited in Battin, Ethical Issues in Suicide, 1982, p18. (back to text)
304.In re Quinlan, 355 A. 2d 647, 1976, p15. (back to text)
305.David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary London, 1898 vol 2 pp410-12; cited in Alvarez, pp165-6. (back to text)
306f.The essay from which this is quoted was not published until 1777, after Hume's death, and was promptly suppressed. (back to text)
307.Barnard, C Good Life/Good Death, [Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall] 1980, p88; also in Colt, p359. (back to text)
308.Biskup, M. (ed) Suicide: Opposing Viewpoints, p22; [from Momeyer, R. Confronting Death 1988.] (back to text)
309f.His 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon, is, I think, the finest book about the Soviet purge trials of the 30's. The main character's confession was quoted from memory in the Czech trials of the early 50's by a doomed defendant who used it to simultaneously "confess" to imaginary crimes and to mock the proceedings. (back to text)
310.Exit: A Guide to Self-Deliverance Exec. Committee of Exit, London 1981, preface, p3; quoted in Colt, p373. (back to text)
311.Battin Ethical Issues in Suicide, 1982, p191; more detail in Nuland, How We Die. (back to text)
312.Kolata, Gina "AIDS patients seek solace in suicide but many risk added pain in failure" The New York Times, June 14, 1994, Sec C, p1. (back to text)
313.Battin, MP The Least Worst Death, 1994, p112-113. (back to text)
314.Battin M "Suicide" in Reich, W Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 1995, [NY, MacMillan] pp2444-2449. (back to text)
315.Kolata, Gina "AIDS patients seek solace " NY Times, June 14, 1994. (back to text)
316.Bindels-PJ et al "Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in homosexual men with AIDS." Lancet. 1996 Feb 24; 347(9000): 499-504. (back to text)
317.Kuhse, H; Singer, P "Doctors' practices and attitudes regarding voluntary euthanasia." Medical Journal of Australia, 1988 Jun 20;148(12):623-7. (back to text)
318.Baume-P et al. "Euthanasia: attitudes and practices of medical practitioners" Med-J-Aust. 1994 Jul 18; 161(2): 137, 140, 142-4. (back to text)
319.Survey of California Physicians Regarding Voluntary Euthanasia for the Terminally Ill, National Hemlock Society, 1988; cited in Singer, Peter Rethinking life & death : the collapse of our traditional ethics [Melbourne, Australia : Text Pub. Co.], 1994, p155. (back to text)
320.Slome, Lee R. et al "Physician-assisted suicide and patients with human immunodeficiency virus disease." New England Journal of Medicine 1997 Feb 6;336(6):417-421. (back to text)
321.Meier DE, et al "A national survey of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in the United States." N Engl J Med 1998 Apr 23;338(17):1193-1201.//Goold SD. "Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in the United States." N Engl J Med. 1998 Sep 10; 339(11): 776.//Hendin H. "Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia in the United States." N Engl J Med. 1998 Sep 10; 339(11): 775-776. (back to text)
322.Asch-DA "The Role of Critical Care Nurses in Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide" N-Engl-J-Med. 1996 May 23; 334(21): 1374-9. (back to text)
323.Kinsella TD, Verhoef MJ "Alberta euthanasia survey: 1. Physicians' opinions about the morality and legalization of active euthanasia." Can Med Assn J 1993 Jun 1;148(11):1921-1926. Part2: pp1929-33. (back to text)
324.Onwuteake-Philipsen, BD et al "Attitudes of Dutch general practitioners and nursing home physicians to active voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide." Arch-Fam-Med. 1995 Nov; 4(11): 951-5. (back to text)
325.Cohen-JS, et al. "Attitudes toward assisted suicide and euthanasia among physicians in Washington State" N-Engl-J-Med. 1994 Jul 14; 331(2): 89-94. (back to text)
326f.After considerable thought, I still fail to see any ethical basis for this distinction. If committing suicide is ever appropriate, then assistance (in such a case) would also seem appropriate. But then, I'm not administering the lethal dose. (back to text)
327.Arnold, R.M. et al "Taking care of patients--does it matter whether the physician is a woman? Western Med J 1988 Dec: 149(6) pp729-33. (back to text)
328.Lee MA, et al "Legalizing assisted suicide--views of physicians in Oregon" [see comments] N Engl J Med 1996 Feb 1; 334(5):310-5; Comment: N Engl J Med 1996 Aug 15; 335(7):518; discussion 519-20. (back to text)
329.Bachman, JG et al "Attitudes of Michigan physicians and the public toward legalizing physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia." N-Engl-J-Med. 1996 Feb 1; 334(5): p303-9. (back to text)
330.Doukas-DJ, et al. "Attitudes and behaviors on physician-assisted death: a study of Michigan oncologists." J-Clin-Oncol. 1995 May; 13(5): 1055-61. (back to text)
331.American Medical News, Dec. 20, 1993; [again "AMA Delegates Assail Assistance in Suicides" Washington Post June 26, 1996, Sec A, p3]. (back to text)
332.Council on Scientific Affairs and Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs. "Persistent vegetative state and the decision to withdraw or withhold life support."JAMA 1990 Jan 19;263(3):426-30. (back to text)
333.Richardson, L. Letter to editor, Wash Post, Mar 1, 1994 Sec Z, p4. (back to text)
334.Gillick-MR, et al. "Medical technology at the end of life. What would physicians and nurses want for themselves?" Arch-Intern-Med. 1993 Nov 22; 153(22): 2542-7. (back to text)
