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Our Rising Suicide Rate Is Symptomatic of a Troubled Society

Cultural angst leads to increased suicides.

Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

We treat suicide like a dirty little secret in our society. Although suicides outnumber murders in the U.S. by a ratio of three-to-one, the topic of suicide, unlike murder, rarely makes the national news unless it involves the death of someone famous such as celebrity chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain, fashion designer Kate Spade, movie actress Mya-Lecia Naylor, rock vocalist Chris Cornell or comedian Robin Williams.

As a society, we are very uncomfortable talking about suicide. Therefore, we rarely do so either in public or in private. Most of us give little thought to suicide unless it touches our own lives.

Because we are so uncomfortable talking about suicide, most of us are not even aware of the increasing severity of the problem. Exacerbating the problem, the majority of our nation’s mental health professionals have little to no formal training in how to effectively treat suicidal individuals.

Did you know that the U.S. suicide rate has skyrocketed over the last decade and that more than 48,000 people took their own lives in 2018? Did you know that even children under the age of eleven are committing suicide at an increasing rate? Suicides among children under the age of eleven more than doubled in the last ten years.

At least 130 people commit suicide in the U.S. each day. Incredibly, more than 1,000 additional people each day attempt suicide and do not complete it and nearly 30,000 more seriously consider suicide but do not act on it. In fact, nearly 11 million people seriously consider committing suicide in the U.S. each year.

There are now three suicides for every murder committed in the U.S. Suicides also outnumber deaths in motor vehicle accidents. To put it in perspective, there are currently about 16,000 murders, 40,000 auto fatalities, and 48,000 suicides in the U.S. annually.

The federal statistics 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 active military personnel and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has suggested that the rising suicide rate among middle-aged Americans might be due to easy access to prescription painkillers, particularly opiates, and a series of life and financial circumstances that are unique to the baby boomer generation. Men and women in that age group are often coping with the stress of caring for aging parents while still providing financial and emotional support to adult children. Indeed, historical patterns reveal that suicide rates rise during times of financial stress and economic setbacks.

Although most suicides are still committed using firearms, officials said there was a marked increase in poisoning deaths, which include intentional overdoses of prescription drugs, and hangings. Poisoning deaths were up nearly 25 percent overall during the last ten years and hangings were up more than 80 percent.

I am trained as a sociologist and criminologist. 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. In essence, he argued that a rising suicide rate is symptomatic of a sick society. 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 hate crimes; increased gun violence, mass public shootings, 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 with facts rather than fiction. Moreover, our mental health professionals must become properly trained in how to effectively treat suicidal people.

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

Follow Dr. Scott Bonn @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website