By John Gunn.
In 1971 the anti-litter organization Keep America Beautiful released the “Crying Indian” ad. In it, Iron Eyes Cody, an actor dressed in Native American clothing, paddles a canoe along a waterway that is polluted. As he arrives on shore, a bag is thrown from a passing car and it explodes, scattering more debris and trash across the already polluted beach. Amid voice over narration about how some people do and do not care about the environment, Iron Eyes Cody is zoomed in on and a single tear falls across his cheek. It is a very, very famous commercial – so much so that I, born more than 15 years after its release, know of it well enough to discuss it in this blog post! Though on the surface this ad seems beneficial or perhaps benign, it has a much more problematic history . To start, Iron Eyes Cody is not Native American. He is an actor of Italian heritage who portrayed himself repeatedly as someone of Native American descent for the sake of his film and television career. Additionally, Keep America Beautiful was not an anti-litter organization, but the insidious machinations of the leading beverage and packaging corporations.
Why would these corporations, staunchly opposed to environmental improvement efforts then (and now), be interested in promoting these anti-littering campaigns? The motivation for this can be seen in the messaging behind these advertising campaigns. On these ads, just below the image of our crying Italian turned pseudo-Native American are the words “People start pollution. People can stop it” . That is the point of these campaigns – to shift focus away from the corporations that pollute and put the onus of environmental protection squarely on the shoulders of individuals. According to these campaigns, it is the individual who does not care about the environment that is responsible for the damage done – not the factories churning out the plastics, Pepsi cans, and pollution.
What is truly terrifying about this ad campaign, is just how well it worked. Prior to the campaign, the push from environmentalists was on throwaway containers and they put the focus on industry – but this focus ended and shifted onto the shoulders of individuals after the ad campaign . Sadly, as I write this blog post a report just released from the U.N. indicating that the Earth is warming faster than anticipated and that it is indisputably due to human activity . We have failed to address environmental issues for decades, in no small part due to this shift in focus from corporations to individuals.
Though the environment is important to those of us who require a habitable Earth, I would not blame you for asking “what does any of this have to do with suicide prevention?” In many ways, I see parallels between our failures to address the environmental crisis in the U.S. and our failures to prevent suicide. For the first time in 14 years, the suicide rate decreased in 2019 where it decreased by 2% (previously it had decreased in 2005 by 0.36%) . Though it is good that the rate has decreased in the U.S., it does so after fairly steady increases since the late 1990s and there is no indication of whether this decrease will hold. In other words, just as we have done an abysmal job of protecting our environment – we have also done a poor job at preventing suicide. Part of our failure, like that of our failure to protect our planet, may also come from a focus on individual instead of societal responsibility in the prevention of suicide.
My interpretation of our suicide prevention campaigns in the U.S. is that it is our (individuals) responsibility to prevent suicide. Consider if you will the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) various programs. Talk Saves Lives campaign provides education on common risk factors and warning signs for suicide so that participants of this 45-60 minute training can “keep themselves and others safe”. The More Than Sad campaign helps to educate students, parents, and teachers about how to recognize the signs of depression and distress. The Safe Reporting Saves Lives campaign and the Speaking Out About Suicide campaigns focus attention on the proper reporting and messaging on suicide. Seize the Awkward (a particular favorite of mine) focuses on the importance of asking about suicide and having difficult conversations with your loved ones and friends. Additionally, AFSP funds research and training programs. A full list of the 2022 program priorities can be found at https://afsp.org/community-programs.
