A shocking headline in Neue Zuercher Zeitung, a mainstream Swiss newspaper, recently read: “In the USA People are Killing Themselves Like Never Before, while in Europe Less and Less People are Taking Their Own Lives.” This article compares suicide rates in the U.S. to rates in Europe.
Just today I found out that another school friend of my son’s took his life. At tonight’s meditation class, a group of crying, disheartened young adults who had been in the same high school class as Sam tried to find solace. Numerous young people have told me stories about classmates and friends who recently killed themselves. “They just disappeared,” one of them said. Three of my current adult clients have young adult or teenage children who recently took their own lives. With 35 years of clinical practice as a psychologist in California, I am trying to understand this painful situation.
By mid-August of 2023, the CDC recorded 49,000 deaths by suicide so far this year. Since the year 2000, the suicide rate has increased by 40 percent; the percentage of young people between ages 10 to 24 taking their own lives increased by 52 percent between the years 2000 and 2021. Around 2010, we witnessed the steepest rise in numbers. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of girls who committed suicide rose dramatically. Meanwhile, the percentage of people killing themselves has decreased in central Europe. This is happening even though more is spent per capita on healthcare in the U.S. than in any other industrialized nation. Could it be that this discrepancy may help us to understand what makes young Americans take their lives?
In seeking an explanation, the New Zuercher Zeitung suggested that drug use and access to guns may be responsible for the rising incidence of suicide in the U.S. Although drug use and the availability of firearms are massive concerns, I suspect that the reasons for these patterns are far more complex.
Social media: Excessive social media use is often held responsible for depression and suicide, especially in the young. An increasing number of studies have linked ubiquitous social media use by youth to cyberbullying, unhealthy social comparisons and negative mental health consequences such as suicidality, loneliness, anxiety, and depression. The consequences of social media addiction are felt in the U.S., Europe, and other countries. However, in a study of social media addiction, 15 percent of North Americans were found to be addicted compared to 8 percent in western and northern Europe. (1) (2)
Social safety net: There is an effective social network in Europe and a lack thereof in the U.S., leaving people feeling insecure and scared. This seems to be especially true with regard to the care for people with physical disabilities or mental vulnerabilities. Care for these populations is much more comprehensive in Europe than it is in the US. While people in the U.S. can fall out of society and end up homeless, the homeless population in Europe is extremely small. (3)
In the U.S., mental illnesses such as mood disorders, thought disorders, and PTSD are more often left undiagnosed or undertreated. In addition, a lack of social network does not give the support and holding container those individuals need. Divergence and alienation in society may increase the suicide risk of already vulnerable individuals. (5) There's a much greater emphasis on individualism, which may lead Americans to not ask for help when they need it. An emphasis on privacy and exaggerated individualism may lead to loneliness and isolation. There's also a big emphasis on self-help. When a person can’t show their own accomplishments and successes, then the person’s view of themselves can plummet. Connected to that is an exaggerated sense of competition. While in many other countries competitiveness is undesirable, competition is fostered in American homes and classrooms. If a person cannot match up with their peers, anxiety and depression can result.
Values: Common beliefs about success and failure in the U.S. are often more extreme than in Europe. In the U.S., success and failure are often seen as either one or the other. If one does not live up to the highest expectations and ambitions, one may see oneself as a failure or a “loser”. To make the emotional pressure worse, individuals are seen as responsible for their earlier “choices” in life. There can be a heavy hand of judgment if one is not “perfect”’ or “materially successful”. (6) (7)
Fear: The amount of fear and anxiety that is not openly expressed may be higher in the U.S. than in European countries. This subliminal fear may be fueled by a great amount of fear-mongering in the media and in politics, and it may be increased by a sense of isolation and alienation. (8)
Sense of purpose: There is sometimes a missing sense of enthusiasm and awareness of possibilities for the future among young people in the U.S. To value a sense of meaning and purpose is often not seen as important in a world where the dollar amount of one's income gives one a sense of self-worth and the sense of being held in high esteem by others. Many experience an existential vacuum, followed by a sense of burnout and depression, which may sometimes lead to suicide. (9)
I could close with recommendations, yet I think that they are obvious and manifold. We need to gather our sincerity and altruism to return from a “me” culture to a “we” culture. Then, maybe, a change of values can emerge.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Prevalence of social media addiction across 32 nations: Meta-analysis with subgroup analysis of classification schemes and cultural values; Cecilia Cheng, et al., Addictive Behaviors, Volume 117, June 2021)
Research trends in social media addiction and problematic social media use: A bibliometric analysis; Alfonso Pellegrino, et al.; Frontiers in Psychiatry; published online Nov. 10, 2022) [KO1]You may want to take a look at this as a reference.
Correlation between Suicidal Ideation and Addiction to Various Social Media Platforms in a Sample of Young Adults: The Benefits of Physical Activity; Mendes, et al.; Societies, March 29, 2023)
Fighting poverty in the US and Europe: A world of difference. A Alesina, EL Glaeser - 2004 - books.google.com
Litwin H, Stoeckel KJ. Confidant network types and well-being among older europeans. Gerontologist. 2014;54:762–772. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnt056. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
Mar 23, 2023 — The countries of the European Union differ significantly when comparing their social (read: government-subsidized) housing programs.
The Values Americans Live By, L. Robert Kohls, Yale University Press, 1984
American Psychiatric Association. May 2, 2021 — More than four in ten Americans (41%) say they are more anxious than last year.