The untimely death of the Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman last week has been classified as a suicide although Cornell’s wife has publicly indicated that she does not believe that his death was intentional suicide and that misused prescription medications may have played a role in the actions of that evening.
Much of my work as a psychologist is focused around the issue of suicide – whether it’s awareness, prevention, treatment, or postvention for those experience a loss to suicide. (Imagine sharing that fun tidbit about your work at a dinner party!). My interest in ending suicide has led me to work with suicidal teens and to serve as a Board Member of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. As a fan of 90’s alternative music, I was saddened to hear about the death of Chris Cornell.
If this death was in fact a suicide, Cornell is one of more than 44,000 people in our country each year to die by suicide. While we can’t say exactly what happened in the moments leading up to the end of Cornell’s life, we do know that Cornell at age 52 falls into a category – middle-aged men, who are at the highest risk of dying by suicide. White males account for 7 out of 10 suicides and suicide rates among men ages 45-64 increased a staggering 43% from 1999 to 2014.
Why are Middle-Aged Men More Vulnerable to Suicide?
So why are middle aged men most highly susceptible to suicide? There are multiple factors that appear to contribute to this disturbing trend. We know that Talk saves lives and men are less likely to talk about their struggles and pursue support than women. Men tend to shy away from seeking help and engaging in mental health treatment when we know that mental health treatment can be effective in preventing suicide. Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have a mental health condition at the time of suicide. Depression is the most common mental health condition present in those who die by suicide with substance abuse, which is more common among men, estimated to be present in nearly half of all suicides.
Another factor in deaths via suicide is method. Men tend to use more lethal means during a suicide attempt. They are often more familiar with handing guns and are more likely to use a firearm. Field of occupation may also play a role. Male-dominated occupations of farming, fishing, forestry, construction and maintenance/installation have the highest suicide rates. These are also occupations that are highly subject to external conditions, such as weather, pestilence and the functioning of equipment and they can have large ebbs and flows in terms of prosperity and employment. This is especially difficult when men often derive a significant part of their sense of self-worth and identity from their occupation and their success within their field.
Experiencing a loss, including loss of a job or loss of status, is a risk factor for suicide and this may be amplified in men as they concurrently experience a loss of self-worth. This can be intensified even further by feelings of hopelessness and a sense of being a burden to others further increasing risk for suicide. These feelings may be particularly strong for middle aged men who think that they have fallen short of where they expected to be at this point in their lives.
While we can’t say what happened with Chris Cornell, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention there is no one cause for suicide but there are signs that someone is considering suicide. Be on the lookout for someone who makes statements related to ending their life or feeling that they have no reason to live. Changes in behavior can also be a red flag, especially if these follow a painful loss or event. Withdrawal from activities and loved ones, increased substance use, changes in sleep, saying goodbye, giving away things they care about, and aggressive behavior are all changes that can signal suicide risk. Changes in mood, including sadness, worry, irritability, humiliation, agitation and rage are also linked to suicidality.
Anyone can help someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. Ask the person directly if they are having thoughts of suicide. Be nonjudgmental and calm as you listen to them. Always take it seriously. If they are struggling with thoughts of suicide, seek professional treatment. If there is imminent cause for concern, go to your local ER or call 911 to ensure their safety. If you or someone you love has thoughts of suicide, support is available 24/7 through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or by texting “TALK” to 741-741. Additional resources and information are available through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (www.afsp.org).