Some might find my interest in attitudes towards suicide morbid.
As a psychotherapist I have a natural interest in all human behaviors and attitudes, and how we evaluate the most basic question of whether to continue living seems essential to understand.
That is why I was stunned to read the new article “Last Call” by Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker magazine yesterday. The subtitle: “A Buddhist monk confronts Japan’s suicide culture.”
Did you know Japan is famous for suicide?
With a graduate degree in East Asian history, I am quite familiar with ritual Japanese self-annihilation (seppuku,) popularly known as harakiri in the West. But did you know the suicide rate in Japan today is nearly twice that of the United States?
Greenland is the most suicidal country in the world today, with a suicide rate three times that of the next two: Lithuania and South Korea. Japan ranks ninth worldwide, and Sweden, known for its long, dark winters, is about the same as the U.S.
Those nations with the highest rates have no religious prohibitions against suicide. In fact, in Japanese culture “suicide can absolve guilt and cancel debt, can restore honor and prove loyalty.” It is seen almost exactly the opposite as in traditional U.S. custom.
In Japan suicide is seen as a gesture of moral integrity, even as an act of beauty. They believe those who are mentally well have the right to choose their own death, and others have no business intruding on this most private of human decisions.
Then this morning I heard that most disturbing statistic on the news again: our troops in Afghanistan are killing themselves more often than being killed in battle. Why is this?
I perceive great generational differences between Americans my parents’ age (in their 80s), boomers, and those younger. With each generation we seem to be a little more accepting of suicide as a very personal choice.
Traditionally we might say you must be mentally ill to even consider self- annihilation. I know my parents see it that way. They say they have never even thought about killing themselves because it is simply wrong. I have had suicidal thoughts a few times in my life. That is when I went in search of outside help.
In the depths of my own despair, I knew I had more to deal with than I could handle on my own, but I still clung to the belief that life could be good again in my future.
If there is one American tradition I believe we need to change, it is the belief that we should not need to ask for help from others. Good old “rugged individualism” and a strong sense of self-sufficiency can be deadly at times.
Are you experiencing emotional difficulties as you transition through midlife? Please consider finding some answers to your personal dilemmas through my books, especially Find Your Reason to Be Here: The Search for Meaning in Midlife.