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The societal roots of a surging suicide rate
Concord Monitor - 6/17/2018
For the Monitor
While I’m a practicing psychotherapist, my hero is the late, great sociologist C. Wright Mills, who made a critical distinction between private troubles, which affect a single person, and public issues, which affect a group of people.
Mills would turn over in his grave if he saw the new Centers for Disease Control report, which concludes that the recent surge in suicides in our country is attributable only to an assortment of personal problems, listing things such as strained relationships; life stressors, often involving work or finances; substance use problems; physical health conditions; recent or impending crises.
Reuters confirms the individual emphasis of this report, noting the “spike in suicide rates in the United States has cast fresh light on the need for more effective treatments for major depression.”
Of course, assuming that everything revolves around the individual is an American tradition: We aspire to be the rugged individual who can triumph over anything, if only we work hard enough and long enough. Or else be like John Wayne and take out the bad hombre who is holding you down in a blaze of gunfire.
Our default position is that failure is an individual problem, a psychological maladjustment. Suicide is an admission of that failure. Despite this American obsession, sociologists have long known that suicide is not simply a psychological occurrence but a societal one.
Suicide rates have long been shown to vary depending on the status of society: rapid changes to the social, economic or political structures of society cause suicide rates to soar.
The 19th-century sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe this phenomenon. It was his thesis that anomie occurred when the values and norms from one era were no longer valid, but new ones have not yet evolved to take their place.
That’s not to say that our mental health system isn’t in crisis, because it is. It needs to be re-imagined with greatly expanded funding to make help readily available to each and every one of us when we need it. That would certainly help.
But suicide rates would still be high because the root cause of our surging suicide rate is anomie, a societal issue. Most observers agree that anomie has been increasing since the 1960s and has accelerated markedly under the unethical and normless Trump administration.
Anti-depressant medication won’t fix the problem.
From a sociological perspective, suicide rates will not significantly decrease until people can find meaning in their lives again; this will happen only when we can embrace a new societal vision that is morally and spiritually uplifting, while restoring, in actual practice, the American Dream that everyone has an equal chance of succeeding.
Right now we are in the situation Durkheim described where the values and norms from the old era are no longer valid, but the new ones have not yet taken firm root.
We are now caught between eras, divided into separate camps. Here is my impression of the two camps and what I think should happen. Beware: I have a definite viewpoint.
The old camp wants to return to the way things were, where white men were privileged and we could dominate the whole world by force, where as a country we spend more of our discretionary money on the military than on our people, where we can spend a trillion dollars modernizing our nuclear weapons and extract fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow.
It goes without saying that for this camp – with its head stuck, like an ostrich, deep in oil-drenched sand – climate change is a hoax and nuclear war is winnable.
In the new camp, we have folks with a fresh vision of our country becoming a diverse, multicultural society without racial or gender bias where we progressively reduce nuclear stockpiles by treaty and guarantee each citizen a livable wage, good health care and a dignified retirement.
Understanding that the imminent threat of climate change is – in Jimmy Carter’s words, “the moral equivalent of war” – we will mobilize accordingly in a concerted, national push toward a sustainable economy by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
By taking these positive, unifying steps, while empowering each and every one of us to be that best that we can be, will bring a sense of meaning back into our lives and a true sense of patriotism, working together for a cause bigger than ourselves, not only for us but for our children and grandchildren.
These are the structural questions we should be talking about in deciding which vision will best carry us into the future.
Either that or we can continue to re-arrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic by continuing to claim that our societal problems, like surging suicide rates, are only a result of individual troubles and psychological maladjustment.
(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)