Successful Naperville also linked to stressed out teenagers

Naperville is not the only wealthy suburb to experience issues related to anxiety. Here is how one expert describes how community success can be related to worries:

Michelle Rusk, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, said when it comes to community pressure placed on teens to succeed and families to maintain the idealized “white picket fence” life, little has changed since she grew up in Naperville in the 1970s and ’80s…

Experts who work with Naperville students say they are treating more children experiencing signs of distress at a younger age…

Growing up in Naperville, Rusk, formerly known as Michelle Linn-Gust, said she heard stories of big houses with empty rooms because the owners couldn’t afford to furnish them or men who left their wives because they felt they weren’t making enough money.

People move to Naperville because it’s recognized as a great place to raise a family, but maintaining that image is challenging enough for adults let alone kids, she said.

In the 1990s, historian Michael Ebner argued Naperville was a “technoburb” – a suburb with a high number of high-tech and white-collar jobs – and this was accompanied by the development of high-performing schools. Naperville was not always like this; before the 1960s, Naperville was just a small town surrounded by farms.

But, is there a way to get out of this spiral of wealth, success, and anxiety and suicides? As Rusk noted above, Naperville is attractive in part because of its high-achieving environment. In communities like this with residents ranging from the middle-class to upper-class, families want only the best for their kids. Would residents and others be willing to give up some of the success to have better lives?

Evaluating self-immolation as a protest strategy

As the Arab Spring movements of this year began with an act of self-immolation in Tunisia, we might ask this question: is this an effective strategy for protest?

Self-immolation as a form of political protest is far more common than you might think. It’s particularly prevalent in countries that are home to many Buddhists and Hindus, who have long ascetic traditions that sometimes involve radical acts of physical self-abnegation. In 1990, for example, more than 200 upper-caste Indians set themselves on fire to protest government plans to reserve spots at university for people from the lower castes. Sharon Erickson Nepstad, an American sociologist who studies nonviolent resistance movements, says that Mahatma Gandhi based his theory of civil disobedience on the Hindu concept of tapasya, the embrace of suffering in the service of a higher cause. (The word literally means “heat.”) People sometimes forget, Nepstad says, that Gandhi regarded his activist followers as “nonviolent warriors,” ready to die for their cause even as they rejected attacks against others. (Intriguingly, as Nepstad points out, those three Americans who killed themselves to protest the Vietnam War were two Quakers and a left-wing Catholic, all of them members of avowedly pacifist groups.)…

The history of self-immolation as a political tool suggests that it is a highly volatile one. Setting oneself on fire can sometimes ignite a huge political protest, but there’s no guarantee that it will. Thich Quang Duc’s suicide resonated precisely because he and his supporters carefully calibrated their efforts to attract as much publicity as possible, even handing out prepared leaflets outlining their demands to bystanders. But they may have been the exception to the rule. Most self-immolators don’t seem to think that far ahead. Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicide had a far greater political impact than that of any of his Arab Spring emulators, clearly had no inkling of the enormous changes his act would unleash.

Whether a political suicide succeeds in igniting mass activism seems to depend largely on the circumstances of the moment. Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of his homeland the previous year, first came up with a harebrained scheme to occupy a government radio station before deciding at the last minute to burn himself in Wenceslas Square. Had he gone ahead with his initial (even more quixotic) plan, he might be remembered rather differently today…

Self-immolators make a tricky fit with established political organizations: Few leaders are likely to court popularity by inviting their followers to resort to public suicide. The Tibetan monks offer a case in point. Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet in Washington, D.C., says that the suicides pose a “moral dilemma” for the Tibetan opposition in exile, which is doing its best to dissuade would-be self-immolations even as it acknowledges the intense sense of desperation that appears to be driving them.

The answer appears to be not typically but perhaps it is helpful in generating a larger movement under the right conditions. This could be a catalyst for larger action but not necessarily. Is there ever a backlash against such an action?

The article doesn’t say about how often this has been tried in the Western world in order to call attention to a particular issue or in order to galvanize a movement. Is this generally a theologically-motivated act?

