About 30 years ago, I read a fascinating article predicting a rise of suicide rates in the United States that would begin near the end of the millennium. This social scientist posited that as the baby boomers reached retirement age, they would struggle to find real purpose in life and, as result, they would begin exercising the option of suicide. The premise behind this theory was that these baby boomers had fashioned their entire life’s meaning around the materialistic acquisition of wealth, and when retirement removed that reason to live, there was nothing left to fall back on.
Two days ago I ran across a recent article [U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High, Sabrina Tavernise, N.Y. Times, 22 April 2016] that also touched on the issue of suicide in our modern society. Recalling the original article, this new one immediately caught my attention. It turns out that the original predictions of increased suicide rates did come true…
but entirely for the wrong reasons.
The Simple Catholic Snapshots:
- Suicide in the United States has Surged to the Highest Levels in Nearly 30 Years
- The Reasons are Complex and Controversial
- Many Blame the Economy, Government, Guns or Divorce
- But Few See the Recent Trend Away From Religion as Significant
- Could it Be That Not Having Faith and Trust in God is a Contributing Factor?
- We are Called as Christians to Extend Ourselves With Understanding and Compassion to All of God’s Children
The Simple Catholic Truth:
I first want to make it perfectly clear that the issue of suicide is incredibly complex and neither the cause nor remedies can be adequately captured with the stroke of a single broad brush or attractive sound bite. That said, life is the most precious gift of all and, since the well being of our brothers and sisters are at stake, we must attempt to understand and do what we can to help. The data of rising suicide rates are clear in indicating that, whatever the root cause, more and more people are feeling isolated, lonely and desperate.
The data showed increases in every age group except older adults with the rise particularly steep for women. It was also substantial among middle-aged Americans, a group whose suicide rates had been stable or falling since the 1950s. The rate declined for just one racial group: black men. And it declined for only one age group: men and women over 75
In the body of the article itself, many of the so-called ‘experts’ pointed out a correlation of suicide rates to stress factors in life such as job loss or financial debt and quickly offered claims that the ’cause’ of these increased rates were the stress factors themselves. I am not an expert, but it seems to me that this is an incredibly shallow perspective. It seems to me that the normal stresses in life (even when significant) are not the direct cause of suicide, rather, the feeling of isolation and desperation that results once those stresses occur is the real culprit. In other words, it is a person’s inability to deal with the stresses of life, resulting in feelings of isolation and desperation, that often prove fatal. So why are more and more people feeling so alone?
In trying to investigate the expert claims of the article and my counter theory, I started scanning the comments for clues. Now, for you that might be new to reading comments to blogs or articles like this, keep in mind that they are unfiltered and there is no way of telling the hidden motivation or educational background or even the seriousness of the commentators. That said, as I scanned literally hundreds of comments, certain patterns emerged. I will paste in a few here adding my observations:
Many people did indeed blame what I call the economic stress factors:
The greedy filth at the top of corporate America along with the cultural decay of pop culture at the bottom are to blame
…what capitalism does to the brain. Once industrialism takes hold and countries become consumer capitalistic, evidence shows that suicide rates shoot up…excessive individualism creates anxiety on where your place is in the world. You reap all the reward if you ‘succeed’, but on the flip side it is your fault if you fail. Modern American society feels like it’s every man for them self…
…after years of soul crushing bullying in the workplace, the efforts of my employer to get those in the pension plan to quit, I was laid off in my mid 50s with no hope of finding a job in my field. I was so shamed I crawled under the covers and withdrew from life. My grown children were struggling, my marriage nearly done. There just seemed no reason to continue suffering. After an overdose and a week in a coma, near death, I regained consciousness…
There is certain truth that capitalism, finances and money are stresses that may contribute to the rising rates of people in their prime wage earning years. However, the data also indicates increased suicide rates for young people (Pre-Teens, Teens, Tweens and Young Adults ages 10-24)
Clearly, economics alone is not a complete explanation.
