A recent article in The Washington Post describes a very disturbing trend: “The U.S. suicide rate has increased sharply since the turn of the century, led by an even greater rise among middle-aged white people, particularly, women, according to federal data released Friday [April 22]” The article offers some suggestions as to why things have been so grim: last decade’s severe recession, drug addiction, social isolation, and the rise of the Internet and social media are among some of the possible explanations. Beyond this, the authors suggest, “economic distress—and dashed hopes generally—may underpin some of the increase, particularly for middle-aged white people.” These explanations are all plausible.
I am wondering, however, if something is missing from this analysis. Economic distress is not the only relevant factor in the United States from the past 15 years. We have also witnessed an increase in the presence of “assisted death” laws. Procon.org states that four states have legalized physician-assisted death via legislation (California , Washington , Oregon , and Vermont ) and in one state it has been permitted through court ruling (Montana, 2009). Might it be that these laws and the public debate that accompanies them have changed people’s attitudes towards suicide? There is a certain kind of logic here. If death with dignity is an ultimate good, why is it limited only to those who are terminally ill? If I have suffered an irreversible personal loss – my job, my wealth, or my family – why can’t I logically conclude that enough is enough and decide to end it all?
I am not suggesting that the physician assisted death laws are the cause of the higher suicide rate. I am simply wondering about their overall impact on our cultural thinking on death and dying. Although The Washington Post article is accompanied by helpful information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and many compassionate people and organizations are committed to providing help to those in need, it might be that in the current cultural climate, the goal of suicide prevention has been made more difficult.