When no one is looking, look harder

Megan Angelo

Throughout the past few weeks, the buzz surrounding the late Dr. Mine Ener focused largely on a syndrome that has only recently become a real public concern: postpartum depression. This past Saturday, that link to Ener was obscured by a concept society is much more familiar with: suicide, as police are investigating the likelihood that Ener took her own life.

Ener’s body was found in the common room of the Ramsey County Jail in St. Paul, Minn. Police said that she was within view of 11 other inmates.

The scene is difficult to place. The common room? Eleven alleged witnesses? Ener was apparently surrounded by people. Yet, amidst of a group, Ener was undeniably and infinitely alone.

Isolation is a characteristic we expect of suicide. In the overwhelming majority of suicide cases, nothing is observed as it transpires. Instead, things are found – notes, cars, guns, a body. One of the most obvious conclusions is that the victim felt as alone in life as he or she was in death.

But occasionally and even more disturbingly, the victim is not alone in death. One of the few things more shocking and painful than a human being terminating their own life is a group of human beings terminating their own lives. While a single suicide brings sorrow and confusion, a group suicide bears implications of an awful sense of purpose and multiplies the questions asking “why?”

When two or more people actually plan to take their lives, the disaster takes on an eerie visibility. The 1997 Heaven’s Gate mass cult suicide included 39 Californians who believed that they were timing their demise with a comet passing by the Earth. The 19 men that hijacked American Airlines jets on Sept. 11 trusted that by offering up their lives they were doing their part in a holy war.

Less conspicuously, small groups of ordinary people kill themselves without a plan for posthumous space travel or a quest for political sacrifice.

In 1984, two Bucks County, Pa. teen boys handcuffed themselves together and leaped off a cliff at Rockhill Quarry, located about an hour from Villanova. One of the boys’ girlfriends shot herself a few weeks later; since the death of her boyfriend, she had maintained that she was determined to join him. The incident set off an alarming string of teen group suicides in the area.

According to the American Association for Suicidology, over 30,000 people in the United States take their lives each year. So many people kill themselves because they feel that their individual existence can no longer offer anything to the world.

But for those who feel a bond with at least a few other people around them – a bond strong enough to consider entering into death with them – why does life seem so hopeless? And why does no member of the group ever question that suicide might not be the best alternative?

There are no easy answers. Still, in most suicide cases, one thing is clear in retrospect. By making the ultimate severance from society, the victim – or group of victims – has acted out in death what they experienced in life: total seclusion.

We are sufficiently informed on the importance of watching out for the signs that precede suicide, and the striking ones – anger, guilt, self-loathing – usually catch our well – trained eye. Loneliness and remoteness are harder to perceive and twice as serious.

Remember to look out for the loners – and the groups of loners. Social boundaries don’t end after high school. Even in the subtlest situations, some people are always relegated to the fringe. A person only has to be on their own for a second to be able to take their own life. In reality, however, most suicide victims feel that they have been left alone for a time much heartbreakingly longer.