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Meaning and Suicide
Ashleen Bagnulo, Ph.D., 20 June 2018
Introduction. Augustine remarks of the natural will to live that “there is…great power in those evils which defeat this natural feeling which makes us use all our strength in the endeavor to avoid death: evils which defeat it so completely that what was once shunned is now sought and longed.”[i] In the developed West, it appears this natural desire is becoming increasingly overwhelmed in the hearts of many. What factors contribute to the troubling increase in the number of people who take their own lives, especially as it seems so many causes of our material suffering, like hunger, disease and infant mortality, exist at lower levels than they do in much of the rest of the world?
American Suicide. The recent deaths of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain shed light on a silent, nationwide suicide epidemic. According to a recently released CDC-study[ii] suicides have increased by 25% since 1999 with half of American witnessing a 30% increase. Among an unlikely demographic, middle-aged American women, suicide rates have increased by sixty percent;[iii]
still, middle-aged white men are statistically most at risk.[iv] These trends reflect international data that show the prominence of suicide as a cause of death in the developed West.
Of course, mental health is a notable concern for those who seek to understand the national increase in suicidality, and rather dishearteningly for those seeking to improve American mental health, funding for mental health care has been reduced by $665 million[v] under the Trump administration. However, according to the CDC, more than half of those who committed suicide in their study did not have known or diagnosed mental health issues. In an article by NPR,[vi] Deborah Stone, the study’s lead author, states that the culprit in many suicides is not mental health, but rather, certain life stressors: "… [T]hese folks were suffering from other issues, such as relationship problems, substance misuse, physical health problems, job or financial problems, and recent crises or things that were coming up in their lives that they were anticipating."
In a recent suicide that received less national attention, undocumented immigrant Marco Antonio Muñoz[vii] also responded to a threat against a primary relationship by taking his own life. Muñoz committed suicide in his Starr County, Texas jail cell in mid-May after being separated from his wife and The suicides of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain reflect this pattern; while complicated by questions of mental health and addiction, their decisions to end their lives appear to be prompted in large part by recent stresses in primary relationships. In a recent suicide that received less national attention, undocumented immigrant Marco Antonio Muñozthree-year old son. According to the Washington Post, [viii] a border patrol agent reports that Muñoz became combative after agents “had to use physical force to take the child out of his hands.”
In the suicides of Spade, Bourdain, and Muñoz we find the common theme of the human on the brink when faced with a threat to an important, intimate relationship. Research recently featured in The Economist[ix] adds another dimension to the general portrait of people pushed to the edge: a decline in what is called “relative status”. According to Mary C. Daly’s research, even those who experience relative financial security are at risk for suicide if their income declines when the average income in their county does not. In other words, those who seem to enjoy some financial security can also feel anxiety or despair when they experience a decline in their perceived status. Researchers at the Brookings Institute report a similar dynamic. Poor whites report greater despair than Latinos and Blacks in similar economic situations, purportedly because “[t]he combination of fear of downward mobility, weak safety nets, and eroding social cohesion” cause “high levels of desperation.” The memory or experience of past participation in high levels of status contributes to a sense of aimlessness and desperation in many Americans. By contrast, the researchers hypothesize, Latinos and blacks do not possess enough of a universal experience of financial and social success to perceive themselves as experiencing setbacks in social status or economic power. Perhaps an experience of relative deprivation in economic and social power encourages such communities to make meaning in more durable or persistent ways.
Some of the most convincing research[x] about the dynamics of suicide comes out of the work of Florida State University’s Thomas Joiner. In what Newsweek bills as the “first comprehensive theory of suicide” Joiner argues that there are three factors that combine to make a person decide to take their own lives: “low belonging”, “burdensomeness” and “fearlessness” or “the ability to die”. The first factor refers to a kind of loneliness and alienation; one feels disconnected from other humans and like they have no place to belong or no one who cares for them or their fate. As Walker Percy opines in the novel The Moviegoer, “most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen.” The second factor, burdensomeness, describes the feeling that one is not contributing to one’s family, to society, or Some of the most convincing research to the world in any meaningful way. Instead, someone who struggles with the feeling of burdensomeness feels that rather than contributing, they drag those around them down. “The ability to die”, the last factor, simply concerns a person’s willingness to overcome the natural aversion to death and pain we all feel. Instead of fearing death, such a person is so desperate to end their suffering that they welcome the ability to die more than they fear the pain and violence involved in taking one’s own life.
