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.”
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!”
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“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?
We’ll talk more tomorrow on BreakPoint about the suicide epidemic and Kheriaty’s excellent article, specifically, utilitarianism and the pernicious growth of assisted suicide laws.