Durkheim discussed “suicide viruses”?

I was reading a recent edition of Newsweek at the gym and ran across a story about a Russian model who committed suicide. Toward the end of the article, the writer tries to explain higher suicide rates in Russia and invokes Emile Durkheim:

Young women from the former Soviet bloc are particularly fragile. Six of the top seven countries worldwide for suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics: Russia is sixth in the list, Kazakhstan second. The sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that suicide viruses occur at civilizational breaks, when the parents have no traditions, no value systems to pass on to their children. Thus there is no deep-lying ideology to support them when they are under emotional stress. Ruslana’s and Anastasia’s parents were brought up in the Soviet Union; their children lived in a completely different world.

I find this idea of  “suicide viruses” to be somewhat strange as it makes suicide sound like a contagion or a disease. Durkheim himself suggested in Suicide that suicides were the result of anomie, the idea that individuals in a society need to be integrated into the surrounding or they may feel disconnected and take drastic action. Imitation was not much of a social cause (see this summary here); rather, suicides are driven by a normlessness that one can experience if not properly integrated into society.

I think this paragraph referring to Durkheim could be better executed by talking about how young women in these former Soviet Republics have a difficult time finding their place in society. In this particular story, it sounds like the model was destabilized by this particular group/cult and didn’t know where to turn. The socialization process between parents and children might play a role in this but there could be other factors as well. The suggestion in the story is that parents have little ideology to pass on to their children and this is more of a society-wide concern than simply the responsibility of individual families.

Why some protesters set themselves on fire

There are a number of ways an individual can try to rally people to a particular cause. The New York Times suggests that one recent technique, seen most recently in Tunisia, is to set oneself on fire. But why people do this or how they get to this point is unclear:

It is often impossible to be sure what really motivates those who burn themselves to death. There is debate, for instance, about how Thich Quang Duc viewed his self-immolation in 1963, a protest that was related to the South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhist monks and may have been at least partly religious in nature. In other cases, politics may be a cover for personal despair or rage against a loved one.

Whatever the motive, suicide sometimes spreads like a disease, especially when heavily covered in the media. David P. Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at of San Diego, published a 1974 study documenting spikes in the number of suicides after well-publicized cases. He called it “the Werther effect,” after the rash of suicides that followed the 1774 publication of “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe whose romantic hero kills himself.

“One thing is strongly suggested by the academic studies: People are more likely to copy suicides if they see that they have results, or get wide attention,” Dr. Phillips said.

Tunisia has provided grim evidence for that. And Mr. Bouazizi may yet provoke more fiery deaths across the Middle East if the revolution he helped spark is seen as successful.

Someone must have some data across countries and/or over time that might shed some light on patterns among cases of self-immolation.

I noticed that the examples in this article are primarily from non-Western nations. Is there a history of this in the West? How would society respond if someone in Western Europe or the United States did this?

Suicide rates among the Baby Boomers

Suicide rates have long been of interest to sociologists, beginning with Emile Durkheim’s Suicide. The general argument from sociologists: suicide rates are reflective of broader social forces.

Recent research by two sociologists shows suicide rates among the baby boomers rose around the turn of the millennium. Here are some of the findings:

  • There was a substantial increase in the suicide rate for men (50-59) and women (40-59) between 1999 and 2005.  For men aged 40 to 49, the increase began about a decade earlier, in the late 1980s.
  • Increases in middle-aged suicide rates were typically greater among those who were unmarried.
  • The rise in suicide was particularly dramatic for people without college degrees, with increases near 30 percent.
  • People with college degrees seem to have escaped the trend.

Traditionally, U.S. suicide rates rise in adolescence and again in old age. They stabilize  in maturity and middle age, a time when people are invested in their families and work. For men in particular, suicide rates rise again in old age, when children are grown, illness is more frequent and spouses and contemporaries start to die.

The sociologists speculate that economic pressures played a role in these rising rates.

Based on findings like these, can we expect that the economic troubles of the last few years also led to higher suicide rates?