335.Darzins, P. et al."Treatment for life-threatening illness." New Eng J Med 1993 Sep 2; 329(10): 736. (back to text)
336.Emanuel-EJ et al "Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide: attitudes and experiences of oncology patients, oncologists, and the public." Lancet. 1996 Jun 29; 347(9018): 1805-10. (back to text)
337.Logue, pp81-83. (back to text)
338.Logue, p81. (back to text)
339.Leinbach, R.L. "Euthanasia Attitudes of Older Persons" Research on Aging, 1993, v15, pp433-48. (back to text)
340.U.S. Mortality Statistics for 1994, CDC web site: http://wonder.cdc.gov (back to text)
341.Knight, Bernard, Forensic Pathology, 2nd ed. 1996, [Oxford] p51. (back to text)
342f.CT (computed tomography, CAT scan) studies find similar hypoxic brain abnormalities after: suspension hanging, drowning, hypoglycemic coma, and cyanide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, or methanol poisoning. [Aufderheide, 1994] (back to text)
343.Guyton, Arthur Medical Physiology 3rd ed. [Saunders, Philadelphia] 1966, p397. (back to text)
344f.This, incidently, is how big cats, such as lions and cheetahs, often kill prey. (back to text)
345.Polson, Cyril J., Gee, D.J., Knight, Bernard The Essentials of Forensic Medicine, 4th ed. 1985. Pergamon. p397. (back to text)
346.Polson, p389. (back to text)
347.Polson, p396 R. v. Franklin, York, 1971. (back to text)
348.Polson, p399. (back to text)
349.Guy, W.A. and Ferrier, D. Principles of Forensic Medicine 7th ed. 1895, W.R. Smith, London; cited in Polson p399. (back to text)
350.Frazer, M; Rosenberg S. "A case of suicidal ligature strangulation." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1983 Dec;4(4):351-4. (back to text)
351f.But certainly used earlier, as in the 17th century Salem, Mass. judicial punishment called "pressing". [Spitz, 1993, p182] (back to text)
352.Roughhead, W. Burke and Hare 1948, 3rd ed. Hodge, Edinburgh; Polson, p474. (back to text)
353f.He was, apparently, an innocent party to the proceedings, but his reputation was not helped by a contemporary doggerel that went, "Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief, Knox's the man that buys the beef." (back to text)
354f.You will, no doubt, be fascinated to learn that there have been at least 37 fatalities since 1978 due to toppling vending machines. These are almost all soda machines, which are top-heavy and weigh almost a ton when filled [Precker, M "Stopping Soda Jerks" Wash Post, Jan 2, 1996]. Help is on the way, however: the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has negotiated a tough agreement with the seven U.S. vending machine manufacturers in which the manufacturers have agreed to post warning labels on their machines. A spokeswoman for the CPSC stated, apparently without irony, "This is a terrific example of what we call the safety triangle---cooperation between industry, consumers and government. The companies were very cooperative." Indeed. (back to text)
355.McCarty VO, Cox RA, Haglund B "Death caused by a constricting snake--an infant death." J Forensic Sci 1989 Jan;34(1):239-243. (back to text)
356f.Death from oxygen depletion is occasionally seen in homicide (as in Poe's story, The Cask of Amontillado, in which the victim, the ironically-named "Fortunato" is bricked up in a wine-cellar). (back to text)
357f.The first recorded case occurs in the Old Testament, where Solomon has to judge which of two women is the mother of a live baby, the other infant having been "overlain". (back to text)
358f.There is a movement to encourage parents to keep infants in the parental bed, in order to improve bonding and facilitate feeding. It is also argued that such proximity will help parents notice when a child's breathing pattern changes. (back to text)
359.Taylor, A.S. Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence, 11th ed v1 p468, Churchill, London, 1956; Polson, p450. (back to text)
360.Sankey, H, British Medical Journal i, 88, 1883; cited in Polson, p450. (back to text)
361.Knight, Bernard. Forensic Pathology 2nd ed, 1996, p354, 447-455. (back to text)
362.Kearney MS, Dahl LB, Stalsberg H "Can a cat smother and kill a baby?" Brit Med J (Clin Res Ed) v285 1982 Sep 18;285(6344) p777, 1982; Polson, p451. (back to text)
363f.Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that one could survive for roughly a half hour, sitting quietly, breathing only from a fully-inflated 30-gallon plastic trash bag.
For a tube tent [a tube tent is a glorified plastic bag, open at both ends, used as a cheap
emergency camping shelter] 8 feet long with a diameter of 4 feet, volume is about 400 gallons if
it's in a typical triangular shape (maximum; less due to pinching of tent ends and volume of
occupant). This corresponds to--very roughly--5 hour survival.
In self-experiments, I've found that I become uncomfortable enough, probably from carbon
dioxide build-up, to remove a 30-gallon bag after about 15 minutes. Over that time my breathing
rate increases from around 8/minute to around 30/minute.
(back to text)
364. 365. 366. 367. 368. 369. 370. 371. 372f. 373. 374f. 375f. 376f. 377. 378f. 379. 380. 381. 382f. 383. 384. 385. 386. 387. 388. 389. 390. 391. 392. 393. 394. 395. 396f. 397. 398. 399. 400. 401. 402. 403. 404. 405. 406. 407f. 408f. 409. 410. 411. 412f.
