Olympic cyclist’s suicide heralds yet another U.S. public-health crisis

Olympic cyclist’s suicide heralds yet another U.S. public-health crisis August 9, 2019

After two soul-crushing mass shootings in 13 hours this past week, Americans are focusing yet again on mental health.

suicide kelly catlin cycling mental illness
Kelly Catlin (far left) with teammatesw after winning gold in 2018 at cycling’s UCI Track World Championships. (Nicola, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s a good discussion to revisit, even though there’s no evidence now that either of the shooters were insane or even mentally unbalanced — and, in fact, research shows mentally ill people are far more likely to harm themselves than others.

Indeed, like in extreme religious or political ideologies, human beings — even otherwise sane ones — can hold views that are at heart self-destructive but not necessarily pathological. Considering that the legions of perennial private suicides in America each year far, far overwhelm the numbers killed in relatively rare mass shootings, they are perhaps an even more urgent public health issue than the also critical, and surging, epidemic of terrorist slaughters by mainly white supremacist thugs.

It’s just that, like airplane crashes, mass killings compound the horror and violence and tragedy in a single, heart-stopping, catastrophic event. The dreadfulness is dreadfully concentrated.

This reality was in the back of my mind today before I read a very sad, deeply moving article in the Washington Post about Kelly Catlin, a young world-class Olympic cyclist from Minnesota who committed suicide on March 19 this year.

Before her final act — she termed it an “exit” — she had won a silver medal in the team pursuit event at the 2016 Summer Olympics and gold in the same team discipline at the 2016, 2017 and 2018 UCI Track Cycling World Championships.

It wasn’t nearly enough success for her.

She had grown up a triplet in a family that rigorously promoted self-achievement and self-containment — and glorified exceptional success — above all else. Affection, she and her siblings noted, was not something they awaited from their parents. Kelly, who was as obsessive a list-maker as she was about everything, once itemized two key principles: “I don’t cry” and “Never love,” both of which she had learned revealed weakness and vulnerability.

But in her suicide note, she wrote:

I cry, because I only ever truly desired Love. Kindness. Understanding. Warmth. Touch. And these things shall be denied, for eternity.”

Crushed with guilt, regret and grief after his daughter’s suicide, Mark Catlin told the Post, he later considered, but ultimately rejected, committing suicide himself.

A retired medical pathologist, Mark was long an overachiever himself, driven by the early death of his alcoholic father, and he bequeathed that obsessive determination to his children.

In the hyper-competitive U.S. culture, where top-tier sports stars can earn tens of millions of dollars per year and are often lionized as demigods, the pressure can be enormous on young athletes — and many other would-be overachievers — to measure up before they are grown up. Ironically, those best able to endure the physical pain and repetitive tedium required to excel, can be the ones most at risk of mental and emotional breakdown.

In an earlier but failed suicide attempt, Kelly had written:

“In truth my mind has conquered me. It’s never ending spinning spinning spinning would not rest. Always, always was it sprinting a marathon, thoughts never at rest, never at peace. It just wouldn’t stop.”

So, as we mourn the innocent dead and wounded victims in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, after last week’s spasms of mindless violence in a Walmart and outside a bar, respectively, in those cities, we should also remember that, most often, troubled people turn violently on themselves.

Congress and the president, at long last, need to find effective solutions to both kinds of American tragedy. Both are national crises that demand immediate attention.

Making America great again, it turns out, also its downside.

Image/Wikimedia

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