Thoughts about the increase in American suicide

An article about suicide suggested that religious faith matters to our ability to ride out unhappiness, rather than yielding to the impulse of the grave.

Last week, the Free Beacon ran a very sad article about the fact that American suicide rates keep increasing:

Every year since the turn of the millennium, the number of Americans dying by suicide has risen, with nearly 50,000 deaths in 2018 alone.

That steady increase began after almost a decade and a half of decline and has proceeded at such a pace that 2018’s per capita suicide rate is the highest since the start of World War II. Suicide is now among the 10 leading causes of death in the United States, the second-most common cause for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24, and the third-most for those between 25 and 44.

These figures are a tragedy. But they are also a mystery.

It’s that “mystery” part that got me thinking. My first assumption when I carelessly read the article was that we were looking at the despair of the Obama years when the economy was stagnant and unemployment rife – but then I saw that the figures include 2018, which was two years into the Trump administration when things were improving.

One person thinks we’re simply looking at a cycle:

“Suicide rates are cyclical,” Dr. Bart Andrews, an AAS board member, told the Washington Free Beacon. “If you look at the U.S. rates over the history that we’ve been tracking it, we tend to see these 20- or 30-year cycles of up and down suicide trends.”

Andrews said that he’s not yet convinced that the sudden spike in 2000 is a departure from this cyclicality—its magnitude may just represent better tracking. But it is hard to see the past 20 years following the same dynamics as the ’70s and ’80s when data collection was at least closer in quality to today.

What’s also confusing is that things that people assume cause suicide . . . don’t.

Even though teenagers engage in less risky behavior than they used to, their suicide rates have increased. The economy doesn’t seem to matter either, as I noted above. And while a lot of suicides are done with guns, it turns out that the rise in gun ownership doesn’t correlate to the increase in suicides. Some people think social media is at issue, but it turns out that screen time doesn’t tie into suicide. And of course, there’s the fact that, since Trump became president, more people are happy. So cultural malaise isn’t factoring into the spike either.

So, here’s my theory, although it may be no better than the Monty Python dinosaur theory that I love to cite when pointing out the meaningless obvious.

My theory (clearing throat), my theory (ahem) is that the reason for the spike in suicides is the decline in religion. Yeah, that’s a super-obvious point and I’m not the first to make it, but I’d like to add a couple of small twists. But first, let me discuss the obvious point.

It’s no secret that traditional religion is declining in America. If you search “America decline in religion,” you’ll find dozens of articles talking about how Americans are retreating from traditional faiths, especially Judeo-Christian faiths.

Faith gives meaning to life. Dennis Prager talks about this often, so let me give just a few quotations. Here’s what he says in an article about the fact that young people today are unhappy:

Aside from food, the greatest human need is meaning. I owe this insight to Viktor Frankl and his classic work “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which I first read in high school and which influenced me more than any book other than the Bible. Karl Marx saw man as primarily motivated by economics; Sigmund Freud saw man as primarily driven by the sexual drive; Charles Darwin, or at least his followers, sees us as primarily driven by biology.


More than a third of Americans born after 1980 affiliate with no religion. This is unprecedented in American history; until this generation, the vast majority of Americans have been religious.

Maybe, just maybe, the death of religion — the greatest provider of meaning, while certainly not the only — is the single biggest factor in the increasing sadness and loneliness among Americans (and so many others). A 2016 study published in the American Medical Association JAMA Psychiatry journal found that American women who attended a religious service at least once a week were five times less likely to commit suicide. Common sense suggests the same is true of men.

The bottom line: The reason so many young people are depressed, unhappy and angry is the left has told them that God and Judeo-Christian religions are nonsense; their country is largely evil; their past is deplorable; and their future is hopeless.

In a different post, about certain conservatives (whom he adores) who are not religious, Prager threw in one more existential thought:

[Heather] Mac Donald: “Part of my resistance to this is simply I don’t find claims of petitionary prayer and the idea of a personal loving God consistent with what I see — what I call the daily massacre of the innocents. To me it’s a very hard claim to make that I should expect God to pay attention to my well-being when He’s willing to allow horrific things to happen to people far more deserving and innocent than I am. So, for me, it’s partly just a truth value. I cannot stomach what appears to me to be a patently false claim about a personal loving God.”

