Suicides In Public Places, A Strange And Troubling History

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, June 7th, 2013

As many as one third of suicides occur in public places, while the reasons might seem obvious we still don’t understand exactly why.

Why are some people compelled to commit suicide in public spaces?

Last month a 78 year old man shot himself in the head in front of 1500 people at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Back in April a 17 year old student shot himself in the head in front of his classmates at a high school outside of Cincinnati. And in a story much of the world missed, in mid-May a man in his fifties shot himself in front of dozens of young children in the hallway of a Paris Catholic school.

“Yes, (my schoolmates) told me that they saw the body, some blood but I don’t really know anything,” one schoolboy told reporters.

Other Great Reads: How to deal with grief after a suicide

An article on Listverse points out some fascinating historic cases of public suicide. All of them are political and most involve fire, such as Romas Kalanta, a Lithuanian national hero who on May 14, 1972 set himself on fire in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, in protest of the oppression of his culture by the Soviet Union. Or Malachi Ritscher, a musician and recording engineer who set himself on fire on the side of the Kennedy Expressway near downtown Chicago during morning rush hour on November 3, 2006, in protest of the Iraq war.

Other Great Reads: “Fire baptism” and self-burning, from Saigon to Siberia

Not all public suicides involve fire, though. Emily Wilding Davison, a British activist for women’s suffrage threw herself under King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

“Suicide Live On The Air”

The most public public suicide may have been that of Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor at Channel 40 in Sarasota, Florida. On the morning of July 15, 1974 she ran through the day’s news, ending with a story about a shooting at an airport restaurant, then announced:

“In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.”

She pulled a revolver out of her purse and shot herself behind the right ear.

“Little is known about where suicides take place,” reports a 2009 paper in the European Journal of Public Health that looked at suicides across one English county from 2000 to 2004. The paper reported that more than 30 percent of the suicides that occurred were in public places. And of those, one quarter involved jumping.

The paper points out that while “place of death” is required on a coroner’s report, the place of suicide is not, and this bit of information can be crucial in understanding suicides and how to prevent them.

There seems to be a disconnect between why people commit suicide and why the public perceives people who commit suicide commit suicide. In a suicide you don’t really have the chance to ask the reasons, but these questions can be examined. As the European Journal of Public Health paper indicates, not enough research has been done in this interesting arena.

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