Monday, March 23, 2009
On March 16, marine biologist and outdoor adventurer Nicholas Hughes hanged himself at his home in Fairbanks, Alaska. According to his sister, Frieda, "he had been battling depression for some time." He was 47.
According to an account in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
"He made lasting friendships in Fairbanks with those who shared his inventive interests in such varied pursuits as stream ecology, pottery, woodworking, boating, bicycling, gardening and cooking the perfect pecan pie. Nick guided many people in the winter to spots along the Tanana to savor the art of burbot fishing through the ice."
Nick Hughes was one-year-old when his mother, the celebrated poet Sylvia Plath, on a bitter cold London day in 1963, turned on the gas. Ms Plath's work reveals a lust for life. In a poem, she boasted:
"I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air"
But her dark side gets nearly all the attention. This from a 1952 journal entry:
"God, if ever I have come close to wanting to commit suicide, it is now, with the groggy sleepless blood dragging through my veins ... "
Is suicide a family curse? Consider Ernest Hemingway, another literary lion with a lust for life: On a summer Idaho day in 1961, he aimed his favorite shotgun at his head and pulled the trigger. His father, Clarence, shot himself when the author was 29. His sister Ursala died of a drug overdose in 1966. His brother Leicester shot himself with a pistol in 1982, and his granddaughter Margaux took a drug overdose in 1996.
A University of Pittsburgh study, published in the Sept 2007 American Journal of Psychiatry, tracked 365 offspring of 203 parents with mood disorders over six years. The average age of the offspring at the beginning of the study was 20. Among other things, the study found that the offspring of those who had made suicide attempt had a six times higher risk of suicidal behavior than the offspring of those who had not made attempts.
The study corroborates findings from a 2002 study by the same group of reseachers.
The authors of the study make it clear that familial transmission "is not the same as demonstration of a genetic etiology," as family environmental factors also come into play.
Prevention of depression, the authors observe, may reduce risk, but they are quick to point out that a lot more may be going on. Impulsive behavior and parental history of sexual abuse also loom large. Therefore, preventive measures that only target depression may not be adequate.
The following is worth quoting in full:
"These findings suggest that clinicians treating adult depressed suicide attempters should assess for a history of abuse and review the home environment to ensure that risk of exposure to domestic violence and abuse is minimized for the patient and the patient’s children. Similarly, clinicians who treat adolescent suicide attempters should inquire about family history of depression, since maternal depression has been linked in several studies to an adverse response to treatment. Moreover, recent evidence shows that treatment of maternal depression results in improved psychiatric and functional outcomes for children."
Further reading from mcmanweb:
Sylvia Plath - In Her Own Words
That such a vital force was struck down by depression perhaps makes her short life all the more tragic. But her own words also portray triumph, of a woman who overcame tremendous odds just to find some joy in her life, a joy she was able to manifest in full measure. This is the side to Sylvia Plath we have tended to overlook. Her Journals will hopefully, if belatedly, rectify that oversight.