364.Knight, Bernard, Forensic Pathology 2nd ed. 1996, p354. (back to text)
365.Knight, Bernard, Forensic Pathology 2nd ed. 1996, p354. (back to text)
366.See Appendix Table A-2 for a list. (back to text)
367.TOMES Medical Management "Carbon Monoxide" 1994, Micromedex. (back to text)
368.Sax, N.I. Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials Van Nostrand, 1984. (back to text)
369.Spitz W.U., Fisher, R.S. Medicolegal Investigation of Death 2nd ed, 1980, p339 [Thomas, Springfield Ill.]. (back to text)
370.Andrews, E et al "Report of the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia" J Am Vet Med Assn 1993, Jan 15; v202(2) pp 229-49. (back to text)
371.Hudnall JB, Suruda A, Campbell DL "Deaths involving air-line respirators connected to inert gas sources." Am Industrial Hygeine Assn 1993 Jan;54(1):32-35. (back to text)
372f.There have been occasional reports of cardiac arrhythmias caused by breathing pure helium (usually as a party game), but these are extremely rare. And, obviously, any liquified gas at -200 can cause freeze injury. (back to text)
373.No author listed "Report of the the AVMA Panel on Euthanasia" J. Am. Vet. Med. Assn., v173 pp59-72, 1978.// Herin RA, Hall P. Fitch JW. "Nitrogen inhalation as a method of euthanasia in dogs." Am J Vet Res 1978:39:989-991.// Quine JP. "Euthanasia by hypoxia using nitrogen. A review after four years of operation involving 20,500 animals." Can Vet J 1980;21:320. (back to text)
374f.Rats show some evidence of distress [Hornett, 1984] but other animals don't seem to remember it: revived cats and dogs showed no subsequent fear of the inert-gas chamber. [Quine, 1988] In any case, if this is a concern one can take sedatives while holding a gas valve closed that will open when your hand relaxes. Be aware, though, that pre-sedated animals survived inert gas anoxia far longer (51 minutes in one dog) than did unsedated ones. [Quine, 1988] (back to text)
375f.Glass HG, Snyder FF, Webster E. "The rate of decline in resistance to anoxia of rabbits, dogs, and guinea pigs from the onset of viability to adult life." Am J Physiol 1944;140:609-615.//Herin RA, Hall P. Fitch JW. "Nitrogen inhalation as a method of euthanasia in dogs." Am J Vet Res 1978:39:989-991. (back to text)
376f.The vapor pressure of water (blood) at body temperature, is 47 mmHg (torr). This corresponds to atmospheric pressure at around 12 miles (64,000 feet or 19,300 meters) elevation. [Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 37th ed. pp2141-7] (back to text)
377.Spitz, Investigation p486, 3rd ed. (back to text)
378f.This combination was used when it was discovered that if steam (thus the name "water gas") was passed over hot coal ("coke"), the carbon (C) in coal would take the oxygen away from water (H2O) and create equal volumes of two flammable gases, carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2), which could be sent through pipes into individual homes, unlike the coal itself. And Europe had lots of coal. (back to text)
379.Clarke R.V. and Lester, D. Suicide: Closing the Exits, [NY, Springer Verlag] 1989, p34. (back to text)
380.Colt, G The Enigma of Suicide [NY Summit Books] 1991, p335. (back to text)
381.Wiedenmann A, Weyerer S "The impact of availability, attraction and lethality of suicide methods on suicide rates in Germany." Acta Psych Scand, 1993 Nov;88(5):364-368. (back to text)
382f.The evidence is clear that (unlike her sleeping pill overdose ten years earlier), she did not intend to die. She had scheduled an au pair to meet her at 9 a.m. that morning; there was no answer at the door when the Australian girl knocked and rang. The old man on the ground floor who could have let her enter (and who, Plath knew, rose before nine) was unconscious from escaped carbon monoxide fumes. Plath's note, "Please call Dr _______" which included the phone number, was thus not seen until she was dead. [Alvarez, The Savage God, pp33-36] (back to text)
383.Litman, Robert in Curran, W.J. et al Modern Legal Medicine Psychiatry and Forensic Science [Davis, 1980] p844. (back to text)
384.Hoenderken R. "Electrical and carbon dioxide stunning of pigs for slaughter." In: Eikelenboom G, ed. Stunning of animals for slaughter. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982:59-63.// Gregory NG, Moss BW, Leeson RH. "An assessment of carbon dioxide stunning in pigs." Vet Rec 1987;121:517-518. (back to text)
385.Yamazaki M, et al ["An autopsy case of carbon dioxide intoxication"] Nippon Hoigaku Zasshi 1997 Dec. 51(6); 446-51. (back to text)
386.Gosselin, R.E. et al Clinical Toxicology of Commercial Products III-95, 5th ed, 1984 [Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore]. (back to text)
387.Dreisbach, Robert H. Handbook of poisoning: prevention, diagnosis, & treatment [Lange, Los Altos] 12th ed, 1987; p259. (back to text)
388.Dreisbach, 1987, p261. (back to text)
389.Nelson, GL in Hirschler, MM et al (ed) Carbon Monoxide and Human Lethality, 1993, p5 [Elsevier, London]. (back to text)
