Going Postal Revisited

Anyone remember the phrase “going postal”? It arose from the spate in incidents starting in the 1980s when disgruntled former postal workers, in at least 11 separate incidents, returned to a postal facility and shot up the place, killing 35 people according to Wikipedia. The phrase became common currently for workplace violence which spread beyond post offices, and sometimes the phrase was used casually, as in “I just might go postal over this!”

My sense is that the “wave” of workplace violence like this has slacked off, but I wouldn’t necessarily trust the statistics. Remember: the Obama Administration classified Major Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood, Texas, as “workplace violence” rather than classifying it properly as “going jihadist.”  In any case, the incidence of workplace shootings seemed to have copycat element to it, just as school shootings in recent years also seem to have a copycat or contagion element to it, as David French, recalling earlier work by Malcolm Gladwell, explained in a lucid article.

Today there is speculation that the close suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain my have a copycat element about it. “Can One Suicide Lead to Others?” the New York Times asks today. Like school and workplace shootings, there is suggestive evidence that the answer may be yes.

This comes right on the heels of news that the number of suicides in the U.S. is up sharply, which is provoking a lot of pop psychology and sweeping cultural generalizations about what might account for this.  There may be some element of truth to some of these explanations, but let me first express a bit of skepticism about the new statistics. I’m not convinced that the number of suicides is increasing. I think it is possible that the number of suicides being reported as such is increasing. There’s always been a stigma attached to suicide—perhaps wisely so—and in some cases suicide might void insurance policies. So a lot of suicides have been classified as other causes.

I suspect this because about a decade ago I tried to do some research into suicide statistics to see if I could demonstrate something about automobile emissions, believe it or not. One of the old methods of killing yourself painlessly is to run your car’s motor in a garage, or with a hose into the car window, but the immense emission control improvements of the last 40 years actually make that a difficult method, because carbon monoxide tailpipe emissions have almost been completely eliminated. (It may not be possible at all any more with some new models, though I am not going to test this hypothesis myself.) I suspected that suicide data might show a large decline in suicide-by-tailpipe.

But I couldn’t find any data on the question at all. As I chased after the data, I learned that methods of suicide were not consistently kept, even when suicide was admitted as the cause of death. So I gave up the inquiry.

One reason workplace violence has declined, as Paul observed a while ago, is that we “hardened” large workplaces with security guards and/or other deterrents. Sadly we’ll need to do with with schools. I have no idea what might be done about suicide if it is indeed a phenomenon that might be or become a contagion.

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