However, as I read through these lists of programs and priorities, I am struck by their focus on individuals. Individuals seeking help, individuals identifying those at risk, and individuals asking the awkward questions. Even AFSP’s federal policy priorities focus on funding towards training individuals. I am, of course, using AFSP as an example – I have nothing against the organization and in fact I am immensely grateful and impressed by the work they do and the amazing people I have met who are associated with the organization. However, nothing in AFSP’s priorities, or in the priorities of other suicide prevention organizations that I have seen, focus beyond individual responsibility. The messaging seems, at least to me, to indicate all society must do is provide some money to train individuals to identify those at risk, to promote individual help-seeking, and to train individuals to provide help. All of this is important – but I do not believe we will ever impact the rates of suicide in the U.S. by focusing solely on these sorts of efforts. Just as shifting the onus on individuals to protect the environment meant that the corporations responsible for the lion’s share of the damage could continue to do so without consequence, our focus in the field on individual effort to prevent suicide has meant that the environments conducive to despair have operated unhindered.
What do I mean by environments conducive to despair? For one, failure to provide living wages, affordable housing, and social safety nets for individuals. An example of this can be seen in the research on the impact of minimum wage increases on suicide rates. States which have increased minimum wages have shown decreases, or in the least slowed increases, in suicide rates compared to those without such increases [4–5]. Some research has also pointed toward the potential for other social safety nets to impact suicide. For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as “food stamps” in the U.S., has been associated with decreased suicide rates even when a number of potential confounding factors are accounted for . Additionally, there is some evidence that suicide may be impacted by the amount of public spending on health and welfare , income inequality [8–9] and poverty .
Similarly to how we have shifted the responsibility for recycling and environmental care to the individual (though perhaps less maliciously), we have shifted the responsibility to prevent suicide on individuals (be they clinicians, crisis workers, families, or friends). Comprehensive suicide prevention – the only kind with any likelihood of success – must include both individual-based efforts and larger societal ones. Just as we can turn to burning forests, heat waves, and rising ocean temperatures as indicators of our failure to prevent damage to the environment due to human activity, we can turn toward rising rates of suicide in the U.S. over the past decades as clear indicators that what we are currently doing is simply not enough.
- Dunaway, F. (2017, November 21). The ‘Crying Indian’ ad that fooled the environmental movement. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-indian-crying-environment-ads-pollution-1123-20171113-story.html
- Fritz, A. & Ramirez, R. (2021, August 9). Earth is warming faster than previously thought, scientists say, and the window is closing to avoid catastrophic outcomes. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2021/08/09/world/global-climate-change-report-un-ipcc/index.html
- Drapeau, C. W., & McIntosh, J. L. (for the American Association of Suicidology). (2020). U.S.A. suicide: 2019 Official final data. Washington, DC: American Association of Suicidology, dated December 23, 2020, downloaded from https://suicidology.org/facts-and-statistics/.
- Gertner, A. K., Rotter, J. S., & Shafer, P. R. (2019). Association between sate minimum wages and suicide rates in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 56(5), 648-654. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2018.12.008
- Kaufman, J. A., Salas-Hernandez, L. K., Komro, K. A., & Livingston, M. D. (2020). Effects of increased minimum wages by unemployment rate on suicide in the USA. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 74, 219-224. https://dx.doi.org/10.1136/jech-2019-212981
- Rambotti, S. (2020). Is there a relationship between welfare-state policies and suicide rates? Evidence from the U.S. states, 2000-2015. Social Science & Medicine, 246, 112778. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112778
- Minoiu, C. & Andres, A. R. (2008). The effect of public spending on suicide: Evidence from U.S. state data. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 37(1), 237-261. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socec.2006.09.001
- Miller, J. R., Piper, T. M., Ahern, J., Tracy, M., Tardiff, K. J., Valhov, D., & Galea, S. (2005). Income inequality and risk of suicide in New York City neighborhoods: A multilevel case-control study. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(4), 48-459.
- Padmanathan, P., Bould, H., Winstone, L., Moran, P., & Gunnell, D. (2020). Social media use, economic recession, and income inequality in relation to trends in youth suicide in high-income countries: A time trends analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 275, 58-65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.05.057
- Hoffmann, J. A., Farrell, C. A., Monuteaux, M. C., Fleegler, E. W., & Lee, L. K. (2020). Association of pediatric suicide with county-level poverty in the United States, 2007-2016. JAMA Pediatric, 174(3), 287-294. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.5678