390.TOMES Medical Management "Carbon Monoxide" 1994, Micromedex. (back to text)
391.Van Hoesen KB, et al "Should hyperbaric oxygen be used to treat the pregnant patient for acute carbon monoxide poisoning? A case report and literature review." JAMA 1989 Feb 17;261(7):1039-1043. (back to text)
392.Ellenhorn, Matthew Medical Toxicology 1988 (2nd ed=1997) (Elsevier) p70. (back to text)
393.Spitz, p488 3rd ed. (back to text)
394.Spitz, p489 3rd ed. (back to text)
395.King, LS "Effect of Ethanol in Fatal Carbon Monoxide Poisonings" Human Toxicology v2, 155-7, 1983.//Nelson, GL, in Hirschler, MM et al (ed) Carbon Monoxide and Human Lethality, [Elsevier, London]. 1993, p9, 47-52. (back to text)
396f.The smallest size chemical lecture bottle is about 2 cubic feet of gas, which would produce a CO concentration of around 1.5-6 percent, depending on the size of the tent or car. Thus even a small lecture bottle of CO will be enough for a quickly-lethal concentration. (back to text)
397.Haldane J. "The action of carbonic oxide in man." J Physiol 1895:18:430-462. (back to text)
398.Dreisbach, 1987, p262. (back to text)
399.Bloom JD. "Some considerations in establishing divers' breathing gas purity standards for carbon monoxide." Aerosp Med 1972:43:633-636. (back to text)
400.Ramsey, TL; Eilmann, JH "Carbon Monoxide: Acute and Chronic Poisoning and Experimental Studies" J Lab Clin Med 1932 v17 pp415-27.// Enggaard Hansen N, Creutzberg A, Simonsen HB "Euthanasia of mink (Mustela vison) by means of carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and nitrogen (N2)." Br Vet J 1991 Mar;147(2):140-146. (back to text)
401.Tsunenari S, et al "Suicidal carbon monoxide inhalation of exhaust fumes. Investigation of cases." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1985 Sep;6(3):233-239. (back to text)
402.Dreisbach, 1987, p253. (back to text)
403.Poisindex "Cyanide", 1994, Micromedex. (back to text)
404.Warren Bowman, quoted in Weiss, R. "The Cold Facts; how the body responds to winter weather" Wash Post, Feb 7, 1995 Sec Z, p7. (back to text)
405.Forgey, W. Hypothermia 1985 [Merrillville, Ind, ICS Press] p21. (back to text)
406.Forgey, Wm. Hypothermia: p15 (back to text)
407f.This seems like a bizarre notion at first: that we are continuously giving off electro-magnetic waves, similar to light and radio. If we were at a (few hundred degrees) higher temperature, we would give off higher-energy waves, and might be seen to glow red-hot; at a much lower temperature, we could be our own radio transmitters. (back to text)
408f.As an aside, human eyes can see further into the red end of the spectrum than can certain other mammals. Thus, for example, some zoos (and nature photographers) illuminate nocturnal animals with red light that they can't detect. We can see them, but they think that it's dark. (back to text)
409.Guyton, Arthur Medical Physiology 3rd ed, p322. (back to text)
410.Forgey, p10. (back to text)
411.Handbook of Chem and Physics, 37th ed, 1955 [CRC Press, Cleveland] p2253. (back to text)
412f.The relative (to goose down) heat conductivity of a few materials follows.
Thus in dry conditions goose down is your best sleeping bag material for heat retention.
(back to text)
413f. 414f. 415. 416. 417. 418. 419. 420. 421. 422f. 423. 424f. 425f. 426. 427. 428. 429f. 430. 431f. 432. 433. 434. 435. 436. 437. 438. 439. 440. 441f. 442. 443. 444. 445. 446. 447. 448f. 449. 450. 451. 452f. 453. 454. 455. 456f. 457. 458. 459. 460. 461. 462. 463f. 464. 465f. 466. 467f. 468. 469. 470. 471. 472. 473. 474f.
413f.So how, then, do ducks and geese keep their down from getting soggy and becoming worthless as insulation? Preening transfers oily, water-repelling material from a gland on their backs to the feathers, as well as fluffing them up. (back to text)
414f.It's claimed that mosquitoes also show this characteristic. The smaller tropical mosquitoes apparently have to suck blood more often, and are thus more likely to spread disease from one person to another, than temperate-climate mosquitos. [Martens, 1995] (back to text)
415.Locher-T et al ["Accidental hypothermia in Switzerland (1980-1987)--case reports and prognostic factors"] "Akzidentelle Hypothermie in der Schweiz (1980-1987)--Kasuistik und prognostische Faktoren." Schweiz-Med-Wochenschr. 1991 Jul 9; 121(27-28): 1020-8. (back to text)
416.Keatinge WR: "Seasonal mortality among elderly people with unrestricted home heating." Br Med J 1986; 293:732-733. (back to text)
417.CDC: "Hypothermia-related deaths - Cook County, Illinois, November 1992-March 1993." MMWR 1993; 42:917-919. (back to text)
418.CDC: Hypothermia-related deaths - Cook County, Illinois, November 1992-March 1993. MMWR 1993; 42:917-919. (back to text)
419.CDC, "Hypothermia-Related Deaths---New Mexico, October 1993--March 1994" MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1995 Dec 22;44(50):933-935. (back to text)
420.Data from CDC MMWR, Dec 20, 1985 (v34;753-4), and Dec 22, 1995, (v44); also cited in Colburn, D. "Hypothermia's top 10 may include your state" Wash Post, Jan. 2, 1996, Sec Z, p5. (back to text)
