An Epidemic of Not Seeing


Roberto Rivera


You may have heard the story of the “invisible ships.” There are several versions, but they all have several things in common–a European explorer lands on (take your pick) Cuba, Hispaniola, Australia, the coast of Central America, etc.

As the stories go, the indigenous people not only did not know what to make of the ships, they couldn’t even see them. As the ur-text for these stories put it, “their highly filtered perceptions couldn’t register what was happening, and they literally failed to ‘see’ the ships.”

Besides the “invisible ships,” what the stories have in common is that they are 99.999 percent bovine scat by weight. As Columbus noted in his journal, the Lucayans rowed out to his ship in canoes carrying as many as forty people.

The only reason they are not 100 percent bovine scat is there is a group of people whose “highly filtered perceptions” render them incapable of seeing what’s in front of them: Americans.


A recent article in Rolling Stone entitled “All-American Despair” took a granular look at the suicide epidemic in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were about 1.4 million attempted suicides in 2017. Of these, 47,173 were successful.

A great deal has been written about the rising number of suicides, which along with other “deaths of despair,” has caused American life expectancy to decline for three consecutive years, a feat that previously required the combination of World War I and the Flu Pandemic of 1918-20 to pull off.

Virtually all of the coverage of the suicide epidemic focuses on the “despair” part — specifically, why people are despairing, i.e., what has made their lives so unbearable that killing themselves becomes a plausible alternative to their status quo.

The problem with focusing on the “despair” part is that knowing why people are despairing (which it should be noted, we really don’t) isn’t the same thing as knowing how to prevent that despair.

We don’t how to revive the fortunes of the “Rust Belt,” assuming that suicide is, in some important part, an economic, problem (more about that below). And talking about “hope” and the need for spiritual renewal overlooks the fact that we don’t know how to trigger the kind of spiritual awakening that might make a difference in enough people’s lives to affect the numbers.

And we certainly don’t know how to prevent mental illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder, that produce suicidal ideation.


Focusing on the “Why?” of the suicide epidemic has left us like the imaginary Indians, incapable of seeing what is right in front of us. These are things we do know something about: the “Who?” and the “How?”

Let’s start with who is committing suicide. As the Rolling Stone reports, “suicide in America is dominated by white men, who account for 70 percent of all cases.” Not just any men, white men.

One of the most remarkable-yet-seldom-remarked-upon aspects of the suicide epidemic is the racial gap. On average, the suicide rate among African Americans and Latinos is only 40 percent that of whites. I mention this to point out that if economics and personal stress were driving the suicide epidemic you would expect the numbers to be different.

I’m not going to speculate on the “why?” behind the disparity. I have no desire to take a deep-dive into the psyches of white American males, a group to which I don’t belong. Instead, I’m going to take a good look at the ships that Americans refuse to see. I’m going to look at how men are killing themselves, which partly explains why “suicide is dominated by white men.”

The one-word answer is “guns.” We often hear statistics such as “100 Americans are killed by guns every day,” which works out to nearly 37,000 a year. If you didn’t know better, you might assume that these 37,000 deaths were primarily, if not entirely, homicides.

They’re not. “Only” about one-third are. Another three percent or so are things like accidents and shootings by law enforcement. The rest, nearly two-thirds, are suicides.

The other thing you need to know is that while women are more likely to attempt suicide than men, men are significantly more likely to succeed in the attempt. The reason has little if anything to do with motivations or the “seriousness” behind the attempt and much to do with their preferred methods.

As the National Institute of Mental Health puts it, “Men are more likely to use more lethal methods, such as firearms or suffocation. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide by poisoning.”

Making the “lethal methods” even more lethal is that “Research shows that when individuals make the decision to attempt suicide, nearly half of people will attempt it within 20 minutes.”

While methods such as deliberately overdosing on prescription drugs are successful “only” about 10-12 percent of the time, and cutting (as in “13 Reasons Why”) about six percent of the time, shooting yourself is successful between 90 and 99 percent of the time.

That’s why men who decide to kill themselves are more likely to succeed than women.

Add the fact that white men are twice as likely to own a gun as non-white men and white women and three times as likely as non-white women, and the seventy percent number makes perfect, albeit tragic, sense.


At least perfect sense to anyone who can see. In his book (Trigger Warning!!!) “Dying of Whiteness,” Jonathan Metzl of Vanderbilt University tells the story of his visit to Cape Girardeau, Missouri. While there, he attended a support group meeting for people whose loved ones had killed themselves.

Virtually all of those suicides were by gun. As one participant told Metzl, “We’ve had four suicides in our family—no, wait, five if you count my cousin. All done by gun.”

Yet, as another participant told him, “I don’t think that any of us blame the gun.” And still another agreed adding “It’s never the gun—it’s the person. Besides if they say it’s the gun’s fault—well they might come take away our guns, too.”


If we, as we often say at Colson Center, “ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims,” how do you characterize ideas that not only leave people unable to see what is in front of them, but also prohibits people from looking too closely?

In his novel, “Blindness,” Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago tells the story of a sudden outbreak of mass blindness in an unnamed city. Predictably, everything we associate with civilization breaks down as those sent to quarantine the city are themselves afflicted with the mysterious malady.

The few people not affected by the blindness care for others and create a haven from the chaos. Then, as mysteriously as it began, the epidemic ends.

In many ways that matter, we are that unnamed city. Only it would be foolish to expect our blindness to magically disappear. After all, the people in Saramago’s novel wanted to see, they simply couldn’t. I can’t say the same thing about us.



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