Suicide Permitted

Over the course of the last two decades, American teens have reported disturbingly high rates of “suicidal ideation.” According to a study cited in The Guardian, between 2010 and 2020 the rates of attempted suicide rose by 188 percent among teen girls, and by 48 percent among boys. These figures show no sign of abating anytime soon. During the same period, we have seen a doubling of adolescent depression and anxiety.

Such phenomena have aroused great concern, not only among parents and educational professionals, but among the psychiatric specialists to whom we (or at least our media pundits) turn for an explanation—one that will reassure us that the menace which afflicts our children can be identified and contained.

We are asked to believe, instead, that among the causes driving teen depression and “suicidality” are climate change, inequality, global conflict, domestic political crises, racism, homophobia, and police violence. The list goes on, and it is probably not a coincidence that “causes” of this sort are also the pet sociopolitical triggers of liberal America—the kind of thing that provides endless fodder for daytime television personalities like Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar. Perhaps the type of women who lap up the blather dished up daily on The View find such diagnoses satisfying. But am I alone in thinking that if inequality or homophobia were somehow eliminated tomorrow, American teens would hardly shrug off their despair and join their local bowling team?

Of course, there are mental health experts who recognize the ways the problem, more often, is closer to home—in drug abuse, bullying, gender dysphoria, and so on. But whether the causes are identified as political or personal, the response is almost always of the same description: therapeutic.

In a statement that echoes dozens of others in a variety of online sources, Heather Kelly, a clinical psychologist affiliated with the American Psychological Association, asserts that more aggressive intervention is necessary. The problem is a “lack of readily available, culturally appropriate and evidence-based suicide prevention options, coupled with a severe shortage of diverse and trained mental health workforce.” Reading between the lines, we can interpret this to mean that our vulnerable teens must be placed under constant surveillance by an army of mental health professionals trained to intervene in a variety of ways—including the use of psychotropic medications.

According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 20 percent of the children—teens included—in the U.S. are in danger of “overmedication.” While the NIH does recognize that psychotropic intervention is, to say the least, problematic, its own solution doesn’t differ much from Kelly’s, and similarly indulges the lament that the mental health workforce is overworked and spread too thin. Aside from a passing reference to the dearth of “involved parents,” the NIH report prioritizes institutional and state-level intervention. This is hardly surprising, since the professionals who compile such reports have a stake in the expansion of the mental health bureaucracy. They seem to have little or no awareness that they may be part of the problem.

More promising is the diagnosis offered by Jonathan Haidt in his recent book The Anxious Generation (2024). Haidt, a social psychiatrist, is not the only one to notice that the frightening rise in teen suicides since roughly 2010 can be mapped onto the emergence of social media, which in conjunction with the almost universal use of smart phones, allows teens to access social media sites outside the boundaries of parental supervision. With good reason, Haidt calls this the “Great Rewiring of Childhood,” a rewiring that amounts to a tragic loss of childhood insofar as social media interaction has displaced childhood play—that is, embodied play.            

Haidt argues that this displacement has produced profound results, rending the ties between children and parents and with the larger society itself. Indeed, our children live increasingly in an unreal, electronically generated, and artificially protracted liminality in which genuine social integration has all but collapsed—and with a price. For Haidt makes a convincing case that immersion in social media, particularly during the vulnerable years of adolescence, is almost certainly an important cause of the contagion of teen anxiety and depression, which in turn generates suicidal despair.

This linkage had already been established a decade earlier by the British Millenium Cohort Study, which gathered data on the lives and mental attitudes of thousands of British children between 2001 and 2012. Responding to such studies, Haidt asks his readers to consider “how many enriching activities were displaced when young people began spending hours a day online, chasing likes, following vapid influencers, substituting the richness of real-life friendship with shallow online communication.”

Unfortunately, the kinds of solutions offered up by Haidt’s study—for example, a complete ban on cellphone use in schools—fall well short of viability. Moreover, the collapse of social integration that he highlights is not simply something occurring online or among teens. It is a much broader problem afflicting virtually all western societies. Well over a century ago, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim posited in his groundbreaking work Suicide (1897) that the causes of suicide are not primarily psychological but sociological.

The crux of the matter is social integration. It is within a complex web of social relations, both private and public, and their matrix of ritual and moral control that individuals find secure identities and a sense of belonging—hence personal value. For Durkheim, this matrix of social integration was grounded ultimately in communal faith, but as a positivist he insisted that the social order itself was sufficient, even in the absence of a transcendent referent. In other words, what mattered was that people believed in the transcendence offered by religious faith, not whether it was real.

That sort of positivist functionalism continues to be a widespread attribute of the sociological tradition today. 

A partial exception to this is the late Philip Reiff, who in a final series of works (Sacred Order/Social Order, 2006-2008) argued that human culture is nothing if not a sacred order, one based on a complex system of “interdictions” (moral prohibitions) and instinctual renunciations which arise out of faith in a transcendent dimension. Within such an order, suicide is a sacrilege and an affront to the gift of life.

Today, in a world from which the sacred has been evacuated, the idea of sacrilege is laughable. Our therapeutic culture and its elites recognize no moral authority other than the “expressive self,” as some have called it—that is, the disembodied self which, in its unending quest for “authenticity,” accepts only the primacy of its own will. For such a self, suicide is but one among many valid choices.

Some years ago, the essayist Susan Sontag quipped: “How thin the line between the will to live and the will to die. How about a hole … a really deep hole, which you put in a public place, for general use. In Manhattan, say, at the corner of Seventieth and Fifth. A sign beside the hole reads: 4 PM–8PM/MON WED & FRI/SUICIDE PERMITTED.” Her point was that if the prohibition against suicide were dropped, if only for a restricted period, people would undoubtedly leap into the hole out of some despairing impulse.

If I might generalize on Sontag’s point in a way that she might not have approved, I would assert that the hole at the corner of Seventieth and Fifth is now ubiquitous in America. For our society, in abandoning the sacred order in which suicide is understood as sacrilege, has implicitly permitted suicide. We no longer have a convincing answer to the central question: Why is my life worth living? We no longer believe that our lives are an utterly gratuitous gift, given to us by a gracious and loving Creator.

What is most essential is to recover the understanding that to reject that gift is not only a demoralizing assault upon our family, neighbors, and friends but also the gravest of sins.

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