421.Downey JA, et al. "The response of tetraplegia patients to cold." Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1967 Dec; 48(12): 645-649.// Johnson, RH "Oxygen consumption of paralysed men exposed to cold" J Physiol [Lond.] v169 p584, 1963; also in Tedeschi p759. (back to text)
422f.Curare is used as a muscle relaxant during surgery. As an aside, major-surgery patients who are not kept warm---that is, most of them---have been recently [Kurz, 1996] found to have a significantly higher infection rate and slower recovery than those who are covered by blankets during surgery. The combination of chilly operating rooms (for the benefit of gowned and capped staff) and impaired temperature control in anesthetized patients thus causes hypothermia, increased susceptibility to infection, and delayed healing. On the other hand, deliberately induced hypothermia decreased brain damage in comatose patients who had suffered head injury. [Marion, 1997] (back to text)
423.Burton, AC; Edholm, O Man in a Cold Environment; physiological and pathological effects of exposure to low temperatures [NY, Hafner] 1969; cited in Tedeschi p759. (back to text)
424f.Except for my cousin David, who finds it expedient to stay indoors during hunting season. (back to text)
425f.Another physiological reason for piloerection is that it makes us look bigger, which may deter a predator or intimidate a rival. (back to text)
426.Forgey, Wm. p8. (back to text)
427.Wyndham CH et al "Physiological response to cold by Bushmen, Bantu, and Caucasian males" J Appl. Physiol. v19 p868-76, 1964;// Keatinge WR Survival in Cold Water: the physiology and treatment of immersion hypothermia and of drowning. [Oxford, Edinburgh, Blackwell Scientific], 1969;// Hammel. HT "Effect of Race on Responsed to Cold" Fed Proc 22:795, 1963; also cited in Tedeschi, p759. (back to text)
428.Tedeschi, p759. (back to text)
429f.Actually, all of us have temperatures that vary about a degree F over the course of a day, being lowest just before we get up and highest about 12 hours later. It's also possible to regulate your temperature (within limits) through yoga, meditation, or bio-feedback techniques. These methods also can be used to gain some voluntary control over heart rate and blood pressure, and, probably, other autonomic functions. (back to text)
430.Ehrmantraut WR, Ticktin HE & Fazekras JF: "Cerebral hemodynamics and metabolism in accidental hypothermia." Arch Intern Med 1957; 99:57-59. (back to text)
431f.Liberals, note. (back to text)
432.MacLean D & Emslie-Smith D: Accidental Hypothermia. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1977. (back to text)
433.Fischbeck KH & Simon RP: "Neurological manifestations of accidental hypothermia." Ann Neurol 1981; 10:384-387. (back to text)
434.TOMES Medical Management "Hypothermia" 1994, Micromedex, Inc. (back to text)
435.Niazi, S.A. Lewis FJ "Profound hypothermia in man; report of a case" Ann. Surg. v147(1) p264-6, 1958; cited in Tedeschi p 760. (back to text)
436.Wong KC: "Physiology and pharmacology of hypothermia." West J Med 1983; 138:227-232;// Auerbach, Paul S (ed) Wilderness Medicine, 1995, [St Louis, Mosby]. (back to text)
437.Polson, p342. (back to text)
438.Wm. Forgey, Hypothermia:Death by Exposure (back to text)
439.Edwars, HA et al."Apparent Death with Accidental Hypothermia: A Case Report" Br. J. Anaesth 42:906, 1970; cited in Tedeschi, p763. (back to text)
440.Grinsted, P "[Combined accidental hypothermia and barbiturate poisoning]." Ugeskr. Laeger 1970 May 14; 132(20): 933-936. [Danish]; cited in Tedeschi, p762. (back to text)
441f.But who would have thawed it? (back to text)
442.Gregory RT, Patton JR: "Treatment after exposure to cold." Lancet 1972; 1:377. (back to text)
443.Tedeschi, p 762. (back to text)
444.White, D.C. and Nowell, N.W. "The Effects of Alcohol on the cardiac arrest temperature in hypothermic rats" Clin Sci v28 p395, 1965.// MacGregor DC, et al, "The effects of ether, ethanol, propanol and butanol on tolerance to deep hypothermia. Experimental and clinical observations." Diseases of the Chest 1966 Nov;50(5):523-529; cited in Tedeschi p762. (back to text)
445.Locher, 1991. (back to text)
446.Kallenbach J, Bogg P & Feldman C et al: "Experience with acute poisoning in an intensive care unit." S Afr Med J 1981; 59:587-589. (back to text)
447.Locher, 1991 (back to text)
448f.According to Wm. Forgey, Inuit wear extra clothing---short pants---over the femoral area in order to decrease heat losses. He also notes that Western explorers to the Arctic survived more often when they copied the Inuit high-fat diet. (back to text)
449.Walpoth, B. et al "Accidental deep hypothermia with cardiopulmonary arrest: extracorporeal blood rewarming in 11 patients." Eur J Cardiothorac Surg 4(7) 390-3 1990. (back to text)
450.Walpoth, 1990 (back to text)
