Placing the Blame for Suicide

If 2019 stays on trend more than 47-thousand Americans will kill themselves this year.  Their loved ones will, understandably, be consumed with grief over the suicide.  But some of them will then go on to try to affix outside blame for the death. Many of them will hire a lawyer and file a wrongful death lawsuit against a person, company, school or, maybe, even a structure that, in the minds of the family, failed to protect their suicidal loved one.

But is any living person or thing really to blame for someone’s suicide?  A judge in New York has just said no.  

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth recently ruled on a pair of cases filed by the grieving relatives of a 24-year-old female jazz musician and a prominent 49-year-old male architect who, on separate occasions, jumped to their deaths from the George Washington Bridge in the summer of 2017.  Court papers referred to the 600-foot-high bridge over the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey as a “suicide magnet” and both multimillion-dollar lawsuits blamed the Port Authority (which oversees bridge operations) for not doing enough to stop despondent jumpers.  Judge Bluth didn’t buy it.

“They cannot be held liable because someone makes the tragic decision to take his own life,” the judge wrote in her decision dismissing the wrongful death suits.

“Most property owners have no idea about the mental state of the people who traverse their properties,” the judge added, and therefore those responsible for the property should not be required to “assess the ways people might attempt to commit suicide” and take preemptory precautions.

Suicide has become a heartbreaking fact of American life.  The National Institute for Mental Health reports it is among the leading causes of death.  It is the second leading killer of those between 10 and 34.  But white middle-aged men take their own lives at a higher rate than any other category with 7 out of 10 suicides attributed to that group.  Annually, there are more suicides in the U.S. than fatal traffic accidents, more than breast cancer deaths and more than double the number of murders. In 2017, 1.3 million Americans attempted to kill themselves but were somehow saved.

Studying why and how the hopeless decide to end their lives isn’t just a macabre exercise, it is mandatory if we ever hope to curb this awful upward trend. But it is a complicated endeavor.

Younger people are succumbing to relentless bullying from peers and turning to suicide at an alarming rate. There are countless wrongful death lawsuits pending against schools for their alleged failure to keep students safe.  Among them are suits in California, Missouri, Georgia, Texas, New Jersey and New York. In Ohio, an 8-year-old boy hanged himself from his bunk bed after repeated harassment from schoolmates.  His parents filed suit against the Cincinnati Public School system for being “deliberately indifferent” and allowing a “treacherous school environment” which caused their son to become fatally despondent. The schools are on record saying they did not ignore parent and student complaints but, rather, did the best they could to address each situation.

For older Americans there are multiple suicide triggers:  relationship breakups, job losses, financial difficulties or a life crisis such as the death of a loved one or diagnosis of a major illness. Wrongful death lawsuits in this group are frequently filed against therapists and medical professionals. Simply Google “wrongful death attorney” to see how many lawyers are standing by to take suicide cases. (“You don’t pay unless we win!”)  Attorney advertisements don’t mention they usually take more than 30% of any winning settlement.  I’m not sure prolonging the grieving process with a long drawn out legal action is a healthy focus.

As for how suicides are accomplished?  More than half of all suicides are carried out using a gun. Suffocation or hanging is the second leading cause of death, followed by poisoning. Other desperate people have stepped in front of a speeding train, jumped from tall buildings or used knives to slit major veins or arteries.  The point is, the truly determined will find a way to end their life no matter what safety precautions have been taken.  Blaming others for failure to guard against every conceivable suicide method is illogical.

Of course, at the very core of the problem is the level of sadness, loneliness and wretched hopelessness some of our fellow humans feel. Not until we become a more compassionate society, and it becomes easier for desperate people to get professional help, will the upward trend of suicide subside.

Therapists can’t be everywhere and loved ones see and understand more than anyone else. If you suspect someone you care about seems suicidal – do something. Every threat of suicide should be taken seriously. Everyone needs to learn the warning signs:  mood swings, sleep disorders, acts of self-harm, withdrawal from others and changes of personality and/or appearance.  There are readily available experts standing by to help.



  1. Diane Dimond on January 7, 2019 at 11:15 am

    Reader Chris Conway writes:

    Hi Diane Dimond,
    I read your op-ed in the ABQ Journal today on suicide and the rise of finding blame with external sources instead of internal conflict. I am not a professional in anyway just an avid Audible listener that has found a great interest and desire to understand human behavior and with it myself.
    It seems common to paint most suicides under the broad brush of ‘depression’ completely overlooking the roll that neurosis and self-hate play along with the unconsciously driven inter psychic processes and torment that lead up to an individual actually developing self-hate thus playing a large part in suicides.
    I found this book published 70 years ago that took me personally by storm and feel that it should be primary understanding for all humans at any level. Even though the book was published shortly after World War II the subject matter in it and the theory of neurosis seem more relevant today than ever in answering why the suicide rate is climbing and why we can expect that to happen in our current changing society.
    I just want to share in case you might have an interest in a possible different angle than usual common published idea that the cause of most suicides is mainly linked around depression. You might have heard of it, but you never know:
    ‘Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self Realization by Karen Horney’
    I cannot personally stress enough how much this book has changed my understanding of human behavior and with it my life.

