The Suicide-Mass Murder Connection: A Growing Epidemic

The causes of suicide and mass public shootings are related.

Posted Mar 30, 2015

Source: AP

The harsh reality of suicide is shrouded in mystery. Unknown to most Americans is the fact that suicide is sharply on the rise, particularly among the middle-aged. Suicide used to be concentrated primarily among the elderly. The dramatic rise in suicide among the middle-aged is a disturbing new trend over the last ten years. 

See a related article on the changing patterns and dramatic rise in suicide in the U.S

However, suicides rarely make the news headlines unless they involve someone famous. The suicide of the beloved but troubled comedian Robin Williams, for example, received massive media attention and it shocked the public consciousness. 

For those of us who have a more nuanced understanding of the two-headed monster known as addiction and depression, however, the news of Williams’ suicide was very sad but not so shocking. The late comedian had struggled with drug addiction, alcoholism and depression for many years, and he had left a rehab facility just prior to his suicide.   

Absent from public discussion is the fact that the steady rise in suicide is contrasted by a fairly steady decline in homicide in the U.S. These unusual and conflicting patterns have co-existed for a number of years. Incredibly, there are now three suicides for every murder committed in the U.S.

In fact, the only category of homicide that has been steadily increasing over the last ten years is mass murder, specifically mass public shootings, which includes tragic events such as the Virginia Tech college campus massacre in 2007. 

The findings of an FBI study published in 2014 reveal an increasing frequency of mass public shootings in the U.S. annually (1). See a related article on the history and rise of mass shootings in America, including the mass murder-suicide committed by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. 

Mass murder can be a form of suicide in that the perpetrator of such atrocities is often an enraged and fatalistic individual who intends to die at the scene of the massacre. From this perspective, the increase in mass shootings over the last ten years is very consistent with the increase in suicide. 

The legendary nineteenth century social scientist Emile Durkheim argued that suicide is a social fact rather than an individual pathology. Using a vast amount of data from official records on suicides in different parts of Europe, Durkheim documented significant variations between countries in their rates of suicide which he found were correlated or linked to environmental conditions. 

This evidence, Durkheim argued back in 1897, shows that “each society has a definite aptitude for suicide” which is a social fact that is external to the individual members of a given society. Such revolutionary and original thinking in the nineteenth century has given Emile Durkheim widespread recognition as the founding father of sociology.

I have spent considerable time analyzing recent suicide patterns in the U.S. I have concluded that, consistent with the work of Emile Durkheim, suicide is a social fact—that is, a predictable pattern based on social forces. I contend that there are powerful factors in contemporary society that help to explain the sharply rising suicide rate. 

These factors include financial uncertainty, health and care giving fears, a declining belief in the American dream, global terrorism and constant war since 2001 which have all led to alienation, anger and a feeling of powerlessness for many people. 

I contend that alienating social forces have made suicide the new murder as frustrated and fearful Americans increasingly turn their anger onto themselves and take their own lives in unprecedented numbers. 

The same negative social forces that explain suicide can also explain the sharp rise in mass public shootings as fatalistic individuals increasingly kill others, and in many instances themselves, in catastrophic acts of rage and violence. The tragic and deadly suicide-mass murder connection warrants our attention and continued discussion.  

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor, media analyst and best-selling author. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website


(1) Blair, J. P. and Schweit, K.W. 2014. A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013. Washington, DC: Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation (U.S. Department of Justice).