451.Molnar, GW. "Survival of hypothermia by men immersed in ocean" JAMA 131 p1046-50, 1946; Horn, G ["Death from Hypothermia"] "Tod durch Unterkuhling" Artzl. Wochenschr. v6 p376, 1951; cited in Tedeschi p762. (back to text)
452f.Since seawater contains a greater concentration of anti-freeze (mostly dissolved salts) than you do, its freezing point is around 29 degrees F (-1.9 degrees C) compared to human skin, which freezes around 31 degrees F (-0.6 degrees C). Thus it's possible to literally freeze in liquid seawater. [Tedeschi, p767; Keatinge, WR, Cannon, P "Freezing Point of Human Skin" Lancet i: p11-4, Jan 2 1960] (back to text)
453.Cooper, K.E. et al "Accidental Hypothermia" Int. Anesthesiol. Clin v2 p999, 1964; cited in Tedeschi p762. (back to text)
454.McGee MB "An unusual case of accidental hypothermia due to cold water immersion." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1989 Jun;10(2):152-155. (back to text)
455.Hayward MG; Keatinge WR "Roles of subcutaneous fat and thermoregulatory reflexes in determining ability to stabilize body temperature in water." J Physiol (Lond) 1981 Nov; 320:229-51. (back to text)
456f.Molnar, 1946, claims 3x; MMX claims a 32-fold ratio, which is reasonably consistent with CRC data of 25x. (back to text)
457.Alt.Suicide.Holiday [internet newsgroup] "Methods" file, March, 1995. (back to text)
458.Medalia-AA; Merriam-AE; Ehrenreich-JH "The neuropsychological sequelae of attempted hanging." J-Neurol-Neurosurg-Psychiatry. 1991 Jun; 54(6): 546-8, 1991. (back to text)
459.Chambers DR, Harvey JG "Inner urban and national suicide rates, a simple comparative study." Med Sci Law 1989 Jul;29(3):182-185. (back to text)
460.Bowen DA "Hanging--a review." Forensic Sci Int 1982 Nov;20(3):247-249. (back to text)
461.Simonsen, J "Patho-anatomic findings in neck structures in asphyxiation due to hanging: a survey of 80 cases." Forensic-Sci-Int. 1988 Jul-Aug; 38(1-2): 83-91, 1988. (back to text)
462.Luke JL "Asphyxial deaths by hanging in New York City, 1964-1965." J Forensic Sci 1967 Jul;12(3):359-69. (back to text)
463f.This is not the only possible explanation. For example, New York City has a large proportion of immigrants, a population which tends to use hanging as a means of suicide. In this study, 73 of 100 hanging suicides were by people born outside the US (but 70 percent of them had lived in the US for more than 10 years). (back to text)
464.Guarner-J; Hanzlick-R "Suicide by hanging. A review of 56 cases." Am-J-Forensic-Med-Pathol. 1987 Mar; 8(1): 23-6. (back to text)
465f.However, the prison population differs from the general population in (among other things) age, sex, and race. In 1988 1.4 percent of deaths in the US were due to suicide. For males it was 2.1 percent; among males between 20 and 29 years old it was 14.4 percent. Most studies of inmate suicide find that 20-30 percent of deaths are officially suicides. [Frost, 1988] (back to text)
466.Copeland-AR "Fatal suicidal hangings among prisoners in jail" [see comments in: Med Sci Law 1990 Jul;30(3):273) Med-Sci-Law. 1989 Oct; 29(4): 341-5 1989.//Frost, R. and P Hanzlick. "Deaths in custody." American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology 1988; 9:207-211.//Lanphear-BP "Deaths in custody in Shelby County, Tennessee, January 1970-July 1985." Am-J-Forensic-Med-Pathol. 1987 Dec; 8(4): 299-301. (back to text)
467f.People who hang themselves in jail generally do so within the first month, and often, first couple of days. They are, frequently first-time offenders, and there seems to be little correlation between length-of-sentence and likelihood of suicide. [Lanphear, 1987; Frost, 1988] (back to text)
468.Bowen, 1982. (back to text)
469.Luke, JL et al "Correlation of circumstances with pathological findings in deaths by hanging" J Forensic Sci 1985, 30, p1140-7. (back to text)
470.Guarner, 1987. (back to text)
471.Aufderheide-TP et al "Emergency airway management in hanging victims." Ann-Emerg-Med. 1994 Nov; 24(5): 879-84. (back to text)
472.Guyton, 3rd ed, p322. (back to text)
473.James R; Nasmyth-Jones R "The occurrence of cervical fractures in victims of judicial hanging." Forensic Sci Int 1992 Apr;54(1):81-91. (back to text)
474f.Perhaps they suffer from separation anxiety.
Mitchell Rupe, a 400 pound convicted murderer in Washington State, appealed his death
sentence. In that enlightened State, the condemned are given the "choice" of hanging or lethal
injection; hanging is the default if they refuse to choose. This man, who declined to make a
choice, then claimed that he shouldn't be executed because hanging would be
constitutionally-prohibited "cruel and unusual punishment" since his head might separate from his
body due to his heavy weight, which he has done everything possible to increase while in jail! His
conviction was overturned by a federal District Court and the ninth circuit Court of Appeals,
partially (there was also a legitimate prosecutorial misconduct issue) on these preposterous
(back to text)
475. 476. 477. 478f. 479. 480. 481f. 482. 483. 484. 485. 486. 487. 488. 489. 490f.
