ASU psychology professor sheds light on rockers’ twin suicides

Man with head in hands

Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell’s body was discovered by a bodyguard in a posh Detroit hotel room following a May 17 concert. 

Last week, 41-year-old Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington was found by his maid in his Southern California estate on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday.

Both were rock icons to millennials.

Both were friends.

And both men committed suicide.

As the accolades, remembrances and condolences continue to pour in for these two rock veterans, fans, music critics and members of the public are all left asking the same question: Why would two men who had fame, wealth, caring wives and young children end their lives so suddenly?

“It can be lonely at the top,” said Suniya Luthar, a Foundation Professor of psychology at Arizona State University and a professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“When you’re at a high level in celebrity status, there is a unique set of stressors. It can be hard. It can be lonely.”

Woman smiling

Suniya Luthar

Luthar’s research involves vulnerability and resilience among various populations including youth in poverty, children in families affected by mental illness, and teens in upper-middle-class and affluent families.

This past year her groundbreaking research paper, “Adolescents from upper-middle-class communities: Substance misuse and addiction across early childhood,” examined two groups of affluent teens in the northeast U.S. as part of the New England Study of Suburban Youth. It received praise from her peers as well as national attention. Her research findings on depression and anxiety among kids in high-achieving schools has also received extensive media attention over the years, including in an in-depth feature in The Atlantic on cluster suicides in Silicon Valley.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, suicides in 2016 surged to their highest levels in almost 30 years, with increases in every age group except older adults. However, the rise was substantial for middle-age men like Cornell and Bennington, jumping 43 percent from males ages 45 to 64 since 1986.

Experts do not know what is driving the increase, but they point to social and economic factors such as mental illness, mood disorders, disappointed expectations, personal finances, unemployment and a lack of health systems to screen for suicidal thinking.

ASU Now engaged Luthar on the complex topic of suicide to gain better insight.

Question: Celebrity suicides always seem to take people by surprise given that most of them have fame and wealth and are adored by millions. In other words, they seem to have it all on the surface. What’s going on underneath the surface that we don’t see?

Answer: A couple of things. One: it can be lonely at the top — studies have shown that people of high status are most likely to feel friendless. Why? Because they have the resources to buy goods and services for everything.  

Most of us know that someone is a true friend because they come to us when we’re in a time of need. But wealthy people can basically purchase everything from health care to psychotherapy to … you name it. So paradoxically, they don’t get to see the overtures of simple kindness and help that are “proof” of someone’s genuine friendship. 

Plus, there is always a nagging concern that people are around them because of their status, fame and money, not because of true caring for them as human beings. Bottom line — when you’re at a high level in celebrity status, there is a unique set of stressors. It can be hard. It can be lonely.

Q: In the case of Cornell and Bennington, both had a history of drug and alcohol abuse early in life; Bennington also disclosed he was sexually abused for a period of five years and was bullied in school. Is there a connection between substance abuse, sexual abuse, bullying and suicide?

A: There’s no question that they are interconnected. There is more and more research showing that very traumatic, early adverse experiences do affect the architecture of the brain. When kids have severe traumatic experiences repeatedly, over a period of time, they are vulnerable to a host of adjustment difficulties including anxiety, panic, depression, PTSD, substance abuse or all of the above. People who experience sexual abuse in particular are very vulnerable to developing problems of addiction and substance abuse.

The findings on child abuse are unequivocal. I can tell you any child who has experienced chronic, severe abuse — physical, emotional or sexual — is going to experience some level of adjustment difficulties. You do not find children who go through that kind of abuse and come out “resilient,” smelling like a rose. Prolonged abuse is just too destructive. It’s just too pernicious.

Q: Both men had supportive wives and small children. Some might find it surprising that isn’t enough of a deterrent for them to stop their final actions.

A: Again, so much depends on the degree and chronicity of the early trauma. If it was severe enough and prolonged enough, essentially the damage that is done can be pretty profound. Think of it as a person who is not necessarily broken, if you will, but is certainly cracked or fragile. And these cracks never completely heal, so what happens is in times of stress they have this underlying vulnerability which can push them over the edge. Everybody has ups and downs, but when people with high underlying vulnerability experience fresh traumas, support from family and friends may not be enough to ward off the intensity of their anguish.

Also, sometimes even family and friends can be somewhat swayed by exterior presentations. In the case of these two gentlemen, for example, they were able to perform at very high levels. Most people may have seen them as successful, strong and confident, and sometimes it’s hard to look past that front and say, “Well, maybe there is a great degree of vulnerability behind that.” The front is so convincing and so compelling that it’s hard to conceive of the possibility that the person is breaking inside.

Q: There seems to be an element of impulsivity when it comes to suicide. Is that usually the case?

A: You might see it as impulsivity, but it could also be thought of as the straw that broke the camel’s back. I refer back to what I said earlier about a crack in the person. If it is true that these two gentlemen suffered serious adversity in their childhood, it’s important to remember, again, that there’s always a cost to prolonged abuse — an underlying vulnerability. When chronically vulnerable people experience fresh traumas or setbacks, this could be what tips them over the edge.  

Q: Why is it we as a society find it so hard to have empathy for the rich and famous who commit suicide? For example, one of these men who took his own life was called cowardly by another famous musician.

A: I’ve written about this before, that there are stereotypes about the rich that are as extreme and negative as those about the poor. People speak of the poor as lazy, indolent, shiftless and irresponsible, and they also speak about the rich as spoiled, entitled, self-involved and they get what they deserve. Both sets of stereotypes are just unhelpful and unkind.

Regarding judgments of suicide as cowardly, I have a similar reaction. Nobody knows what’s going on in another person’s skin, so for anyone from the outside to say what they did was cowardly is wrong. Who knows what’s going on in their heads, hearts and minds and souls, and what they’ve had to live with for decades? How can anyone judge their level of courage or cowardice, without knowing what they have lived through?

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