Why are so many young people committing suicide? What is it about today's society that seems to abet this act of anger and despair?
Recently, a cousin of mine lost a son to suicide. This was devastating to his parents and siblings, as would be expected. I thought of its impact upon the siblings who found the body, and upon their little ones. It has unleashed a tremendous outpouring of grief from other friends and family, who recently buried the family patriarch, my uncle. It is interesting to me how much concern there is about others following his example. I remember a friend killing himself while I was in junior high school, and how people reacted to that. It was not something that happened often in my community of San Jose, California, at least among my peers. Living in the Bay Area, there were certainly murders and other fatalities in the headlines. One of the most traumatic events of my adolescence was the abduction, sexual torture and strangulation of the 11-year-old daughter of my former bishop. Some 25 years later, this very incident was alluded to in the Melchizedek Priesthood manual in a lesson on forgiveness. A former high school classmate of mine committed suicide over 30 years ago. Otherwise, the premature deaths of people I knew didn't cross my radar much during my youth, beyond mortal accidents or illness.
It goes without saying that I have lived long enough to inherit many cousins with grown children and grandchildren. I think of the world their youngsters, and my grandchildren, are inheriting. Considering the likelihood of environmental catastrophe, mass migration, and war in their future, it is also probable that some will have mental health issues or be victims of crime. This world now seems to be awash in suicides. A cousin of mine lost her daughter to an estranged husband in a murder-suicide. A nephew of mine, his mother told me, has had four friends kill themselves. That boggles my mind. According to Wikipedia, "In 2016, there were 44,965 recorded suicides, up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). On average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years." According to the article, I am in the next-highest demographic for suicide, being white, male, and middle-aged. Many women attempt suicide, but men are three times more likely to succeed at ending it all. This is an assessment from the World Health Organization:
Close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Many more attempt suicide. Suicide occurs throughout the lifespan and is the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally.
Suicide is a global phenomenon; in fact, 78% of suicides occurred in low- and middle-income countries in 2015. Suicide accounted for 1.4% of all deaths worldwide, making it the 17th leading cause of death in 2015. Effective and evidence-based interventions can be implemented at population, sub-population and individual levels to prevent suicide and suicide attempts.
There are indications that for each adult who died of suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide
I do a lot of reading, even in such old-fashioned media as physical books. After learning of my cousin's loss, I want to read more about suicide as a cultural phenomenon. It has been seen as an acceptable practice in some societies, in order to save face, or to atone for failure. With a cruel captivity or reprisal awaiting them, many have killed themselves rather than surrendering, throughout history. King Saul took his own life in 2 Samuel 31:4, rather than face the victorious Philistines. Judas Iscariot killed himself out of grief for his betrayal, though the New Testament disagrees whether he hanged himself or died from a fall. Wearing explosives, flying into a crowd, or ramming people with an explosives-laden vehicle, has become popular since the days of the kamikaze pilots in World War II. For many people it has become a frequent practice to not only take their own lives, but also the lives of close family, friends, co-workers, classmates, or those who happen to be in range. After a mass shooting or other attack, the instigator often takes his or her own life. Among the many methods employed for taking life, provoking a police shooting seems to be gaining in popularity. Some are broadcasting their self-inflicted demise live on social media, just as terrorists have thought to win people to their cause by recording the beheading of captives.
Some would say our violent culture prompts this. So far as I can tell, children have been exposed to either physical or virtual violence for centuries. If they haven't lived in war zones, been a child soldier, a gang member, abused at home, or participated in slaughtering animals, they have had a heady dose of virtual violence in the form of games, TV shows, comic books, movies, or literature. Violence is a frequent theme in the sacred texts of many peoples. Just think of children growing up around lynchings or pogroms in the last century. For some reason, American culture is more tolerant of explicit depictions of violence and mayhem than it is of sexuality, at least since indulging in the former doesn't carry the same degree of censure as the latter. In any case, I do not know if the media is responsible for increases in suicidal behavior. One could look at the number of depictions of suicide showing up in stories and dramas, perhaps, as a means of reifying the action for others. One could look at the rate of unsuccessful vs. successful attempts as increasing or decreasing. One could also look at what is underreported. Think, for example, of those who simply allowed themselves to die by overeating, self-starvation, heavy drinking, or the abuse of other legal drugs. Or those who refuse to take the medicine they are prescribed, or to have a life-threatening condition treated. Or who gravitate towards risky sports and ignore proven safety protocols, like wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle? For some, the high cost of treatment is cited as a barrier. Others simply lose the will to live.