475.Polson, 1985, p369. (back to text)
476.Kalle, E. [abstract in Med-leg Rev 1934,2;119]; cited in Polson, p369-70. (back to text)
477.Swann, HG et al "The cardiorespiratory and biochemical events during rapid anoxic death" Texas Reports on Biology and Medicine, 1949 v7 pp593-603. (back to text)
478f.A few people have such a sensitive carotid sinus that they faint from a tight collar, shaving over the carotid region, or even turning their head to one side. (back to text)
479.Reay, 1982-a. [Reay DT, Holloway GA Jr "Changes in carotid blood flow produced by neck compression." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1982 Sep;3(3):199-202.] (back to text)
480.Schreck, SA in Joynt, RS (ed) Clinical Neurology, 2nd ed, 1988 p5. (back to text)
481f.As an aside, if someone tries to put a sleeper hold on you with their arm (from behind), turn your head to the right and down, to relieve some pressure, and either stomp hard on their instep, send an elbow to their solar plexus, or grab gonads (if available) and twist. (back to text)
482.Reay 1982-b: Am. J. For. Med. Path. v3 #3, 1982 p253. [Reay DT, Eisele JW "Death from law enforcement neck holds." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1982-b Sep;3(3):253-258.] (back to text)
483.Reay, 1982-b, p254. (back to text)
484.Polson, p369. (back to text)
485.Brouardel, 1897; cited in Polson, p368-9. (back to text)
486.Brouardel, 1897; cited in Polson, p368. (back to text)
487.Nuland, Sherwin How We Die: reflections on life's final chapter, 1994, p159. (back to text)
488.Davison-A; Marshall-TK "Hanging in Northern Ireland--a survey." Med-Sci-Law. 1986 Jan; 26(1): 23-8. (back to text)
489.Polson, p370. (back to text)
490f.My calculations do not support this mechanism. Normal arterial systolic blood pressure is around 120 mmHg; assume that it can go up to 250 mmHg in an emergency without blowing out the plumbing. This corresponds to a bit less than 5 pounds per square inch (760 mmHg = 14.7 pounds per square inch). However, it took 33 pounds pressure on a ligature (of unspecified thickness) to compress the trachea. [Brouardel, 1887, cited in Polson p386]
If the rope is half an inch thick, and it compresses a six-inch arc of the neck (arbitrary, but
conservative, numbers), we have 3 square inches of neck being compressed by 33 pounds, or 11
pounds per square inch needed to block the airway. This is more than twice the pressure of 250
mmHg put out by the heart. Thus, these estimates do not support the idea that the heart can
pump with enough pressure to close the airway. They also suggest that blood pressure from a
beating heart is not enough to force open compressed neck arteries, let alone veins.
(back to text)
491. 492. 493. 494f. 495. 496. 497. 498. 499. 500f. 501. 502. 503. 504. 505f. 506. 507f. 508. 509. 510. 511f. 512. 513. 514f. 515. 516. 517. 518. 519. 520. 521. 522. 523. 524. 525. 526. 527. 528. 529. 530. 531. 532. 533. 534. 535. 536. 537. 538. 539. 540. 541. 542. 543. 545. 546. 547. 548. 549. 550. 551. 552. 553. 554. 555. 556f. 557.
491.Simonsen, 1988. (back to text)
492.Ficarra-BJ "Death by hanging." Leg-Med. 1987: 44-60. (back to text)
493.Boyarsky-AH; Flancbaum-L; Trooskin-SZ "The suicidal jailhouse hanging." Ann-Emerg-Med. 1988 May; 17(5): 537-9. (back to text)
494f.A tube from the lower part of the airway to outside the body, intended to avoid a breathing blockage further up the neck---in this instance an inoperable throat cancer. (back to text)
495.Emson HE "Accidental hanging in autoeroticism. An unusual case occurring outdoors." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1983-b Dec;4(4):337-340. (back to text)
496.Camps, 1959 cited in Tedeschi, p1063; Polson, p385, 1985.//Camps, FE "The case of Emmett-Dunne" Med Leg J v27 p156-61, 1959.//Emson HE "The case of Emmett-Dunne. A personal reminiscence."Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1983-a Sep;4(3):255-258.] (back to text)
497.Luke, 1967, Bowen, 1982, Simonsen, 1988, Luke, 1985.//Luke JL "Asphyxial deaths by hanging in New York City, 1964-1965." J Forensic Sci 1967 Jul;12(3):359-69.] (back to text)
498.Ficarra, 1987. (back to text)
499.Sterna, J "Cases of probable suicide in young persons without obvious motivations." Maine Med Assn. Journal v44(5), p16, 1958; cited in Ficarra.//Henry, B. "Death during deviant sexual activity" Paper at Annual Meeting of Am Assn For Sci., 1968; cited in Ficarra.//Luke JL "Asphyxial deaths by hanging in New York City, 1964-1965." J Forensic Sci 1967 Jul;12(3):359-69. (back to text)
500f.One reason for such a high M/F ratio is that women tend not to be so obvious, since they don't generally use unusual clothes, or devices. A related reason is that they are prone to be misdiagnosed: four of nine such cases in women were initially wrongly considered to be murder (2), attempted suicide (1), and accidental death during sex with a partner (1). [Byard, 1993] (back to text)
501.Polson, p366, 379. (back to text)
502.Hiss, J. et al "Swinging in the Park", Am J For Med Path 6(3) pp250-5, 1985. (back to text)
503.Walsh, F et al "Autoerotic Asphyxial Deaths: A medicolegal analysis of forty-three cases." in Wecht, E.H. (ed) Legal Medicine Annual [NY, Appleton] 157-182; 1977. (back to text)
504.Freuchen, Peter Book of the Eskimos 1961, [NY, World Publications] p212. (back to text)
