Suicide 101:

Lessons Before Dying

Type “suicide” into an Internet search engine, and among the sites advertising therapy, hotlines and antidepressants, you’ll find a handful of pages where suicidal strangers counsel each other on the best way to die.


The largest site, called alt.suicide.holiday, or ASH, combines a public newsgroup, chat rooms and guide files instructing visitors on how to kill themselves using everything from aspirin to rat poison.


Local news reports have so far linked ASH to three suicides. Wired News was able to confirm another seven deaths associated with the site in interviews with relatives over the last month. In addition, ASH itself lists another 14 suicides as “success stories,” but those could not be verified because of the anonymous screen names used by the people who allegedly died.


Evidence exists that at least one person downloaded carbon monoxide poisoning instructions from the site before killing herself.


The ASH site, which started as a Usenet bulletin board in 1991, has spun off a related newsgroup and chat rooms.


In addition to the main newsgroup, a kind of online diary whose participants vent feelings of unhappiness and comment on each other’s suicide plans, visitors can find advice on funeral arrangements, writing goodbye letters and an agony calculator that computes the pain and lethality factors of various types of suicide.

‘Let me get this straight: You’re looking for advice for dealing with hopelessness and depression from someone who’s hopeless and depressed? How logical is that?’ — a psychiatrist interviewed for his reaction to this phenomenon, which is the first part of a three-part series in Wired. The second part is here: No one asked why he wanted to die. My reaction is abit more complicated than a neat soundbite, I hope. It starts from first principles — the mission of mental health professionals is not to prevent all suicide but only preventable suicides. It sounds like a tautology (it isn’t proven preventable until you prevent it, right?) but, believe me, even though we don’t have a crystal ball, it isn’t. Certain psychiatric illness is a terminal disease, the suicide associated with it inevitable; certain suicide is a rational choice, not a product of the impaired judgment, thought, impulse control or emotion of a mental illness; certain self-injurious behavior is nonetheless not of suicidal proportion; and certain seemingly suicidal ideation is merely “as-if”.

To construe one’s mission as preventing all suicide would be not only impossible, of course, but worthy of the type of paternalistic society a John Ashcroft envisions, clicking neatly with the nondiscerning and obsolescent attitudes (of Ashcroft or his ilk, my guess is) which consider suicide either a crime, a sin, or both. If you believe in free will, it would be a mistake, although one readily made in grief and bewilderment after a suicide, to blame anyone external for providing the know-how or even the means, even if they are actively encouraging. This is only a new issue insofar as it is web-based; the Hemlock Society has fought for the right to publish how-to manuals for suicide for a long time. Even if you believe they intend them to be used only to alleviate the suffering of those with painful fatal medical conditions, others certainly have access to them.

I train other mental health professionals in suicide assessment and prevention, and certainly feel it is our burden to thoughtfully evaluate the potential self-lethality of anyone expressing suicidal thoughts who comes our way. In many instances that requires the person’s voluntary participation; in others they can be confined against their will. I believe that the commitment statutes for involuntary hospitalization to prevent self-harm have wisdom in insisting that committability depends on having a mental illness, not merely expressing the wish to end one’s life. I see the statutes abused in several ways — first, to confine people who, although they harm themselves in other ways, do not represent a threat to their lives or intend to end their lives; and second, to confine people who do not have a legitimate mental illness. I am particularly troubled by the “attention-getting” patient who makes gestural suicidal pronouncements or self-injurious acts but is at no greater than baseline suicide risk; our response merely reinforces the pathological attention-seeking and wastes increasingly scarce mental health resources. But in a litigious society, no one wants to take the risk of liability for having been wrong in their assessment of whether someone is truly self-lethal (and, of course, even a gesture can go wrong and mistakenly kill oneself), so nondiscerning crisis services and outpatient providers have everyone locked up — which is exactly why ASHers don’t talk to health professionals about how they feel. In this sense, groups like ASH may actually do a service, in several ways. First, by providing accurate information about suicide methodology, they may dissuade some from attempting at all, or influence them to postpone an otherwise impulsive act. Secondly, by making it clear how lethal various methods are, they make it less likely that a “gesturer” will mistakenly choose a lethal method. Thirdly, and most importantly, they tolerate how the person with suicidal ideation feels nonjudgmentally and supportively. This is what mental health professionals were once taught to do as the sine qua non in treating the suicidal patient, but it is a task at which we fall woefully short (for a coalescence of reasons enumerating which would be a treatise in itself). Often, not being heard or tolerated is the proximal precipitant to someone’s crossing the line and taking thir life.

