By the numbers
Suicides have steadily increased in South Carolina over the past several years.2007 5292008 5602009 6122010 6282011 652S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control
The Ravenel Bridge was probably pretty quiet early on April 14, 2012.
In the opening line of his 1922 masterpiece, “The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot writes, “April is the cruellest month.”That “famous opening line expresses how all the things we typically associate with spring flowers about to bloom, trees coming to leaf, the promise of rebirth — only serve to cruelly accentuate the poet’s feelings of the cultural and personal despair,” said Anton Vander Zee, a visiting assistant English professor at the College of Charleston and an American poetry expert.Eliot isn’t the only American poet to associate spring with this despair, Vander Zee noted.In the poem “The Sun This March,” published in 1972, Wallace Stevens writes, “The exceeding brightness of this early sun/Makes me conceive how dark I have become.”
It was a Saturday and there likely weren’t a lot of cars on the road. Maybe a few runners were out, but most people were at home still sleeping at 5:30 a.m.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Call 800-273-TALK (8255) or 800-SUICIDE (784-2433). All calls are free and confidential.
A 23-year-old woman parked her car but left the engine running in the outside northbound lane, near the diamond closest to Mount Pleasant. If she looked down over the edge of the bridge — as tall as a 20-story building — the water was black below. The sun wouldn’t rise until almost 7 a.m.
Then, reports suggest, she jumped off. There’s no record that anyone saw or tried to stop her.
Police found an Apple iPad near the ledge and black headphones flung over the top rung of the guardrail.
Charleston puts its best foot forward each spring.
By April, the trees are green again. Boating weather and top-down temperatures are back, but July’s swelter is still months away. The city rolls out a red carpet for a different festival nearly every weekend. Tourists flock to the Lowcountry in droves.
But for some, spring is a black time. It signals the start of suicide season.
Suicides don’t peak in December. The holidays probably do drive many people batty. Loneliness can also be acute during this time, but none of these translate to more suicides.
More than a decade of data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2000 confirms a trend that researchers have been tracking since the 1960s — suicides increase sharply during the spring and continue to peak through summer.
Between December 2009 and February 2010, 8,665 people committed suicide in the U.S. During the three-month period starting March 1, 2010, the number of suicides jumped to 9,899. That same year, 10,174 residents killed themselves between June and August.
Beyond the numbers
Scientists don’t know why this data is so consistent year after year, but there are a few theories.
Dr. Chris Pelic, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina, said increased exposure to sunlight offers some men and women with severe depression just enough energy to commit suicide.
“People who are laying around, sleeping a lot, not doing much, they’re up and about more (in spring), but they still feel really bad,” Pelic said.
In winter, the same people may not have enough energy to go through with a suicide, he said. In spring, “They’re out moving and they’re more likely to do something to hurt themselves,” he said. “It’s those times that put people at the highest risk.”
Dr. Teodor Postolache, a psychiatry professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, said sunlight could be a contributing factor, but other triggers are probably at play, too.
Postolache is conducting research on how allergens and inflammation may affect depression and suicide rates in spring. Vitamin B levels and a seasonal uptick of Influenza B also may explain the data, he said.
“All these are factors that have not been proven,” Postolache said. “It’s very important to continue research in this.”
Postolache offered another common theory, although it’s one that he doesn’t put much stock in, he said.
“Looking around you and you see the trees in blossom, birds are chirping, people seem to be happy … The way you feel inside contrasts with the rhythm of nature and the social rhythms. That makes you feel more miserable.”
Depression isn’t the only mental health disorder that can be exacerbated in springtime, MUSC’s Pelic said. Patients are also hospitalized more frequently for mania and bipolar disorder this time of year.
“There’s definitely something there and we need to be on guard for these things as providers,” he said.
Three days later
Sgt. Chad Womack of the Charleston Police Department Harbor Patrol found a woman’s body around 3:15 p.m. April 17, 2012, near the aircraft carrier Yorktown — three days after the abandoned car was towed from the Ravenel Bridge.
Pictures taken at Patriots Point that Tuesday show it was sunny — a perfect spring day for sailing, said one College of Charleston student whose sailing practice was delayed as responders removed the body from the water.
The Charleston County Coroner’s Office ruled the woman’s death a suicide. The report concluded she drowned in the harbor — how, but not why. It’s not clear why she killed herself last spring. Her family declined to comment for this article.
Less than a dozen people have jumped off the bridge since it opened for traffic in July 2005, but hundreds more have committed suicide in South Carolina in less-public spaces.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has not yet released statewide suicide data for 2012.
In April 2011, 48 men and women in South Carolina died by way of “intentional self-harm.” Forty-eight different stories. Forty-eight different reasons — maybe none of them directly related to warmer weather.
The number of suicides in 2011 kept climbing in South Carolina through July, peaking at 70 in one month.
All that’s clear is that the trend speaks for itself as a mystery scientists are still trying to unravel.
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.