An Epidemic of Suicides

Loneliness? Stress? Failure?

A year and a half ago, Times’ columnist Ross Douthat noted that “More Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents, and gun suicides are almost twice as common as gun homicides.” According to a new paper by the Nobel laureate Angus Deaton and his wife, Anne Case, it’s not getting any better. The increase in suicides has sent “white death rates modestly upward in the richest nation in the world.”

Douthat attributed the increase to the loss of traditional social ties, causing an upsurge of loneliness. He cited a study published in The New Republic: “one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago.”

A conservative, Douthat is none the less able to see the cost to individuals in leaving their small and confining communities for the stimulation and opportunity of our sprawling cities. To expand and grow, to escape the people who want you to be just like them, you have to leave. But then, often you end up isolated, vulnerable, and despairing.

Progressives will see the data as a sign of our “fraying safety nets and . . . punishing economic climate,” and they note how suicide rates are not climbing in Europe which has more generous social benefits. People there are less likely to feel abandoned and punished for not being successful. At the same time, in America, suicide rates are not rising among blacks and Hispanics, perhaps because those cultures have always tended to provide more support for those facing illness, disability, and joblessness through extended families.

Douthat sees leaving our traditional communities as a choice. But, perhaps, it is not a choice at all, so much as a developmental imperative and a matter of survival. The modern world may require us to be more independent, more separate, and more lonely.

Increasingly, we are all forced to adapt to instability and change. Our corporations no longer offer fixed or even reliable careers to their executives and upper-level workers, beset by the continual threat of mergers, take-overs, divestments, restructurings and downsizing, all demanded by investors seeking ever greater “shareholder value.” Lower-level employees are threatened by high unemployment rates and inadequate salaries. Professionals face a world in which much of their expertise is duplicated by smart machines or outsourced to those less well trained as costs are being continually trimmed.

Modern economies are also beset with financial manipulation, fraud, cronyism and attacks on oversight and regulation. And this is not to mention the increasing risks of natural disasters brought about by climate change.

The modern world, in short, requires us to be nimble, adaptive and ready to rethink our own identities. That demand is no longer abnormal, surprising or shocking. But it does mean that we can take less and less for granted. We are all adrift on a sea of change, and it takes courage and emotional strength to keep afloat.

Loneliness is just one of the consequences of this new reality. It leads some to search for illusory certainties, fundamental truths they can affirm without much supporting evidence. Others seek constant diversion or withdraw. Many get depressed and contemplate suicide.

Some thrive, but many sink.