- - Monday, May 2, 2016


Why are more of us choosing not to be?

Why has America’s suicide rate risen by 24 percent in the past 15 years?

Suicide: It is an existential problem. It is a public health problem and, of course, it is also a mental health problem. Does that explain why more people are choosing to cut their lives short? Not to me, it doesn’t.

I read the numbers reported by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and felt there must be more.

It’s natural to want to live. So why do so many choose to die? Nature, evolution and existence itself call for us to survive. Survival is elemental. It is instinctual. The desire to be is the vital essence of life and love. Given the basic and universal desire to be, why do a growing number of Americans choose not to be?

I turned to the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves to search for clues.

The quintessential American story is a narrative of rugged individualism. I did it my way. On the one hand, the myth encourages hard work and risk-taking, rewarding it with social and financial success. On the other hand, rugged individualism harshly punishes failure. When “you can make it if you try” is an article of absolute faith, then those who haven’t made it….well, they have no one to blame but themselves. To borrow from Donald Trump, they are losers. And in the American mythos, losers are worthless. Worse than worthless, losers are contemptible. If they have internalized that contempt, then those who failed to make it by middle age – that is, failed to meet their expectations for personal and financial achievement – those folks risk becoming part of our national statistic of despair and self-loathing. Fully one-third of all suicides occur in middle age, although that age group is only 18% of the total population.

But rugged individualism is just one story, and there are many American stories. Each narrative reflects another facet of the human condition. Historically, the American narrative co-existed alongside religious narratives that affirmed each individual’s unique and ultimate value. Spiritual narratives tell us we matter, regardless of our wealth, popularity, or personal success. Religious narratives remind us that we are not in control of everything, and that is just fine. Created in the image of God…God loves you… Meaningful religious narratives are life-affirming for those who hear their message. But today, when an increasing number of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, and an even greater number only nominally affiliated, religion’s protection against suicide is weakened.

Sadly, no narrative, faith, community or personal relationship can totally prevent suicide. Suicide is indeed the Savage God of A. Alvarez’s classic book on the subject. Nevertheless, religion offers some important barriers to self-destructive behavior. They mount powerful moral objections to suicide. Ideally, religious participation creates social bonds, and a caring community, in addition to promoting a spiritual worldview in which the individual has intrinsic worth.

Can we create a new American narrative? Is there a way to develop a meaningful myth of healing and belonging that were once provided by religion and family? Maybe we can, but in the meantime, here’s something we all can do for those afflicted by the suicide epidemic.

If you know someone who has lost a friend or relative to suicide, reach out to him or her. Suicide is dangerously contagious, and survivors – friends as well as family members – are very vulnerable.

If you are like me, it will be hard to reach out. You won’t know what to say. In fact, there is nothing to say but “I’m here and I care about you.” That’s all.

That may not seem like much, but it could mean everything to someone.

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