Jennifer Hecht on Suicide

Tom Shipka

In the United States over the past decade, the rate of suicide has risen sharply. Although it rose among all age groups during this period, it shot up dramatically in two groups:

  • in the 35-64 age group, suicide increased 30 percent, and
  • among men in their fifties, it increased 50 percent.

Today, suicide deaths per year (38,364) exceed deaths per year due to auto accidents (33,687). (1)

These sobering facts have prompted poet, historian, and philosopher, Jennifer Hecht, to call for a national conversation on suicide in a recent book entitled Stay.(2) She also proposes that the conversation focus on two key arguments against suicide, one based on hope, the other on community. Let’s consider each. (3)

On hope, Hecht cites studies of near-suicide cases which show a clear pattern. Most of those who nearly took their own lives find that their later lives are "full and rich beyond expectation." (4) She sees three lessons in this:

  • a suicidal mood is often temporary,
  • one’s situation is likely to improve as time passes, and
  • suicide is a mistake because it closes off the possibility of improvement.

We must learn, Hecht argues, that moments of happiness in our past are likely to return if we show the patience and courage to endure the sorrow-filled moments of the present. (5) Once we grasp this, she reasons, we will not allow ourselves to be victims of the mood of the moment. (6)

On community, Hecht argues that we have a duty to others, near and far, to stay alive. This is because humanity is "profoundly interconnected." (7) Each of us matters. Each of us contributes in some way to helping others, and when we help others, we promote their happiness and our own.

For Hecht, the choice to live says that you care about yourself, your family and friends, and others while the choice to die says that you don’t. For Hecht, the choice to live is an acceptance of responsibility and a commitment to help others while the choice to die is a rejection of responsibility and a commitment to harm them.

The harm which suicide causes has been the subject of scientific studies for decades. Hecht addresses two types of harm. 

  • The first is the sense of loss among those who value or depend on the deceased. A sudden and unexpected death results in sorrow for the survivors in virtually all cases. When the death is self-inflicted, though, the sorrow is much deeper. In most suicides the one who takes his or her life is not the only victim. (8)
  • The second is the ripple effect. The evidence is strong that one suicide invites others. The reason is that it legitimates suicide as a response to the shocks, troubles, disappointments, and setbacks that are part of the human condition. It serves as a disincentive to endure a storm. (9)

I applaud Hecht for her attempt to bring suicide out of the shadows. Since anti-suicide programs currently offered by government are not well known and haven’t had much impact, I hope that Stay will be a catalyst for a fuller understanding of suicide among all age groups and for initiatives to reduce suicide across our culture by schools and colleges, religious groups, the private sector, the media, entertainment, sports, and others.

  1. New York Times, May 2, 2013. Also, many sources report that suicides in the military now exceed combat deaths.
  2. Yale University Press, 2013. Hecht is prudent in calling for nation-wide attention to suicide. Here’s why:
    1. The U.S. Government already has a multi-agency program aimed at stemming the trend toward more suicides and that doesn’t seem to be working;
    2. Most other nations with much higher suicide rates than the U.S. also have anti-suicide government programs which don’t seem to be working. Examples are Greenland, which leads the world with 108.1 suicides per 100,000 population, and South Korea, which is second in the world with 31.7 suicides per 100,000 population. In Greenland, estimates are that one out of four or one out of five people attempts suicide. In South Korea, suicide is the most common form of death for those under 40. The suicide rate in the U.S., which ranks 33rd among the 107 nations for which data are available, is 12.0 per 100,000 population.
  3. While Hecht aims to reduce the suicide rate among the general population, she seems to approve of suicide in most cases of dying people who wish to hasten death.
  4. Stay, p. 175.
  5. Hecht quotes talk-show host Phil Donahue as follows: "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." See Stay, p. 192.
  6. On this point, Hecht quotes Voltaire: "The man who in a fit of melancholy, kills himself to-day, would have wished to live had he waited a week." Stay, p. 176. Here, Voltaire is overly optimistic. While many suicidal moods may pass in a week, many don’t. On extricating oneself from a suicidal mood, Hecht opines that most of us can do this on our own or by talking with a close friend; she concedes, however, that some of us may require professional help. See Stay, p. 213.
  7. Here Hecht quotes the poet John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...(A)ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." -- Meditation XVII, 1623, quoted in Stay, p. 121.
  8. On the harm caused by suicide, Hecht quotes the 17th Century French Enlightenment philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie: "What sort of monster is someone who, afflicted with a momentary pain, tears himself away from his family, his friends, and his homeland, and has no other aim but to deliver himself from his most sacred duties." The quote is from de La Mettrie’s "Epicurean System," and it appears in Stay, p. 132. The realization that one’s voluntary, premature death can cause significant harm to others can dissuade a person from suicide. For instance, one man whom I know was deterred from an imminent suicide by a friend who convinced him that his death would be a cruel and hateful legacy to his young daughter who loved him dearly. Incidentally, as time passed, the man’s situation improved markedly so that today he is a different person from the one on the verge of suicide. This anecdote illustrates the wisdom of both of Hecht’s arguments against suicide.
  9. Hecht uses this reasoning to argue that suicide is immoral: as a social being, you may perform an act provided that it is covered by a maxim (rule) that you can wish to universalize (endorse for everyone to follow). The maxim covering suicide is "I may take my life when it becomes too heavy a burden." According to Hecht, you cannot universalize this maxim. Since all humans sooner or later confront heavy burdens in life, doing so would result in the extinction of the human race, an outcome that no rational person could support. This, of course, originated with Immanuel Kant in the 18th Century. See Stay, p. 138.