The Suicide Cascade

The recent deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have focused attention on a growing health problem in the United States:  suicide.  If it seems like suicide has become more commonplace in recent years, that’s because that is exactly what has happened.

anthony-bourdain-dead-6Coincidentally, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last week that sketched out some statistics on suicide in America — which are deeply disturbing.  The CDC report states that suicide has been steadily increasing for more than a decade and is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States.  The CDC looked at data from individual states from 1999 to 2016 and found that suicide rates have increased in virtually every state.  In half of the states, the rate has increased by a mind-boggling 30 percent.

The CDC report found that, in 2016, almost 45,000 Americans died by suicide, with especially sharp increases in suicide rates in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Vermont, New Hampshire and South Carolina.  The statistics also show that women are beginning to close the historical suicide “gender gap,” in which men have been far more likely to take their own lives; suicide rates among American women also have surged.

What causes a person to commit suicide?  Why would someone as interesting and witty and evidently successful as Anthony Bourdain, for example, decide to take their own life?  The CDC report found that more than half of the people who committed suicide did not have a diagnosed mental health condition.  Another recent study, on suicide trends in 27 states, also determined that suicide is more than a mental health issue, with many of the people acting as a result of relationship problems or loss of a loved one, substance misuse, physical health problems, or other personal or financial strains.

And suicide also seems to have a nefarious cascade effect, in which each suicide makes the next one more likely.  It’s apparently due to a variation of the “broken windows” effect, in which learning of someone’s suicide gives struggling people who otherwise might not think of it the idea that suicide is a viable option.  The effect has produced well-known instances of “suicide clusters” in towns or schools, in America and elsewhere — which may mean that we should hold our breath and hope that highly publicized suicides, like those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, don’t trigger an even greater epidemic of self-inflicted harm.

We all need to keep our eyes open, pay attention to our friends and colleagues who are struggling, and try to help them understand that their lives are worth living, even in times of great difficulty.

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The Big Short

The Big Short is one of those movies that is intended to make you uncomfortable — and it succeeds, twice over.

The film tells the story of the housing bubble and sub-prime mortgage fiasco that led to the economic collapse and stock market crash of 2008. It begins with the handful of loners and clear-eyed if vulgar realists who investigated, read what others didn’t, identified the unsustainable reality, and then figured out a way to make lots of money, even as the financial and political establishment was smugly convinced that the impending disaster couldn’t possibly occur.

bigshortbaleDon’t worry if you don’t know much about finance or economics — as the movie progresses you’ll get humorous little tutorials on the key concepts from exotic-looking women taking bubble baths, Anthony Bourdain figuring out what to do with old fish, and a prize-winning economist and Selena Gomez playing blackjack.  And, of course, all along the viewer knows the catastrophe is coming.  Even so, it’s uncomfortable to watch it unfold and to hear once again about Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and Countrywide and bailouts and the other events that made some people wonder if the American economy and capitalism would even survive the cataclysm.

It’s a powerful story, and The Big Short tells it well.  Its ensemble cast, which features Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, is excellent, but it’s not an ensemble movie in the traditional sense, because some of the principal players never interact on screen.  They’re each running their own funds, dealing with their own investors and institutional pressures and insecurities, seeing the overall mess from different perspectives and wondering whether they are witnessing fraud or imbecility or incompetence.  And, as the movie reaches the point where the world economy teeters on the brink, they convincingly portray the sense of astonishment and shaken wonder at how the hell it all happened in the first place.

So, reliving those grim days when fortunes were lost and the country plunged into recession is uncomfortable, for sure.  And the second uncomfortable moment comes when the movie ends — because the final message of The Big Short questions whether the same thing could happen again and whether new bubbles are percolating even as we speak.  One of the core themes of the film is that most of the Wall Street wizards really aren’t so wizard-like after all — just greedy hustlers who don’t really sweat the details or even fully understand why they’re making the obscene amounts of money they’re making and are oblivious to the risks they are creating for the rest of us who have to deal with the aftermath.

It doesn’t exactly make you feel super secure about your 401(k) plan, now does it?

Thankful

We will soon have a full house for Thanksgiving.  Richard and Russell (and a very shaggy Russell at that) are home and the rest of the extended Webner/Hartnett clan will be arriving shortly.  The kitchen table is groaning with an assortment of cheeses, nuts, meats, and fruits.  For dinner itself we will be serving two turkeys, mashed potatoes, yams, corn bread, pies, and three different kinds of stuffing.  (I’ve been motivated by Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods — after all, they both attended Vassar — so I cooked up the hearts, kidneys, and livers of the two turkeys and made a special stuffing with them.  We’ll see if anyone else is interested in giving it a try.)  We’ve got wine and beer galore, and Kish decided to have a special “signature drink” for Thanksgiving, which will be a pomegranate martini.

We have many reasons to be thankful this year.  Everyone who wants to be working has a job, and everyone is in good health.  Kish has enjoyed her job and is continuing her quest to read virtually every book reviewed in the New York Review of Books.  Richard graduated from Northwestern, likes his job as a project assistant and his downtown apartment living, and is looking at law schools.  Russell is doing well at Vassar, enjoys his art, and has joined the rugby team.  Penny has had her puppies.  And the Buckeyes have once again beaten Michigan.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!