Suicide Watch
Suicide Watch
Health and medicine explained.
Nov. 22 1997 3:30 AM

Suicide Watch

The strange case of Air Force Capt. Craig Button.

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Button's suicide also shows how, even in peculiar cases, the desire to die arises from one's individual history and psychology. Yet, in public discussion of youthful suicide, we're often unwilling to trace it to such causes and try to place blame elsewhere--on television, music, movies. Earlier this month, a Senate subcommittee considering stricter restrictions on music lyrics heard an anguished father blame his son's suicide on shock rocker Marilyn Manson's music. The 15-year-old died with the band playing on his headphones. Numerous studies show that there is no association between music and suicide. (One found that country-music lovers had higher suicide rates, but subsequent research disputes these results.)


Of course, ideas do count. We know, for example, that one adolescent suicide can trigger others, even through media reports, leading to "suicide clusters." Had later victims not heard about the first suicide, they may not have done it when they did. But psychiatrists insist that an idea cannot compel even a child to commit suicide. It is only a proximate factor in a vulnerable person with stronger causes at work.

Usually, the causes are an addictive or mental disorder. Craig Button's case shows how much more complex they can be. And how bizarre.

Atul Gawande, M.D., writes a regular column on science and policy for Slate.

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