When trying to make a point about the troubling rise of suicide rates in America, the statistics are often compared to other modes of fatalities, and understandably so. In order to understand the scale of the problem, it helps to compare it quantitatively to undesirable things we feel more familiar with. But in the case of suicide, I think it diminishes the scope and seriousness of the issue.
I’ll pick on Arthur C. Brooks’s column at the Washington Post, because that’s what got me thinking about this. Brooks rightfully urges a serious confrontation of the undeniably sharp and steady rise in suicide rates, and to convey just how bad things have gotten, he draws comparisons to homicides and motor vehicle accidents. According to his cited statistics, there are now two suicides for every homicide in America, and there are 17 percent more deaths per year by suicide than by car accidents.
While these numbers do help to communicate the scale of the problem, these kinds of comparisons, to my mind, oversimplify the issue to an unacceptable degree and make some morally false equivalencies between only somewhat related actions and phenomena.
Let’s start with the homicide-suicide comparison, and take as granted that twice as many people die by suicide than by homicide. Put aside for the moment the rise in suicide rates. Is the fact that more people take their own lives than have their lives taken from them in itself an obviously bad thing? In every instance? Could it not be a sign that perhaps we are now less eager to murder each other, and that if we must die by someone’s hands, at least it’s more likely to happen by our own choice and volition rather than someone else’s?
Of course it’s not “a good thing” that people want to kill themselves, but what does it actually mean to point out that there are more suicides than homicides? One is a death without choice, the other, at least in the broadest sense, is. What this numerical comparison ignores is what drives a person to make that choice. Would we feel better if those numbers were reversed? I don’t think I’d feel very safe if I was told that I was twice as likely to die by murder versus suicide.
Now let’s look at the comparison to death by motor vehicle accidents. It’s similarly problematic, in that it is not at all clear to me that we’d be pleased to see the statistics in reverse, in which car accident fatalities overtake suicide deaths. In that case, we’d all be wondering what is up with all the careless driving and poorly-made vehicles?
More to the point, Brooks points to the campaigns of a generation ago to improve car safety and how they eventually led to laws and regulations that made cars and driving much safer than they had ever been, and says, essentially, let’s do that, but for suicide.
This makes little sense to me. Absolutely increase public awareness of the issue. Countless people might be helped if more Americans were better educated and empathetic about suicide. But what else are we really talking about? There’s no suicide equivalent to seat belt laws, speed limits, or air bags.
Auto accidents, and to a lesser extent homicides, are more or less binary. They are bad things that result in unwanted deaths, but they can be prevented and mitigated by a fairly straightforward collection of measures. Make cars safer, make guns scarcer, and so on. Homicide is somewhat different in that, like suicide, its tendrils reach much deeper into other societal ills, and I’ll address that in a moment. But both auto accidents and homicides boil down to one thing: They kill people who don’t want to be dead.
Suicide is something else entirely. Let us grant for the sake of simplicity that no one’s starting position is “I want to be dead, and I want it badly enough that I will end my own life myself.” Something has to push a person into that place. Several somethings, both apparent and invisible. Whatever those factors are, they are different for everyone. I’m not even slightly qualified to list them or assign them relative values. But you know some of them; depression, fear, hopelessness, self-loathing, brought on because of abuse, joblessness, loss, addiction, and so on.
The point is that while murders and car crashes steal a person’s life from them, in the case of suicide, something else has stolen a person’s desire to live, and, importantly, driven them to the point that they have concluded that ending their life would be preferable to living it. Even if we could install some sort of air-bag-for-suicides and prevent the vast majority of them from succeeding, we’d certainly bring the suicide numbers down, but we’d have done nothing to address what brought on the choice to try in the first place. There’d be fewer deaths, but just as many miserable people.
So the question can’t be — must not be — “how do we bring down the number of suicides?” The real question is about how we change society so that tens of thousands of people every year do not become so overwhelmed by existential despair that suicide even becomes an option worth considering. Yes, that means laws, but not just preventative laws focused on the act of suicide itself. If that’s all we’re thinking about, then we’re too late anyway. But we will need laws that address poverty, economic anxieties, addiction, basic health and nutrition, mental illness, education, and much, much more.
But we’ll also need to change our culture, heart by heart. We’ll need to call ourselves to become kinder to each other, more sensitive to the pain of our fellow humans, and more willing to be a friend. We’ll need to stamp out those ideologies that thrive on the marginalization of other groups, and teach each other not to fear or resent equality. We have to decide, on an individual basis, to celebrate and embrace each single person’s differences and idiosyncrasies, and rather than seek uniformity, consider our species blessed by its infinite variety of neurologies, talents, flaws, ideas, histories, gifts, and limitations.
When we start to assign value to each and every one of us, then, maybe, we’ll see those suicide numbers go down. Not because we managed to stop more folks from pulling triggers or popping pills, but because far more of us have decided that this world is worth living in for as long as we can.