Each of the factors identified by Joiner encapsulates important aspects of what we know about human nature. Man is inclined toward his own self-preservation and the preservation of our species. Man is a social animal who flourishes in networks of meaningful and sustained relationships; we are fortified by knowing we belong and are needed. Man is also an animal that creates and labors, who makes meaning and finds meaning through activity and ritual. Therefore, the factors of suicide - fearlessness in the face of death, loss of belonging, and feelings of burdensomeness - are inversions of our nature. The attractiveness of suicide is understandable when one considers that the motivations behind the act are rooted in a destruction of our very nature.
Conclusion. In modern America, despair can just as easily overtake a female fashion designer as it can an immigrant torn apart from his son or a white middle-aged man laid off from the local factory. The more that modern life inhibits our natural sociability and frustrates meaningful and productive contributions to one’s community, the more likely we are to willingly undergo the pain and suffering of suicide and to overcome our natural inclination to survive.
And there is reason to believe that our communal temptations to loneliness and feelings of burdensomeness are unlikely to abate soon. As NPR reports, contemporary suicide prevention movements rightly focus on reducing “access to lethal means”, stabilizing economic factors and introducing coping skills and traits of resiliency in children from a young age as a means of decreasing the suicide rate. However, the attitudes that incline a person toward seeking suicide are in many ways a product of our cultural inability to recognize the value of life at all its stages of relative vulnerability. When life is thought of as meaningful only under certain conditions of human development, health, prosperity, and performance, thoughts of burdensomeness and unworthiness are never far for many Americans who cannot help but internalize those criteria. As the social and legal acceptance of assisted suicide increases nationwide, we face the additional problem of the public legitimization of suicide as a sanctioned and understandable option. It will become increasingly hard to convince those struggling from feelings of alienation and despair that suicide is not the answer if the state itself countenances the idea that it is a solution.
As we come to terms with the American temptation to suicide, we need to consider questions of prevention not only from the useful perspectives of economics, policy, psychology, and healthcare, but even more fundamentally, we need to explore the concepts that drive our culture’s understanding of meaningful life, meaningful work, and meaningful relationships. If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or seek professional counseling.
[i] Augustine, City of God, 19.4
[ii] Study can be retrieved at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6722a1.htm?s_cid=mm6722a1_w
[iii] Article can be retrieved at https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/14/619338703/u-s-suicides-rates-are-rising-faster-among-women-than-men
[iv] Article can be retrieved at https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2018/06/15/americas-rising-suicide-rate
[v] Article can be retrieved at https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/15/586095437/trump-calls-for-mental-health-action-after-shooting-his-budget-would-cut-program
[vi] Article can be retrieved at https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/06/07/617897261/cdc-u-s-suicide-rates-have-climbed-dramatically
[vii] Article can be retrieved at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/immigrant-dies-suicide-texas-jail-after-being-apprehended-border-u-n881831?cid=sm_npd_nn_fb_ma
[viii] Article can be retrieved at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/a-family-was-separated-at-the-border-and-this-distraught-father-took-his-own-life/2018/06/08/24e40b70-6b5d-11e8-9e38-24e693b38637_story.html?utm_term=.9e9153e29d8a&noredirect=on
[ix] Article can be retrieved at https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2018/06/15/americas-rising-suicide-rate
[x] Article can be retrieved at http://www.newsweek.com/2013/05/22/why-suicide-has-become-epidemic-and-what-we-can-do-help-237434.html
Ashleen Bagnulo, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at Texas State University