Shower Rice to stop the war

‘We can do no great things, We can only do small things with great love.’ “An anti-war action is sweeping through the churches. It has worked before. It can work now. Everyone can do this:

  • Place 1/2 c. uncooked rice in a small plastic bag (a snack-sized bag or sandwich bag works fine).
  • Squeeze out excess air and seal the bag.
  • Wrap it in a piece of paper on which you have written: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. (Romans 12:20)” Please send this rice to the people of Iraq; do not attack them.”
  • Place the paper and bag of rice in an envelope (either a letter-sized or small padded mailing envelope – both are the same cost to mail) and address it to:

    President George Bush

    White House – 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

    Washington, DC 20500

  • Make a second package and mail it to (you don’t need to affix postage if mailing within Canada):

    Prime Minister Jean Chrétien

    Office of the Prime Minister

    80 Wellington Street

    Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A2

    [I’m not sure if it would make sense for non-Canadians to send the second one to Chrétien. This post is taken from the Thunder Bay, Ontario, IndyMedia Centre. — FmH]

  • Drop this in the mail today. It is important to act now so that President Bush and Prime Minister Chrétien get our letters as soon as possible!

    In order for this protest to be effective, there must be hundreds of thousands of such rice deliveries to the White House and Parliament Hill. We can do this if we all forward this message to our friends and family. If we get the message out, there will be packets from hundreds of thousands of people!

    There is a positive history of this protest! Read on!

    ". . .’keep a step ahead, keep your mind ahead’ —

    Neal Cassady (2/8/26-2/4/68) died <a href=”http://www.todayinliterature.com/today-ct.asp?id=2/4/2003

    “>on this day.

    “. . .’keep a step ahead, keep your mind ahead’ — (I heard his insistent voice) — ‘don’t butt your dumb head against their walls, man! – look for doors, and then GO – Just leave them snarled up in their worries, their motives – it’s their kick man, it’s their dreary high – But, listen – never knock the way the other cat swings.'”

    — John Clellon Holmes, Go (1952),
    [Generally acknowledged to be the first Beat novel and preceding Kerouac’s On The Road by five years, it is also about Cassady.]


    Related: Why did John Perry Barlow spell Cassady’s name wrong in his heartfelt paean?


    While we’re at it, here’s more from Go:

    ‘Last week l got the idea that the one aim of my intercourse with other people is to prevent them from noticing how brittle and will-less l have become,” Paul Hobbes was writing. ‘l cant seem to dance without a piper. Would you believe ill of me? l actually yearn for life to be easy, magic, full of love. How wonderful (and simple) it would be if we were all naked on a plain, as Gene Pasternak says. You probably wouldn’t like him at all, but l can learn something from him because he’s written an annoyingly good novel. And anyway he believes in himself, and also in life…. As of this moment, l only believe in the spring outside the window on Lexington Avenue, and in you. Is there spring up there on Riverside Drive too? Let’s all go out and be naked on a plain. . . .”


    Angrily, Hobbes stopped typing, surrendering to his feeling that the letter was basically aimless. He pulled the sheet out of the machine, looked it over for a moment, thrust it aside, and got up. He began to walk noisily up and down the floor. It was after five and Pasternak had been sleeping since nine that morning.


    Everything in sight made Hobbes impatient: the shelves he had built for their books, the borrowed frameless paintings on the walls, the couches in need of a brush; everything that he and his wife, Kathryn, had collected and arranged so carefully in the last years. They were not enough somehow; nor were his desk, his manuscripts, and the novel upon which he had been biting his nails too long. Only the soft spring evening, which hung like some impossibly romantic water-color behind the towers of midtown Manhattan, escaped his dissatisfaction. He was filled with that heightened sense of excitement and restlessness that spring brings to New York, when evening becomes graceful and warm with promise. A joy without object or reason rose within him, but like all such joys ebbed into frustration almost immediately because he did not know how to express it.


    He went to the phonograph, pulled out an album and put on a soft jazz record. He did not want to keep quiet, he wanted everything to begin; but an overly-developed sense of propriety prevented him from going to the bedroom, and waking Pasternak with cruel brightness so they could talk. Instead he sat down again and began to re-read what he had written.

