A brief thought on rising suicide rates

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 [2015], Washington [2008], Oregon [1994], and Vermont [2013]) 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.

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Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund
4 years ago

The logic of assisted suicide seems to demand less attention, or a different kind of attention, to suicide prevention. If, as the Economist argued, depressed people should be afforded the right to assisted suicide because their psychic pain is no less real than the physical pain of the advanced cancer patient, then the task becomes documenting the desire for death by a person of decision-making capacity, not talking them out of it. So the idea would be to get a suicidal person to “come out” to physicians, who then could counsel the suicidal person with, presumably, the goal of controlling the method of suicide (prescribed barbiturate overdose). I suppose the assisted suicide advocate could argue that increased awareness and identification of suicidal people would itself lead be a deterrent, as many if not most might be found to be “non-certifiable,” as it were, or in fact open to being dissuaded–if, indeed, one’s view of personal autonomy permits trying to talk a suicidal person out of it. Then again, many people would not come forward, but just use their preferred method of suicide. So suicide prevention and embrace of assisted suicide may not be exactly two sides of the same coin, although they clearly clash, as I see it.

Shelly R. McDAniel
Shelly R. McDAniel
4 years ago
Reply to  Jon Holmlund

Very interesting response Jon. All of this is so new to me. I would agree that the psyche pain is as real as the physical pain. But I’m thinking at what point is it okay to assist in suicide if someone is seriously depressed? And what is that really promoting to people who feels this sense of hopelessness at that moment in time? :/

Shelly R. McDAniel
Shelly R. McDAniel
4 years ago

This is a very interested article. I was not aware of the new assisted suicide law. I have conflicting feelings about that law. On one side, I can see how this is a relief on the patient who’s suffering terribly and see that is the only way to be relieved. I’m sure it’s a difficult decision for the patient, family, and physician. On the other hand, from a Christian point of view, how is this different from Murder? The law, “Though Shall Not Kill”? This is really tough.

It is heartbreaking as well to hear about the high number of teen suicides as well. So much hopelessness in this world. 🙁

Shelly