Op-Ed: Anthony Bourdain’s death has us asking the wrong questions about suicide
What I found intriguing about Anthony Bourdain’s death isn’t the case itself, but the many questions it raises about the nature of the discussion we’re having about suicide.
At its root, the discussion revolves around two concepts: (1) the issue of suicide as self-harm and the broader issue of who will live and who will die, and (2) who has the right to decide who lives and who dies.
My colleague Tom Gjelten and I found ourselves arguing about one of those questions in an unpublished paper about the case, which he submitted to peer-reviewed outlets for publication. In it, we argued that it’s critical to understand who is at risk here: Those who are vulnerable and who can be helped. We argued that while suicide is a serious problem, and a major factor in this country’s suicide rate, it’s not a problem for most people. To put it another way, suicide is not an affliction or “illness” that affects the majority of people in this country.
We went on to conclude that suicide is not a choice. If you’re going to choose to die, you have to make a conscious choice to do it, and we found that suicide is a function of the choices we make. Some people choose to die; some people choose not to die.
Bourdain, though, was not someone who made a conscious choice to end his life. He was an intelligent, well-educated, and successful American who was not depressed and did not suffer from other mental issues, so when he chose to kill himself, his decision was out of his control and, thus, his alone. He did not have to be depressed to end his life, and so his decision was not, in some sense, a suicide decision.
As Gjelten and I started to write and discuss our paper on the case, a few questions kept coming up: Is it fair or accurate to say that suicide is not a health problem, or do we have to wait for suicide to become an epidemic to stop talking about it? Should suicide be on the public health or on the public safety agenda? Do we need more research