    File-Trading Manifesto:

    Embrace file-sharing, or die: “A record executive and his son make a formal case for freely downloading music. The gist: 50 million Americans can’t be wrong.” — John Snyder [president of Artist House Records, a board member of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), and a 32-time Grammy nominee], Salon

    Poets Against the War

    A week ago Sam Hamill sent an open letter — printed below — to a few friends. Word has spread like wildfire from mailbox to mailbox, and to date over 3,600 poets have submitted poems or personal statements to register their opposition to the Bush administration’s headlong plunge toward war in Iraq. In doing so, they have honored a long and rich tradition of thoughtful and moral opposition by poets and other artists to senseless and murderous policies, including those of our own government.


    In the face of the near unanimous opposition from U.N. members, despite the disapproval of the vast majority of citizens of the world, in defiance of the advice of its own intelligence agencies, and contrary to both common sense and fundamental notions of morality, the Bush administration seems to be on a rocket sled headed for war.


    The next few weeks will likely prove to be critical. Please register your protest and add your name to our numbers by submitting a poem or brief commentary. Be part of our National Day of Poetry Against the Waron February 12.

    [Febuary 12th was to have been the day of the now-cancelled “Poetry and the American Voice” symposium at the White House. — FmH]

    Guernica, Iraq:

    Comparisons between the Pentagon’s war plans for the looming war in Iraq and the Nazis’ bombing of the Basque village of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 are rife. For a sampling, see this Google Search: ‘Guernica & Iraq’. As Gar Smith commented in Alternet:

    U.S. military strategists have announced a plan to pummel Iraq with as many as 800 cruise missiles in the space of two days. Many of these missiles would rain down on Baghdad, a city of five million people. If George W. Bush gets the war he wants, Baghdad could become the 21st century’s Guernica.


    On April 26, 1937, 25 Nazi bombers dropped 100,000 pounds of bombs and incendiaries on the peaceful Basque village. Seventy percent of the town was destroyed and 1,500 people, a third of the population, were killed.


    The Pentagon now predicts that the Iraq blitzkrieg could approximate the devastation of a nuclear explosion. “The sheer size of this has never been … contemplated before,” one Pentagon strategist boasted to CBS News. “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad.”


    The Pentagon dubbed its cold-blooded attack plan “Shock and Awe,” a bizarre conjunction of trauma and admiration.


    //roland.tardieu.free.fr/Picasso/Guernica.jpg' cannot be displayed]

    A full-size reproduction of Picasso’s “Guernica”, which he donated to the U.N., hangs in its lobby and is the backdrop against which diplomats make their press statements. Now comes word that a large blue curtain has been used to cover the work. A U.N. spokesperson, asked why, would only say that the curtain is an “appropriate background for the cameras.” But it appears to be rather a matter of sensitivity to US mouthpieces such as Colin Powell or John Negroponte who would have to advocate for “Shock and Awe” in front of an overpowering depiction of women, children and animals shouting in horror as they are attacked from the skies. Art Daily [thanks, Adam]

    In related art news, fittingly from the same day’s Art Daily as the above, Rubens’ early masterpiece “The Massacre of the Innocents” (1609-1610) will be on display at the National Gallery in London for three years on loan from the new owner who recently acquired it at a record-breaking auction, it has just been announced. Only recently affirmed to be a Rubens, the piece was so detested by its former owner that it was lent to a monastery until sold last fall.


    //www.arts.adelaide.edu.au/personal/DHart/Images/WarArt/Rubens/MassacreInnocents1621.JPG' cannot be displayed]

    Those crafty curators are always making statements with their art choices, aren’t they?

    Finally, here’s a concise guide to The Art of War and Peace.

    The Negro Speaks of Rivers — Langston Hughes

    I’ve known rivers:
    I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
    flow of human blood in human veins.

    My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

    I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
    I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
    I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
    I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
    went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
    bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

    I’ve known rivers:
    Ancient, dusky rivers.

    My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

    (for George W. Bush as one in a continuing series honoring ‘banned’ poets)

    [One of my favorite Hughes’ pieces ever since Gary Bartz set it to sublime music thirty years ago. mark wood put up another of my favorites, “Let America Be America Again”, the other day in noting Hughes’ birthday. — FmH]