Why Is Suicide Increasing? Some Are Questioning The Role Of American Culture

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Kirsten Powers writes that our epidemic of despair is not just about our brains but "key problems in how we live."

The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain brought renewed attention to the issue of suicide last week, leading many to contemplate again the how and why of America’s steadily increasing suicide rates.

Across all demographics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more Americans are choosing to end their lives – 30 percent more today than in 1999.

Though motivations and circumstances vary from one individual to another, some are beginning to wonder if there is something about American culture itself that has contributed to this public health crisis.

Kirsten Powers is one such person, positing in a USA Today column that perhaps our society is a breeding ground for emotional despair, and that failing to thrive within it is not solely an issue of poor mental health but also a rational response.

[W]hy are so many more Americans getting to this level of emotional despair than in the past? As journalist Johann Hari wrote in his best-selling book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions, the epidemic of depression and despair in the Western world isn’t always caused by our brains. It’s largely caused by key problems in the way we live.

We exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to “make it” without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.

Ours is a materialistic world, filled with never-ending goals of “success” – a world where busyness is praised and work often takes precedence over meaningful relationships and self care.

If only we get that big raise, or a new house or have children we will finally be happy. But we won’t. …[I]n many ways achieving all your goals provides the opposite of fulfillment: It lays bare the truth that there is nothing you can purchase, possess or achieve that will make you feel fulfilled over the long term.

Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong. We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.

Are there people who might need medication to correct a chemical imbalance, or would otherwise benefit from psychiatric care?

Powers says yes, of course there are – but that is not the story’s end if we wish to understand and help those who are suffering:

[M]ost Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.

Powers understands what it means to contemplate ending one’s own life. She has been there herself and is well aware the courage it takes to keep going just one more day.

But she believes the only way to fully address this issue is to tell ourselves the whole truth:

Though my suicidal thoughts passed, an oppressive depression ground me down that year. Life was an agonizing and daily struggle. So, when I hear that Kate Spade was reportedly fighting depression and anxiety for five years, all I can think is that it was nothing short of heroic for her to stay alive as long as she did.

Changing our culture is critical. Being honest with others about our own personal struggles and dark nights of the soul is the first step. People on the edge need to hear stories that assure them there is a way through the all-consuming pain to a meaningful life.

Read her full story here.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with feelings of despair or thoughts of suicide, there is help and there is hope.

The following resources are free and available every hour of every day (courtesy of Quartz):

  • Crisis Text Line 741-741: A free text-message service providing support to anyone in crisis. Text 741-741 to immediately connect with a trained crisis counselor.
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