I agree with Heather’s premises but not with her conclusion. I have never believed that God has any reason to pay more attention to me than to any other innocent human being. And I, too, “cannot stomach” the “daily massacre of the innocents” — so much so that I have written how I find the commandment to love God the hardest commandment in the Bible.

But what I also cannot stomach is the thought of a universe in which the horrible suffering of innocents is never compensated by a good and just God: The good and the evil all die; the former receive no reward and the latter no punishment.

The problem of unjust suffering troubles every thinking believer. But the Jewish theologian Milton Steinberg offered a powerful response: “The believer in God has to account for unjust suffering; the atheist has to account for everything else.” Between the two, I would argue that the atheist’s burden is infinitely greater. And insurmountable.

Summing it up, religion gives life meaning, even if we cannot discern God’s purpose, and religion, even if inexplicable or silly, is still better than the black abyss of atheism. And yes, I know that there are individuals out there, including one of my favorite commenters (you know who you are, NW), who strongly feel that you don’t need traditional faith to have meaning or existential serenity. I still think, however, that for the bell curve of humanity faith helps. Lacking faith, life becomes purposeless and that’s profoundly depressing in a way that may make life unbearable.

So, the above is the big, obvious idea about why a loss of religion correlates with suicides. Here are my two smaller, more esoteric reasons:

First, there are actions we can take that, while neither illegal nor dangerous, nevertheless demean us profoundly as human beings. I’m thinking of sexually degrading things of the type that are so easily available on the internet, but I’m sure there are other things that would fall in the same category. I suspect (although I have no way of knowing) that being religious puts something of a brake on engaging in these activities in the first place.

If you’re not religious, though, and have no brake, you may find yourself –at least in your own head – living in a very bad, painful, unpleasant, physically and mentally fetid universe. And even though you don’t have a religion telling you that you’re doing something morally wrong, you probably still have something inside you telling you that you’re are unclean. And perhaps when that feeling of having dirtied yourself gets too overwhelming, when the ugliness you’ve wandered into eats you up and you see no way out, death is preferable.

Again, this is just a guess on my part that, maybe, religious people wouldn’t get to that dark place to begin with.

Additionally, I wonder if there’s another out for religious people who do manage to find themselves in that dark place. Without faith, people who are in those bad places don’t know how to cleanse themselves of the feeling of having been there. However, isn’t one of the promises of Christianity that, if you really come to know Christ and dedicated yourself to living in accordance with those principles, your soul is cleansed?

In other words, no matter how far you’ve fallen into the muck, religion helps you to pick yourself up and clean yourself. That’s probably why sex workers and hardcore drug users who manage to leave the old life behind often cite God. Not only are their behaviors different, but they have forgiven themselves. The cleansing power of true faith was certainly true for one young woman I wrote about.

Despite being Jewish, I know less about how the Jewish faith handles remorse, repentance, and reform, but the Old Testament definitely seems to allow for these things. After all, Moses didn’t come to religion until he was a middle-aged man. Also, I seem to remember that one of the prophets married a prostitute (but am too lazy to confirm).

Second, suicide is a mortal sin in Catholicism and a sin in the Judeo-Christian faith generally. The reason, as I understand it, is that God created each of us, making it a crime against God to destroy that which he has created. That too is a brake on suicide.

I was thinking that particular brake because one of my Little Bookworms wrote a short essay about St. Ignatius of Loyola. What I didn’t know was that St. Ignatius suffered a period of existential despair so profound he contemplated suicide. It was the knowledge that suicide is a mortal sin that stopped him. He went on to a life of greatness.

We know that many suicides are matters of impulse. Religious faith – and the belief that killing yourself puts you at odds with God – may well be a brake on that impulse, as it was with Loyola. I’m sure St. Ignatius is not the only person who rode out a suicidal impulse for fear of imperiling one’s immortal soul. In a non-religious society, however, too many people don’t have the benefit of that brake.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. Now, back to fixing up the new house. (Today is Venetian blind and hanging plants day. Every day, the house is more of a home.)

Image: onlineforlove; creative commons.