Some blamed technology: (perhaps tongue in cheek or perhaps not?)
Hmmm…am I the only one to see the correlation between this data and the advent of smartphones? Blackberry comes out in 2003, iPhone in 2007…suicide rates start increasing. We are lost in our devices, and they are doing us great harm.
We are living in a society where we are bombarded with things we never used to know about our friends, neighbors, people 2000 to 5000 miles away from us: how great their bodies look, how beautiful their homes are, their vacations, their cars, their parties, their clothes, and on and on… And it’s a mystery why the suicide rate is up.. No it’s not!! Social media is killing us…
Some people offered what unfortunately is becoming more common, that is, a complete lack of understanding and disregard for the value of human life. Of course the meaning of life comes from God but an increasing number don’t seem to understand:
I will be one of those people at some point. I think there is nothing wrong with suicide as an option. I think there should be help for people who have solvable problems but there are many of those for whom it is a rational choice when we are suffering and there is no way to solve the problem other than death.
I am very happy with my life at this time but I know that is only temporary and my time will come. I am ready for it and I understand why many people make that choice. I should be free to die as I please. Like abortion, I believe it should be legal, with other options available in case a different option is better.
I have already decided that I will end my life if I am ever faced with the sort of debilitating disease I see some of my friends and family endure. I don’t believe in heaven or hell, my life is no more special than a blade of grass. I’ve had a fantastically good life but I will let it go before suffering the way I see some are suffering. As long as farewells are said, I see nothing wrong with checking out early.
Some people rightfully began to look at the problem as one of social relationships:
Community has lost its importance in America, leaving people feeling isolated, unheard, and alone.
… importing a sense of inadequacy and envy into our homes around the clock…[preventing] us from getting together physically, promoting apathy and indifference to others difficulties.
And then, finally, some begin to see the real root cause:
Without religion, tradition, a sense of community and belonging, a sense of history, and a sense of stewardship, it is hard to find meaning in life. Life becomes absurd.
We are living at a time when possessions and status are more valuable than relationships. Consumerism is devouring our souls and the decline of a relationship with God slams the door on hope and the belief that we have intrinsic, irreplaceable value.
Now, look at this final example.
… I do believe that part of the contributing factors is the deterioration of the social safety nets. Neighborhoods are no longer friendly, welcoming, religious affiliation is on the decline, and divorce is prevalent. This serves to isolate people from those who may help cushion financial struggles. Without the social safety net, despair can be magnified and become overwhelming.
This person blames the lack of social safety nets. He claims that isolation is increasing because neighborhoods are not friendly. He claims isolation is increasing because religious affiliation is on the decline. He claims that isolation is increasing because divorce is prevalent. I can’t think of a clearer example of putting the cart before the horse! I would offer an alternative that people are feeling isolated because they realize how frail these social safety nets really are and, without God, in times of stress they lose hope.
Many people are feeling more isolated because they have chosen to build a life above fleeting material, social and civil safety nets instead of the greatest (safety) net of all time!
So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. (Jn 21:11 RSV-CE).
You and I are the Body of Christ and as such we are all called to be fishers of men. The data presented above are frightening – many of our brothers and sisters are in agony. Even though we probably won’t be able to understand, we must reach out to ensure they are not alone. We must not turn away. We must cast the unbreakable net of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
[A final closing comment. I stand guilty of painting with a broad brush, but I have done so preferring the risk of speaking to that of being silent. I hold the Catholic position that life is a precious gift that only God can give and take. I have posited that some difficulties we are experiencing in our society today are at least partially founded in a turning away from God as Father. That said, I want to repeat with equal energy and clarity, that this is a complex topic, one that needs to be addressed with compassion and humility. I’m sure there have been many people that have held a love of God and His Son Jesus Christ that have succumbed to the appeal of suicide as the only relief from their demons. I can not understand that level of despair, but, I do not judge that person. As always, we must leave that to our merciful and just God.]