I recently read an article in USA Today by Kristen Powers in which she cited a statistic that suicides are up 30% since 1999. In the article, she quotes an author who says that “despair … isn’t always caused by our brains. It’s largely caused by key problems in the way we live.” I don’t know if there’s any research or professional opinion to back that up. The author is a journalist who wrote a book. That doesn’t necessarily make the author an expert. Still, I personally think there is some merit to the point.
Kristen Powers went on to assert her opinion that “we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” For proof, she quotes Tim Carey about “getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy. And that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamed of and more.”
In spite of the lack of real evidence, I think she has a point. The article is prompted by the suicides of two famous TV personalities who seemed to have it all, Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. We don’t have to think very far back to remember Robin Williams, who also seemed to have it all. Then there is Whitney Houston who maybe didn’t intentionally kill herself, but she drank and drugged herself to death.
It turns out that the list of famous people who committed suicide is quite long. (See, for example, the Famous Suicides List) The list of famous suicides includes some of the wealthiest people of their times. (See, for example, 10 Millionaire Businessmen Who Committed Suicide and These are 10 Rich People who Committed Suicide)
What is it that possess a person who seems to have everything anyone could want in this life to commit suicide?
Powers suggests that, perhaps, “achieving all your goals provides the opposite of fulfillment: it lays bare the truth that there is nothing you can purchase, possess or achieve that will make you feel fulfilled over the long-term.” Again, I think her point is extremely well taken. I have said as much many times over. (See, for example, The Dissatisfaction of Life)
Powers concludes that we need to acknowledge something is wrong in our society. She suggests that the increase in suicides is not the result of an increase in mental illness, but something that is going on in our society. She says that we need to stop thinking we have to treat everyone as if they have mental illness and begin to help people build more meaningful lives.
I don’t read her as saying that people do not suffer from legitimate mental illness. Powers tells her own story in the process, which includes antidepressants, some of which worked, and some of which made her condition worse. She recognized legit mental illness.
I think her point is that we have to do more then treat depression as a mental illness. Mental illness may be a component of the problem, but something else is going on. There is a societal element to the problem. We have become disconnected from meaning and purpose.
I also see a connection with the increase in suicides since 1999 and the increase in indiscriminate, mass school shootings since the 1980’s. (For proof of the startling and sudden increase in indiscriminate, mass school shootings in the 1980′ and beyond, see A Brief History of Indiscriminate School Shootings in the US) While suicides have increased 30% since 1999, indiscriminate, mass school shootings were virtually unknown before the 1960’s. Two incidents began the phenomenon in the 1960’s. A handful took place in the 1970’s, but the 1980’s open a flood gate that is been not shut since.
While people are arguing over the sensibility of gun control, I have urged some serious examination of School Shootings: Seeking the Why. Gun control at be part of the answer, but it won’t address the root cause. We have to get to the root cause of school shootings.
The precipitous rise in the incidence of school shootings and the significant rise in the incidence of suicides is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, signaling that something is terribly, terribly wrong. The Gun Problem Needs Diagnosis and so does the suicide problem. We need to put ideology and partisanship aside and get to the bottom of these modern American problems that we face as a society.