Thursday, February 2, 2012

Is suicide always the wrong choice?

The death by suicide of Don Cornelius of "Soul Train" fame is in the news today. The LA Times is reporting that health and money problems may have been behind Mr. Cornelius's choice to take his own life:

Authorities investigating the death of "Soul Train" creator Don Cornelius continued to sift for clues after he was found in his Encino home Wednesday with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Sources close to the investigation said they were looking at several possible triggers, including Cornelius' health and his financial situation. But they emphasized they had not made any determinations.

Cornelius had undergone brain surgery in the 1980s and was quoted in newspapers at the time as saying he didn't feel quite the same afterward.

Coming into adulthood, when I formulated my opinions on most topics, I thought suicide was always a terrible choice. I felt that the act was horribly selfish and it always left behind a wake of pain for the families and loved ones of the person who took his own life.

I still mostly feel that way. However, as I have gotten older I've learned a couple of things which have somewhat altered my view.

First and foremost, I have learned a little more about depression. I have never suffered from it or known anyone close who was depressed to the point of contemplating suicide, but I do know that severe depression is the byproduct of brain chemistry and for people who are not treated with medications and psychotherapy, the "decision" to commit suicide is often the irrational act of someone whose mind is chemically messed up. In other words, it's not exactly a choice for someone who has lost his rational mind.

Outside of people who are clinically depressed, I now think there are a small number of cases where suicide could be the best option for everyone, including close family members and friends. For example, take a person with a degenerative disease, the symptoms of which make the patient terribly unhappy and a burden on his wife and children. Say he will live another five years, but over that period he will lose his mind and lose control of all of his bodily functions. He will no longer be able to think clearly, to have conversations with friends, to walk his dog, to leave his home and so on. He knows up front that his medical care will wipe out his life savings and leave his family in a world of hurt. In that sort of an extreme case, it's unfair to call suicide selfish. I am not suggesting I think a patient needs to kill himself to better others. It's a personal choice. But I would not hold it against anyone for choosing suicide in that type of case.

After the dead bodies of his wife and her waiter were found, but before OJ Simpson had gone on the run in his white Ford Bronco, I thought to myself: This is the sort of rare circumstance where suicide would be best for everyone involved. Surely Simpson was guilty of that terrible crime, killing two innocent people. Surely he was going to end up in prison for the rest of his life if they found him alive. A trial was simply going to bankrupt him, stealing away the money that would better serve his surviving children. To the extent that his repuatation as a human being and as a celebrated football player could ever be salvaged, that was only possible if he immediately paid the highest price for his terrible act and died. Suicide in the case of OJ was, I thought, the best possible answer, or at least the least worst answer.

He did not kill himself, of course. And what happened? Shockingly, a stupid jury acquitted him. But the public never did. Everyone with a brain knows OJ was guilty of a double homicide. Because of what it took for his lawyers to get him off, his reputation was entirely unsalvagable afterward. Another jury in a civil case convicted him, and he lost his money and possessions that could have gone to his kids. So his living was selfish insofar as he ever wanted his kids to have his material possessions and insofar as OJ wanted his kids to have a famous father who was famous for something other than murder. By not dying, by not choosing suicide, OJ made that impossible. And in a strange twist, he was convicted of a felony in Nevada, where it seems he will spend the rest of his life as a prisoner.

Maybe that is a better outcome than death for himself. But I cannot see how he has made anything better for his children and friends and our country by choosing to not commit suicide after he murdered Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. Had OJ Simpson cared about anyone other than himself, he should not have fought the murder charges against him. He should have driven his white Ford Bronco off of a cliff before prosecutors had decided what to do with him.

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