When addressing risk factors, the WHO states:
While the link between suicide and mental disorders (in particular, depression and alcohol use disorders) is well established in high-income countries, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-up or chronic pain and illness.
In addition, experiencing conflict, disaster, violence, abuse, or loss and a sense of isolation are strongly associated with suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates are also high amongst vulnerable groups who experience discrimination, such as refugees and migrants; indigenous peoples; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) persons; and prisoners. By far the strongest risk factor for suicide is a previous suicide attempt.
In today's world, people have become wary of reporting by either the news media or by governments. In developing countries, surveying rural areas can be a particular challenge. Governments may fudge on some facts to make themselves look good. However, it is interesting to see that poverty does not always correlate with ending it all. I have heard anecdotal evidence, for what it's worth, that many living in poor villages, rife with disease, parasites, hunger, substandard housing, etc., are surprisingly happy. People in more developed countries in Eastern Europe, seem to be the least happy and most suicidal. However, when suicides occur in rural areas, ingestion of pesticides is common. It depends on what is most accessible.
So, there seem to be many causes for life-taking. It is not always an issue of either poverty or prosperity. It may be an intrinsic component of a shame culture, or a taboo in a guilty culture. While people theoretically would be happier if their standard of living were improved, this doesn't guarantee that they will be free of depression, anger, or other grief-inducing situations. While middle-aged people might be prone to discouragement because of declining health, layoffs, divorce, indebtedness, or loneliness, why are so many voluntarily leaving this world in the full bloom of youth? Is it because of resistance to the social revolution of recent years, where gay and transsexual kids are targeted for refusing to stay in the shadows? Is it because some are helicopter fathers and tiger moms, so micromanaging their children's lives that they are unable to cope with emancipation? Is it from all the stories about doom and gloom, manifested in dystopian young adult literature, dire warnings about climate change, and the deficits in infrastructure, affordable education and health care generated by the callousness of older generations. Though I grew up in the 70s, as a child of the Cold War, doom and denial were part and parcel of living under the threat of Mutually Assured [nuclear] Destruction. While the nuclear threat is there, doom has taken other forms for the young, I think.
In years past, suicides were buried in unconsecrated ground. Suicide was considered a mortal sin. Clearly, LDS families didn't quite know what to make of it. What happens to someone who dies because of a sinful act? Latter-Day Saints at one time were asked to decide whether non-practicing or unreceptive relatives, who knew of the church, merited temple ordinances. There seems to be a less judgmental attitude towards people like that, as well as towards those leave us voluntarily. Medically-assisted suicide is still a controversial practice, even though some states and countries permit it, though under strict guidelines. I want to leave matters in God's hands, but one wonders when the person is officially brain-dead enough to pull the plug. Some remain comatose even after life support is removed. I do not believe in euthanasia, except in the case of a suffering animal. I am not sure I have a right to prohibit someone from medically-assisted termination, if he or she determines that there is no point in living with further pain and organ failure. It conflicts with my own beliefs, but I am at a point where I do not demand a secular law to punish people who may violate some principles of my faith, but who are nonetheless consenting adults. Thus, I want laws against domestic abuse, child pornography, underage tobacco and alcohol use, statutory rape, murder, assault, property theft, driving while intoxicated, fraud, workplace harassment, racial discrimination, and so on. If adults want to smoke, drink, consume other legal drugs, commit adultery and fornication, not keep the Sabbath, have children out of wedlock, obtain abortions, view legal pornography, or even walk around nude in public, I do not feel endangered, even if I might object to their behavior on religious grounds. While suicide is still illegal in some countries, it doesn't incur a penalty in the United States except in matters of complicity.
