Friday, April 29, 2011

Suicide in Las Vegas

While I agree with the existentialists (and the novelist John Barth) that the question of suicide is the first question that a truly wise & self-aware mind must confront, I have known too many suicides to ever treat the subject glibly. No two suicides are the same, and the pain they cause to survivors is too great to reduce to a philosophical syllogism.

Now comes the latest Freakonomics podcast (entitled "Gambling With Your Life") which looks at the suicide rates in Las Vegas and asks some very interesting questions.

How does the suicide rate in Sin City compare with the rest of the country? Is this difference significant? And is Las Vegas a place that CAUSES suicides or is it merely a place that ATTRACTS the suicidal?

Unfortunately, the data does not offer a complete explanation of this phenomenon, but the sociologist Matt Wray from Temple University offers some provocative interpretations of the numbers. And I'm interested in what these interpretations say about my hometown.

Needless to say, I urge you to listen to the podcast and then contact me with your own reactions.

hosted by Stephen Dubner and featuring sociologist Matt Wray


  1. Three thoughts:

    1) Twice as many suicides as homicides every year? That is a simple, surprising fact that I bet 90% of Americans don’t know.

    2) Mr. Wray’s simple advice to “get out of town” if you’re feeling suicidal strikes me as some of the most straightforward and pragmatic advice you’ll ever hear from anyone about suicide.

    I mean, it seems truly simple-minded to suggest that leaving a high-suicide area is a solution to any particular individual’s suicidal thoughts/tendencies but in fact, changing one’s location and lifestyle, even temporarily, is probably the best and easiest way to shake off depression/melancholy/apathy or whatever else is driving one to think about killing oneself. Personally, I would opt for that sort of solution LONG before turning to prescription antidepressants and the like.

    3) I am exposed to a lot of discourse by top military officials, and many have repeatedly remarked that the above-average rate of suicides in the ground forces especially is a very intractable and serious problem. Anomie would seem to have less of an explanatory effect there, since military personnel ostensibly have a high level of group cohesion, so what might account for the suicides being so much more common in the armed forces than in the general population? Is it just the horrors of war, or is there something beyond that?

    Moreover, does Mr. Wray’s advice about leaving town still hold true here? Do you think a suicidal private would tend to be better off if he simply transferred units/postings?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Taylor.

    I'm still exploring whether Las Vegas is a suicide magnet or a suicide expediter or both, and I have a feeling that the answer involves a host of factors, including the popular conception of Las Vegas as a place of transgression & transience.

    As for the issue of suicide in the military, I know that there is a lot of ongoing research in this area, and, again, the problem involves a wide variety of factors, not least of which is the stress of combat.

    I'm told that depression is often helped by a change of circumstances, whether it's geographical location and/or social situation. The trick, I'm told, is for a therapist to help manage that change so that it doesn't result in further destruction or relapse.

    As Winston Churchill is purported to have said, "When going through hell, keep going."