Suicide is a tricky thing to talk about. It’s simple to discuss clinically; that’s done on a daily basis. But for those whose lives have been touched by suicide, the discussion is different.
Suicide leaves many questions. What did I miss? Why would they do this? Whose fault is it? What made it happen? Everyone asks such questions in one way, shape or form when suicide becomes a part of their life. And as these people know, it’s not simple.
A recent study begs to differ. Research performed right here in Oregon recently made headlines after it was published. Its controversial finding was lauded by some as a step in the right direction for determining where the teens most at-risk for suicide were. According to Columbia University researcher Mark Hatzenbuehler, teenagers living and going to school in what would be considered more conservative districts were more likely to attempt suicide than those in what would be considered more liberal districts.
This has, of course, led to many in the media proclaiming that living in conservative areas is a direct cause of suicide. It has also led to a backlash from the conservative community, who are fighting the supposed implications of the study. Meanwhile, the liberal community has given itself a pat on the back—as if this was some sort of victory. But what the media, conservatives and liberals alike are all forgetting one thing: Suicide isn’t so simple. It cannot be attributed to just one cause.
Yes, the data in the study is solid. Approximately 32,000 Oregon high school students were surveyed. District demographics and school programs were taken into account, ranging from relative percentages of liberals and conservatives to the presence or absence of diversity-promoting student groups. The research had no discernable bias, and the results suggested, but did not outright conclude, that rates of teen suicide attempts were higher in conservative districts, which tended not to have as many programs promoting diversity (one particular example was a gay/straight alliance). The study also broke students down by sexual orientation and history, with almost uniform results for all groups.
A correlation between a phenomenon and a particular environmental factor does not imply causality. As an example, several serial killers and murderers cite “The Catcher in the Rye” as their favorite book; this does not mean that by reading it, one will become a homicidal maniac. It is certainly possible that there is an influence, however small, but that is precisely what a correlation seeks to present. Environment influences behavior; it does not decide it.
Furthermore, the parameters of the study might have something to do with the results. Oregon is a very forward-thinking, socially liberated state. It could be argued that it is very difficult to be a conservative in Oregon, at least on social issues. There is pressure on all sides towards more liberal concepts such as gay rights and environmental protection. Those living in conservative areas likely come from households with more stress, which might lead to higher numbers of suicidal thoughts or attempts. That correlation was determined decades ago. In a more conservative-minded state, the results of this study might have been the exact opposite.
The general rule of thumb seems to be that the more accepting and close-knit a community is, the less likely people are to attempt suicide. This may not always be true; even the closest communities may suffer a suicide. However, if there is anything the results of this study tell us, it is that support for and acceptance of people from all walks of life is good for the entire group. Schools with programs geared towards acceptance saw lower suicide rates; it may only have been coincidence that these schools all happened to be “liberal” schools.
So while no study can tell us exactly why people choose to attempt suicide or even what mix of factors might lead to it, good research can help reduce at-risk areas. Suicide will never be a simple categorical breakdown as the media seems to think these studies suggest. It is a complicated, painful and very real part of life, and to attribute it to one cause is an irresponsible, if not
uninformed, mistake to make. ?