America’s Suicide Crisis: Dying for Lack of Hope

By John Stonestreet Published on August 14, 2017

How bad is America’s suicide problem? Well, it’s so bad that Americans’ overall life expectancy has declined for the first time since the 1930s.

As Aaron Kheriaty writes in First Things, the suicide crisis in America has reached epidemic proportions. Rates are growing coast to coast, in rural and urban areas, among the poor and the rich, the young and the old. What in the world is going on, and what do we do about it?

In his article, Kheriaty, director of the Medical Ethics Program at Cal-Irvine, describes a witch’s brew of factors behind this epidemic of death — ones we’ve talked about for years on BreakPoint: social fragmentation, an overall decrease in religious involvement, utilitarianism, and — yes — the growth of assisted suicide laws.

But in the end, Kheriaty boils the problem down to one word: Despair. Despair, as in the utter lack of hope.

In 1995, Robert Putnam first raised a red flag in an essay and subsequent book, Bowling Alone. He noticed that while more Americans than ever before were bowling, the number of bowling leagues was declining. Folks were bowling alone. Similarly, fewer Americans were attending school board or town meetings, volunteering or even getting together with their neighbors.

And this was long before the isolating effects of internet, social media and cell phones. I doubt that back then Putnam could have imagined a family of 4 — mom, dad, sister and brother — out to dinner together but each one staring into their own mobile devices. But you’ve seen it, and so have I.

This isolation breeds loneliness. And loneliness can be a major factor behind depression, which in turn can set people on the road to self-annihilation. Now, Kheriaty notes that clinical depression can and does have chemical causes as well, but, as he writes, “Your serotonin and dopamine levels may be out of kilter, but you may still have a problem with your Tinder compulsion and dinners alone in front of the television.”

Religious faith provides is meaning, belonging and ultimately hope for something beyond us or our circumstances and our self-isolation.

So while depression can be a serious mental illness that needs medical and psychological treatment, aloneness is curable. And that’s exactly where the Church should be jumping up and down, waving its arms saying, “Come here! Come here! Join us!”

“We now have a sizeable body of medical research,” Kheriaty continues, “which suggests that prayer, religious faith, participation in a religious community, and practices like cultivating gratitude, forgiveness, and other virtues can reduce the risk of depression [and], lower the risk of suicide.”

One study of 89,000 people showed that those “who attend any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide” than those who don’t. And “of the 6,999 Catholic women who attended Mass more than once a week,
none committed suicide.”

And it’s not just identifying as religious that matters — participation does! “Self-identified Catholics who did not attend Mass had suicide rates comparable to those of other women who were not active worshippers.”

Obviously, church — or for that matter, synagogue or mosque — attendance reduces isolation. And of course, all three Abrahamic faiths “have strong moral prohibitions against suicide.” But in the end, what religious faith provides is meaning, belonging and ultimately hope for something beyond us or our circumstances and our self-isolation.

“Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.” We, my friends, need to bring people to Jesus.

Chuck Colson liked to say that Christianity offers the world a great proposal — a better way to live and flourish — an invitation to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

We have the invitations … are we passing them out?



Originally published on BreakPoint Commentaries. Republished with permission of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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  • Stephen D

    Here in Australia the male suicide rate is now about double what it was in the 19th century. About 1 in 40 male deaths here are suicides. I believe part of the reason is the decline of Christianity, and the erosion of the former Christian view that suicide is a crime. Although suicide was ‘decriminalised’ in the 19th century, the view of ethicists did not change for many decades and was eventually eroded completely by mid-20th century. The traditional Christian view was always that suicide was self-murder. It was therefore forbidden by God. I think the fact that people no longer see suicide as something that is morally wrong, and therefore shameful, is one reason for the increase in the suicide rate.

  • Patmos

    Jesus didn’t call the Holy Spirit the Comforter for nothing.

    • Patmos

      And his words are spirit, and they are life. Same goes for all of scripture, because it is Spirit anointed. Paul was baptized with the same Spirit as Jesus, and even David spoke of the Spirit before it was even given.

  • Terry C

    I remember moving to a small rural town in the 80’s and being horrified by the number of suicides that seemed perfectly acceptable to the townspeople. I never thought, up until that point, that I would need to teach my young children that it was wrong. Then euthanasia started becoming talked about in school settings. Hope, the sanctity of life, a faithful God,a personal relationship with Christ never were more obviously needed to be actively taught, starting at home. That, and continuing to pray for the people in our cities and towns, our schools and businesses. We might be the only salt and light people see.

  • Hildabeast

    Beautifully written.

  • Scott Todd

    Islam teaches that suicide is wrong?

  • Matt

    No mention of the prolonged Economic Depression the US has been in since 2008?

    Despite Magic stock markets that have never go down that have provided welfare and foodstamps to the upper class (which only an incredibly small percent of the population own and benefit from) Wages adjusted for inflation *using government metrics*(which are admittedly sugarcoated to be polite and willfully fraudulent to be accurate) are lower then they were in 1970!

    People are poorer and worse off then they have been in almost 80 years. Sure you can buy a flat screen TV or a laptop or a $700 phone, but just as people like to say about Gold, you can’t eat flat screens…

    Food prices are up astronomically since 2000; Rent/housing is now over 40% of gross wages for almost 50% of workers. Tuition has skyrocketed leaving generations of individuals as indentured servants battling compounding interest. Insurance and health care are ANYTHING BUT affordable! All the while the Television tells everyone how this is the best time in the history of the world…

    Sure we have indoor plumbing and heat. Which is nothing to scoff at. However when looked at more directly it becomes reasonable to conclude that the despair that leads to suicide is 80% economic due to the absolutely atrocious and corrupt crony nepotistic system of a decaying society (and a rotten, degrading, decaying, and putrid currency and financial system long divorced from real value) and 20% due to social isolation, at least partly due to economic duress that everyone has come under that forces people to work faster, harder, and longer for less then their grand parents on an inflation adjusted basis.

    Bottom line, our society is economically sick and the majority of workers who don’t own their own businesses are little more then slaves in complex system of financial slavery where the cost of living continuously rises faster then income and so peoples only “recourse is debt”. Fast forward 2, 5, 10, 20… 40 years and its not that hard to see how people with a good education and critical thinking skills could come to rightly see that through a complex series of step that they have been financially enslaved and that there is a minutely small chance they will ever be free, much less have a life better then there parent or grandparents.

    In all honesty, in such a system, after deliberate thought, its not an irrational choice, but rather a rational choice to commit suicide.

    People cope in different ways leading up to that climax. And some will not even be able to identify the root causes. Many will blame themselves. Depression is anger/rage turned inward. People do this because they think it is their fault because most people are either gullible, willfully ignorant, or a part of the small segment of society that understand, but benefits from our current corrupt crony fascist system (fascist as originally defined by Mussolini as “The merger of State and Corporate power”).

    Some people will turn to opiates and other drugs. Others will turn to alcohol. Others will turn to sex as their out of choice.
    Regardless, the end result is that the symptoms and problems are merely covered over and ignored while they fester and grow worse. To the wise, rational, critical thinker, the end result of slavery(tax, debt, wage, chattel, etc) no matter how cleverly disguised culminates in the logic that the only way to win a rigged game is to not play. Thus suicide becomes not just a logical choice, but after due thought and careful consideration, the apex of decision choices for those hopelessly enslaved in a system of bondage that everyone does their level best to pretend does not exist.

    “”It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

    We should not forget that.

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