    Thank you,
    Chris Conway

  2. Diane Dimond on January 7, 2019 at 11:16 am

    Reader Tim Taylor writes:

    Your paragraph:

    >> “Of course, at the very core of the problem is the level of sadness, loneliness and wretched hopelessness some of our fellow humans feel. Not until we become a more compassionate society, and it becomes easier for desperate people to get professional help, will the upward trend of suicide subside.” >>

    I think you’re onto it here – the wretched hopelessness. Drilling down to root causes is very important if one wishes to truly address a problem and come to a sustainable solution.

    Is “therapy” the solution? I wonder. Can a too-human reaction to diseased human societies be “treated?”

    I find it difficult to fight off cynicism when I read the history of our species. Our generosity, our creativity, our sacrifices for one another – inspirational and uplifting. But these characteristics seem to consistently be blown away by our greed, our ignorance, our cruelty, our selfishness and self-centeredness.

    I think that the root cause of increased levels of suicide in the U.S. have to do with our isolation, our insistence on individualism and our ignorance as a society. Too many of our brothers and sisters know in their hearts that they are being taken advantage of by others with privileges that they don’t have.

    But they do not have the ability or temperament to know what to do. So in desperation they turn to “somebody else” who can “fix” their world. Unfortunately there are always bullshit artists like Donald Trump and others like him to take on that role of “fixing” people’s lives. When, of course, it doesn’t work, and in fact everything get worse, the blame never lands where it belongs.

    Escape from the pain of daily struggle has historically been alcohol. Interestingly, and laughably, our society seems to have settled on adding legal marijuana to the menu! A new cause for “enlightened” folks to get behind! Sure, let’s find as many mind-affecting chemicals as we can to “treat” our discomfort!

    At last, is suicide such a surprise at the societal level? Why not? Kind of makes sense doesn’t it? If someone has no family to speak of, if someone has lost one’s job and does not have a clear pathway to something else, if the privileged in society shame them, tell them that they simply have to “pull themselves together,” and “be responsible,” what should we expect?

    And if they have been brought up in a religion where “god” will take care of them, and that perhaps angels actually exist, and that Satan is causing all their troubles as a challenge to their spirituality, and that if they don’t get it right they’re going to Hell? While their preacher arrives on Sunday in a BMW and a $2000 suit and tells them if only they do it right, everything will turn around?

    Only it doesn’t?

    Think about it. If the IQ scale midpoint is 100, and if the standard deviation of IQ distributions is +/- 15, then 95% of us lie on a distribution curve between IQ = 70 and IQ = 130. That means that 50% of us have to get by with an IQ between 70 and 100.

    You and I, Diane, are gifted, because we get to exist on the 100-130 side of the Gaussian curve! What about those others? How do they deal with the catastrophic loss of meaningful menial work that once existed? How do they deal with 21st Century challenges, using their 19th Century knowledge base?

    A thought by E.O. Wilson that I put in my copy book:

    “We have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technologies, and that’s a dangerous mixture.”
    ~ E. O. Wilson

    As always, your patriotic fan,
    Tim Taylor

  3. Diane Dimond on January 9, 2019 at 11:40 am

    Reader Ally Jane writes:

    Tragic, but the bridge is just an easy alternative to what they Are trying to do. Diehards will eventually hang themselves, overdose, run in front of a bus or…..
    Glad this Judge gets it, as many allow these frivolous lawsuits on the docket. We all know, most have displayed concerning behavior before the act; family’s knew or saw something wrong w/ their loved one and should have acted then. However, those determined will be successful!

  4. Diane Dimond on January 9, 2019 at 4:02 pm

    Reader Gary Gary Huguenard writes:

    RE: your piece on suicide
    Very good piece. Do you think a more spiritual life (….God life) is missing from many people’s lives?
    Just a thought.

  5. Diane Dimond on January 9, 2019 at 8:31 pm

    Reader Stretmediq@stretmediq writes:

    I unfortunately have responded to many suicides over the years in my career One was a young girl who hung herself by a scarf tied to a bathtub faucet She could have easily saved herself by simply raising her head Of someone wants to kill themselves they will do it // Btw in most but not all cases (the exceptions being things like bullying where the bully is clearly at fault) I don’t think anyone is to blame especially the victim who is typically too despondent to make rational decisions and just want the pain they are feeling to stop.

  6. Diane Dimond on January 10, 2019 at 1:24 pm

    Reader Kenny Davis writes:

    Poor funding for mental illness would be just as much to blame

  7. Diane Dimond on January 13, 2019 at 11:15 pm

    Reader Hilda Kogut writes:

    I read your piece in the Rockland County Times and want to commend you for bringing light to a subject not talked about enough, studied enough and taken seriously enough until it is too late.

    I am a retired FBI Agent who lost her brother to a suicide 6 weeks after I graduated from college in 1973. He was Vietnam veteran who came back so damaged that he was unable to cope- even after meds and hospitalization.

    During my tenure in the FBI- (25 years) I saw a number of gun cleaning incidents and other questionable passings. I was a member of the counseling team – Post Critical Incident Team and worked often with Agents and police officers who had been involved in traumatic events- remember for too many years, survivors were told to move on after events,.

    Now as an adjunct professor of CJ at Dominican College i tell my students to take the time to care- to be sensitive to friends and fellow students who seem distant or who speak of doing harm to themselves.

    We Must Learn to Care Again.

    Thanks, Hilda Kogut/ Chestnut Ridge Chair of CUPON, – Citizens United to Protect Our Neighborhood

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