Preventing suicide can be quite stressful, as one who has attempted it must be under constant surveillance for an indefinite period of time. If one succeeds at it, survivor's guilt can be a perennial torment for others. What can be done to keep people from straying too close to the abyss? How can one who sees life as futile and burdensome be convinced of his or her self-worth? We don't always know why we are in a certain place at a particular time. We may lack a vision of our own self-worth, and the esteem with which we are held by others. We don't see how we fit in the grand scheme of things, even if we believe we are eternal beings, that Christ can heal our spiritual wounds and self-reproach, and we have some non-specific mission we are fulfilling here. One of the saddest suicides I remember reading about was that of Spc. Alyssa Peterson early in the 2003 Iraq. She was a returned missionary and refused orders to interrogate prisoners using the enhanced interrogation techniques which, ironically, Latter-Day Saints Bruce Jessen and Jay Bybee had a hand in developing. I cannot judge a person like that, who did not what to compromise personal morality even if it meant dereliction of duty. What would I have done in her situation? We don't know all the circumstances, but I honestly feel she was a martyr of conscience. If more soldiers disobeyed unconscionable orders on both sides of a conflict, there would be fewer atrocities, even fewer wars, and probably a lot more peace.
Suicide is tragic. Death, especially for a moribund person, is not. Suicide, for a Latter-Day Saint, is tragic because of the concept of the Plan of Salvation, wherein, as spirit children of our Heavenly Parents, we chose to be incarnate, with all of its pleasures, as well as hurts and discomforts. Being ensouled is keeping one's first estate. We aspire towards keeping our second estate by living the best lives we can, according to the principles we know, even if they aren't those of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe in a satanic adversary, who rejoices in our discouragement, our numbness, our sense of being worthless and expendable. He likes us to be estranged from each other, because we are much stranger when we are surrounded by loving families and friends. Divided we fall. We are reminded of our own insufficiency when we are alone. We need church fellowship, gospel study, the temple, friends, teachers, loved ones who can inspire us, give us other perspectives, keep us from our inward retreat. We need to be grateful for what we have, render service to others, even when they may appear better off than ourselves. We need to write our personal history, to give us some perspective on the good as well as the bad times in our lives. When we choose to leave mortality prematurely, it is like we desire the company of those who will never have bodies in the first place. We are having second thoughts about coming down here. We wish we had followed the other third of the hosts of heaven, who chose not to have Jesus Christ as their Savior. Or, we may feel that we are too miserable and insignificant to be redeemed by the Atonement. Or, we may never entertain these thoughts and long only for whatever we construe as life to end. We may also want to hurt somebody else by leaving a body behind as a mute witness to a perceived wrong. Suicide, even if it involves only one person, is a statement, an indictment, a theatrical act of aggression as well one of self-pity. It is meant to be memorable, to resonate painfully for years to come. It is sad, and it is messy.
I know no solution to prevent it totally, as there are bound to be harrowing times ahead, if I believe the prophets. There will be more despair and suffering in life in the indefinite future. There have been other harrowing times for other generations, other crosses to bear. It is good to reflect upon what others endured, to be a serious student of history, or at least one's family history. I contend that we whine too much, especially in American society, where even the most destitute would be envied by someone in a developing country. I think we need to travel more, visit other communities, gain some perspective. But I also pity those who are younger, who feel like they've been lied to, or cheated out of what they understood to be the American Dream. Many are forming an alternative vision of the good life, beyond the usual trappings of suburban prosperity and cultural aridity. They are better connected than their elders, at least in a virtual sense, and are building a society that is less rapacious and more inclusive, I believe. Many are traveling to exotic locales, risking relationships with peers in places their elders would only read about. But outliers need real, embodied friends, if they aren't to follow the dismal path of self-defeat and death. The rediscovery of what it means to be a real friend, a nurturer of strangers and saints alike, will help keep people living. It will also keep the Kingdom of God alive, in a world which chooses its winners and losers. The Kingdom of God can make each of us a winner, even if we never thought we were in the competition. The Kingdom of Heaven, I am sure, has a place for the Alyssa Petersons of this world. It is also my opinion that there will be a place for many of the Judas Iscariots, too. I personally don't believe he was a Son of Perdition, as some have suggested. I don't know if he had sufficient knowledge to obtain that status. The suicidal need to be shown that the God of Latter-Day Saints has more room for them than the God of John Calvin, Dante or St. Augustine. Those who deny the divine need to be shown the divinity that is in themselves.