Assigning Blame: Chris Cornell, Ativan, and Suicide

By Pauline Campos 05/30/17

Once again, suicide is reduced to a loveless action taken by a selfish person who was too thoughtless to consider the loved ones they would leave behind.

Chris Cornell and Vicky Karayiannis at the Los Angeles premiere of "The Promise," 4/12/2017.

Trigger warning: The following story discusses suicide, the stigma surrounding it, and links to potentially triggering articles. Proceed with caution. If you feel you are at risk and need help, skip the story and get help now. Options include: Calling the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255), calling 911, and calling a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you.

Full disclosure: I don’t take Ativan. I have, however, taken Xanax for anxiety, as well as brand-name anti-depressants and medication for my ADHD. But I’m still here to add my voice to the discussion surrounding Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell’s recent death by suicide and whether the anti-anxiety medication in question played any role. This conversation isn’t just about a single brand-name drug any more than it is just about mental health, depression, addiction, or suicide. 

It’s about the stigma attached to each.

It’s about us needing to find a reason for something tragic and horrible that is often unexplainable. It’s about doctors and medical policy and why a recovering addict should maybe not have been on Ativan in the first place. It’s about the miles-long list of warnings that comes with every medication I have ever taken or picked up for my husband and daughter and myself, from antibiotics for an ear infection to prescribed stimulants for my severe ADHD, and why we cannot demonize a medication countless people rely on and have used successfully because of one tragic event. 

This piece does not dispute that, in rare instances, the drug in question can create thoughts of suicide in individuals who are not suicidal, and may have contributed to or caused Cornell to take his own life that night. This piece was written to discuss how Cornell’s death - and the reactions of family and close friends - has brought the stigma of suicide to the forefront.

The world is waiting for toxicology reports; I’m waiting for suicide to be treated as and reported on as a public health concern and for blame to be removed from the equation.

According to published reports, Cornell died by suicide in his hotel room in Detroit after a performance on May 17, 2017. He was found by his bodyguard, who was sent for a welfare check after Cornell’s wife called, concerned that her husband had taken more than his prescribed amount of Ativan, stating that he had been slurring his words and “didn’t sound like himself.” Cornell was 52 at the time of his death. 

Although Cornell’s death was officially ruled a suicide by the Wayne County Medical Examiner, the rock icon’s family (and the family’s attorney) are awaiting toxicology reports to determine exactly what was in his system at the time of his death. Vicky has publicly stated that, while her late husband may have died by his own hand, she does not believe he knew what he was doing. 

It wasn’t him, the news stories tell us. It was the Ativan. He wouldn’t have done this to his family, we are told. The prescription drug for his anxiety made him do it.

Ativan is the brand name for lorazepam and is classified as a benzodiazepine - benzo for short. Cornell reportedly had a prescription to treat his anxiety. Benzos are also used to treat drug withdrawal, agoraphobia, seizure disorder, and a host of other conditions. According to the U.S. Library of Medicine, Ativan’s most serious side effects include worsening depression and suicidal thoughts. 

But does that mean Cornell’s suicide can be blamed on the fact that he may have taken a higher-than-normal dose of this prescribed medication? More importantly, should it be blamed at all? We won’t know until the toxicology reports are made public. But in the wake of countless stories listing the horrors of Ativan, no one should stop taking it without the help of their doctor. 

“Ativan, misused, can be addictive. Blaming the medication for his death can cast a shadow on those who use Ativan under the close care of a therapist and a physician,” says Bill Prasad, a licensed professional counselor and certified trauma counselor based in Texas. “Blaming an anxiety medication for a suicide really takes the focus away from the more serious problem- the number of suicides in this country.”

Prasad likened placing the blame for Cornell’s suicide on Ativan to blaming a razor blade maker if a blade is found at the scene of a completed suicide. He also noted that the medication should never be prescribed for someone with a history of depression or who is in recovery for addiction. 

“All of these problems are more about medical policy and mental illness, not about a specific medication.” Prasad said. 

All of these problems also stem from stigma. As a survivor of my own suicide attempt nearly two decades ago, and a friend to countless who’ve lost their lives by suicide since, I’ve been having a hard time with this story, but could not put my finger on why until now. The problem isn’t Ativan. Nor is it any other anti-anxiety medication or antidepressant or even any illegal substances, should any be found in Cornell’s system at the time of death. The problem is that suicide itself is once again being portrayed as something which requires a precipitating event to which we can assign blame.

In her grief, Cornell’s widow is understandably looking for a reason. Her statements to the press are heartbreaking. She has spoken of his love for his family and his plans for the future. But one sentence has continued to jump out for its troubling implications:

“I know that he loved our children and he would not hurt them by intentionally taking his own life.”

I am in no way mitigating the grief of a woman reeling from the loss of her husband. I would need someone or something to blame if I were to find myself in her situation. But in this statement, suicide is reduced to a loveless action taken by a selfish person who was too thoughtless to consider the loved ones they would leave behind. In pushing back against the medical examiner’s findings and waiting for the toxicology reports to presumably clear Cornell of having killed himself of his own volition, Cornell’s widow is saying her late husband could not and would not have possibly taken his own life knowingly -- because he loved her and their children.

I am very sorry for the pain Vicky Cornell is feeling. But I also am aware of the countless at-risk individuals triggered by the sentiments shared in her public statement. No matter what the reports show when they are released, I believe Chris Cornell loved his wife and children. As a survivor of my own attempt, I believe any actions he took, knowingly or not, were not meant to harm or hurt those left behind. 

Suicide is not selfish. But people still think it is. There should be no shame in saying we’ve lost a loved one to suicide. But the fact that the family and the public are waiting on a toxicology report to decide if Chris Cornell knowingly took his own life or not tells us that shame is still very much part of the equation. 

If you or someone you know may be at risk for suicide, immediately seek help. You are not alone.

Options include:

  • Calling the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Calling 911
  • Calling a friend or family member to stay with you until emergency medical personnel arrive to help you. 

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Pauline Campos is an artist, Aspie-Mom, and author of Be Your Own F*cking Sunshine: An Inspirational Journal for People Who Like to Swear. ADHD is her superpower. Pauline Lives in Minnesota, but will always be from Detroit. Find her at Twitter: @pauline_campos.