505f.I wonder if this encourages people to commit suicide by, say, "stumbling" in front of a train. It would be interesting to see the "accidental" death rate among life insurance policy-holders with and without double payout for accidental deaths. (back to text)
506.Ficarra, 1987, p56. (back to text)
507f.Isn't this what they give medals for? (back to text)
508.Pierrepoint, A. Executioner: Pierrepoint [London : Harrap], 1974. (back to text)
509.Similar described in Maguire, D. 1984, p172. [Maguire, Daniel Death by Choice, 1984.] (back to text)
510.Charles Duff, Handbook of Hanging (Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint 1929)] [ref ASH methods] (back to text)
511f.Hanging several people simultaneously, but without a drop, i.e., pulling on the rope in order to lift the victim off the ground by the neck. (back to text)
512.Pierrepoint, quoted in Ficarra, 1987, p47. (back to text)
513.Anon, "M.P.'s say no to new gallows by wide margin." N.Y. Times July 17, 1983; cited in Ficarra, p49. (back to text)
514f.Just guessing. (back to text)
515.Polson, p358. (back to text)
516.Luke, 1985. (back to text)
517.Luke, 1967. (back to text)
518.Polson, p358. (back to text)
519.Luke, 1985. (back to text)
520.Polson, p359. (back to text)
521.Polson, p358. (back to text)
522.Polson, p366. (back to text)
523.Hurpy, A. "Ann. Hyg. publ., Paris" 1881; 6, p359-67; cited in Polson, p367. (back to text)
524.Soderman, H and O'Connell, J. Modern Criminal Investigation 1947. [NY, Funk & Wagnalls] p128; cited in Polson, p367. (back to text)
525.Simonsen, 1988. (back to text)
526.Tardieu, A., Etude medico-legale sur la pendaison, la stranglation et la suffocation, 2nd ed, Paris 1879; cited in Polson, p367. (back to text)
527.Luke, 1965. (back to text)
528.Szekely, E. Beitr. gerichtl. Med. v6 pp133-6, 1924; cited in Polson, p368. (back to text)
529.Polson, p386. (back to text)
530.Riembault, A. Ann Hyg. publ, Paris 2nd series, v27, pp164-74, 1867; cited in Polson, p386. (back to text)
531.Littlejohn, H Forensic Medicine 1925, London, Churchill; cited in Polson, p387. (back to text)
532.Rupp JC "Suicidal garrotting and manual self-strangulation." J Forensic Sci 1970 Jan;15(1):71-77. (back to text)
533.Frazer M; Rosenberg S "A case of suicidal ligature strangulation." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1983 Dec;4(4):351-4. (back to text)
534.Tardieu, 1879; cited in Polson, p400. (back to text)
535.Marc, Ann. Hyg. publ. Paris v5, pp156-224, 1851; cited in Polson, p370. (back to text)
536.Tidy, C Legal Medicine vol ii pp409-45, 336, 1883, London, Smith Elder; cited in Polson, p371. (back to text)
537.Medical Times and Gazette, 1882; cited in Polson, p371. (back to text)
538.Martin, E. Precis de Med. Leg., 3rd ed, Paris, Doin, 1950; cited in Polson, p371. (back to text)
539.Yorkshire Post, May 1, 1948; cited in Polson, p372. (back to text)
540.Ogston, F (ed) Lectures on Medical Jurisprudence, 1878, London, Churchill; cited in Polson, p374. (back to text)
541.Ogston, 1878. (back to text)
542.Polson, p374. (back to text)
543.Gupta, BK "Studies on 101 cases of death due to hanging" J Ind Med Assn 1965, v45, p135-40. //Simonsen, J. For Sci Int 38 83-91, 1988. (back to text)544. Reay, 1982-b; //Schreck, SA in Joynt, RS (ed) Clinical Neurology, 2nd ed, 1988 p5. (back to text)
545.Boyarsky, 1988. (back to text)
546.Vande-Krol-L [spelled as Vander Krol in Medline] et al "The emergency department management of near-hanging victims." J-Emerg-Med. 1994 May-Jun; 12(3): 285-92. (back to text)
547.Calache-MJ; Achamallah-NS "Spontaneous remission of depression after attempted suicide by hanging: a case report and literature review." Int-J-Psychosom. 1991; 38(1-4): 89-91. (back to text)
548.McQuillen EN; McQuillen JB "Pain and suffering and unconsciousness."Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1994 Jun;15(2):174-9. (back to text)
549.James R; Nasmyth-Jones R "The occurrence of cervical fractures in victims of judicial hanging." Forensic Sci Int 1992 Apr;54(1):81-91. (back to text)
550.Reay DT, Cohen W, Ames S] "Injuries produced by judicial hanging. A case report." Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1994 Sep;15(3):183-186. (back to text)
551.Sternbach-G; Bresler-MJ "Near-fatal suicidal hanging" [clinical conference] J-Emerg-Med. 1989 Sep-Oct; 7(5): 513-6. (back to text)
552.Vande-Krol-L et al "The emergency department management of near-hanging victims." J-Emerg-Med. 1994 May-Jun; 12(3): 285-92.] (back to text)
553.Boyarsky, 1988. (back to text)
554.Boyarsky, 1988. (back to text)
555.Sternbach, 1989. (back to text)
556f.Hughes JT "Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century."Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 1982 Dec 18;285(6357):1792-1793.] For the full contemporary account, see " "Newes from the Dead or A True and Exact Narration of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Green." Written by a Scholler in Oxford: Printed by Leonard Lichfield for Tho Robinson, 1651". (back to text)
557.Fye, WB "Active Euthanasia: An Historical Survey of its Conceptual Origins and Introduction int Medical Thought" Bulletin of the History of Medicine 52, 1979, 492-502.
Vanderpool, HV "Doctors and the Dying of Patients in American History" in Weir, pp33-66.