Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Newsworthy Deaths

So for the second time in as many days we have another story about a wealthy, high-flying businessman who commits suicide. Yesterday it was a German industrialist, today it was a Chicago real estate auctioneer.

I'm not sure what makes these suicides more newsworthy than the death of one of my neighbors a couple years ago that didn't make the newspaper, or the hundreds of other suicide deaths that happen every month in this country, but there it is on CNN. Maybe it's a media comment on the state of the economy. Maybe it's the shock value of a successful or wealthy person just throwing it all away and giving up. Maybe it's a morality tale that materialism doesn't lead to happiness. Regardless, the stories draw eyeballs just for the schadenfreude of watching someone fall from a high place.

In our local newspaper there were stories about other recent suicides: a Pennsylvania politician who was also an accused serial rapist and a school teacher who was accused of assaulting a student. The New York Times recently had an in-depth story about the Fort Meade scientist who committed suicide under the stress of the FBI anthrax investigation. These are deaths at the other end of the social spectrum, involving people who might generate a lot less sympathy than the businessmen. In other situations like this I've heard people suggest that the accused 'had it coming' or even express relief that money wouldn't be wasted on a trial.

Does it really matter? The impact of suicide on the spouses, family, co-workers, friends and neighbors doesn't depend on the deceased's social status. And I cringe at the implication that perhaps suicide prevention may not be quite as crucial for people who are less deserving than others.

A pedophile patient of mine thought it was important that I believe he was innocent, as if I'd give him worse care because of his offense. I finally shocked him by telling him, "It doesn't matter if you did it or didn't do it, you still deserve to be healthy."

I really hope that someday society will believe that.