Monday, March 23, 2009

Nicholas Hughes and Sylvia Plath: Suicide Family Curse?

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.


Louise Woo, coordinator CABF-LA Area Support Group said...

I read Hughes' obituary last night with great sadness. To live in a beautiful a place as Alaska and still not be able to beat back depression speaks to the unrelenting, maybe unstoppable, nature of this illness.

Is suicide a family "curse?" Of course it is in that depression is a genetically-heritable disease like arthritis or heart disease or breast cancer. Until there are strong and reliable treatments for depression and cancer, both diseases will continue to strike down people in their prime.

I hope science makes some big strides in the coming years because one of the most difficult aspects of depression is that it doesn't usually ravage your body on the outside. In other words, unless you are trashing your body by self-medicating with alcohol or recreational drugs, you don't "look" sick. Therefore people don't see or believe the severity of your illness, not like they do if you are struck with cancer.

Undoubtedly, Hughes was very ill but his friends and family could not "see" it. At least he confided in his sister because they share a tragic past. My heart goes out to her and I hope that her inheritance of the illness is less severe. I'm sure she hopes so too.

Even if we do not find a "cure" in the next generation, my hope is that the public will grow to understand the nature of this disease better. It is not a "weakness" in personality any more than early-onset Alzheimer's disease is "laziness" in using your cognitive abilities.

One of the saddest documentaries I ever saw was a show on PBS about 5 years ago looking at a family struck by early-onset Alzheimers. A woman with four children was struck with it in her early 50s and died from it when her kids were teens and young adults.

The documentary comes in at the present when the adult children are in their 40s and two of the four had been struck by it. You can imagine the fear and horror of the remaining two siblings as they watch their brother and sister's minds quickly disintegrate. All of the siblings still had minor children at home and the horror is compounded by watching the grandchildren witness their parents destroyed by this incurable disease. Heartbreaking.

What a thrill it will be if we all live long enough to see "cures" (or at least reliable long-term treatment) for these diseases. Then people with depression won't see suicide as their last reliable option.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Louise: "Curse" into "Cures." Depression is moving up to the world's most disabling disease, yet mood disorders get literally a penny on the dollar in research funding compared to AIDS and cancer.

Maybe we truly are invisible.