The economics of suicide.

Commentary about business and finance.
Oct. 29 2003 11:15 AM

The Economics of Suicide

Why trying to kill yourself may be a smart business decision.

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The suicide-prevention movement of the 1960s was founded upon the idea of "suicide crisis moments"—relatively brief periods when "psychological pain and mental illness causes irrational thoughts, which are treatable and temporary," explained Dr. David Rudd, president of the American Association of Suicidology. This idea is the basis of suicide hotlines, which studies prove are effective in saving lives. Suicidology suggests that most failed suicide attempts are not caused by permanent mental illness. Rather, they are the products of momentary lapses in reason. Once the crisis moment is resolved through intervention and care, suicidal instincts pass and would-be attempters go on to fruitful and healthy lives. (Many economists and suicidologists agree that multiple suicide attempts and successful suicides are often products of longstanding mental illnesses.)

Constructing suicide as a momentary loss of reason is vitally important to the suicide-prevention movement because it suggests that men and women who have attempted self-murder should be allowed to shrug off social stigmas. If suicidal instincts are just momentary delusions, they are easily explained and dismissed. The suicide-prevention movement fears that if suicide is deemed the rational product of someone's mind, we may feel justified in suspecting that mind forever.

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But by objecting to rational explanations of suicide, the suicidology community may be undermining its own cause. Although suicide attempts cost the nation more than $3 billion per year, and suicides claim more American lives than homicides, suicide prevention is hampered by scarce resources. Ultimately, say mental health advocates, legislators don't like to fund suicide prevention because they believe that suicidal people must be crazy, and crazy people don't really want help. Perhaps if suicide were considered a rational and combatable disease, like skin cancer or high cholesterol, we might see well funded educational campaigns similar to those for more socially acceptable ailments.

Correction, Nov. 6, 2003: The piece originally identified Dave Marcotte as a professor at the University of Maryland, which may have misled some readers. The term "University of Maryland" is generally understood to refer to the university's flagship campus, University of Maryland, College Park. Marcotte is a professor at a different campus, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Return to the corrected sentence.

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times, based in New York, and the author of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.