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Suicide: A Tragic Sign of the Times

The suicide epidemic is a social fact.

Gold Chain Collective
Source: Gold Chain Collective

Unknown by many people is the fact that the rate of suicide is sharply on the rise in the U.S. and has been for more than a decade. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline recently reported that its annual call volume has doubled from 1 million in 2014 to more than 2 million in 2017.

Incredibly, there are now 45,000 suicides in the U.S. annually, which means that suicides outnumber murders nearly three-to-one.

The federal statistics also reveal that suicide demographic patterns are changing in the U.S. Suicide is no longer concentrated among isolated, elderly Americans and, to a lesser extent, troubled teenagers. It has been dramatically on the rise among middle-aged Americans. There has also been a dramatic increase in suicides among veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Despite the staggering number of incidents, most of us give very little thought to the tragedy of suicide unless it touches our own lives. I fall into that category myself, as I never gave much thought to suicide until someone I loved took her own life.

Several years ago, just before Thanksgiving, my beautiful, brilliant and talented 48-year-old, former girlfriend hanged herself in her apartment in New York City. Her suicide has weighed heavily on my heart and mind since then. I have experienced the terrible pain, confusion and anger that arise when a loved one takes her own life. It can be devastating.

In addition to my personal experience, I also have a professional interest in suicide. I am a sociologist and criminologist. As such, I have been using my training and skills in research to analyze the dramatic rise in suicide in the U.S. I have been exploring a theory about suicide first articulated by Emile Durkheim in the nineteenth century.

Emile Durkheim was a legendary social scientist, and considered the founding father of sociology. He argued that suicide is not an individual pathology; rather, it is the result of social forces or societal conditions. His argument was revolutionary and very controversial in the nineteenth century.

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. He discovered that each country’s rate of suicide was highly correlated to endemic environmental factors such as the levels of poverty and crime.

The 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.

I have spent considerable time analyzing recent suicide patterns in the U.S., and I have concluded that, consistent with the theory of Emile Durkheim, suicide is indeed a social fact—that is, a predictable pattern based on social forces and prevailing conditions.

Moreover, I contend that there are corrosive social forces currently at work in the U.S. that can explain the sharply rising suicide rate.

These social forces include widespread financial fears and increasing poverty; lack of medical insurance and caregiving concerns; distrust of the government; political divisiveness; cultural, racial and religious strife; increased gun violence and constant war since 2001. These factors have all led to alienation, anger and a feeling of hopelessness among a large segment of the population.

I contend that these alienating social forces over the past decade 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.

Making the situation worse is the fact that the current suicide epidemic is practically invisible to the public. That is because the dominant American ideology of individualism, based on the Protestant ethic, precludes an open discussion about suicide as a serious social problem. The Protestant ethic would suggest that someone who commits suicide is morally weak and, therefore, responsible for his/her own fate.

As a society, we must stop treating suicide like a dirty, little secret. We must agree to discuss this increasing problem openly and honestly. Most importantly, we must exorcise the stigma associated with suicide from our collective consciousness.

The only way that we can find solutions to the growing suicide problem is to initiate a national dialogue about it and deal in facts rather than fictions.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology, author and media commentator. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website