The Long, Dark History of America’s Suicide Crisis
The game feels rigged for too many Americans, as the gulf widens between a society’s sense of what success looks like and the paths to achieving those goals.
A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a sharp increase in suicides—25 percent—between 1996 and 2016. They declared it a public health crisis. Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S., and one of the three causes that saw an increase over that decade. In 2016, the last year of the study, 45,000 people committed suicide in the U.S.; with firearms involved in roughly 50 percent of them. There has been an increase for women. Veterans are overrepresented. And there was an increase in western states, which might be related to that region’s painfully slow economic recovery.
According to the CDC report, 54 percent of those who commit suicide have no known mental health issues. While every suicide is different, and every person is complex, there are reasons to step back and consider more broadly what’s happening.
We could start in the 19th century with the French theorist Emile Durkheim, a founder of the modern discipline of sociology who sought a social explanation to suicide. In 1897, he wrote Suicide, what might be his most important book and found that quick-paced, large-scale economic and societal shifts created a state of anomie for people by unmooring them from long understood social norms. He believed that in periods when social systems are in flux there is a social breakdown of norms. In these major periods of economic and social shift, societies exist in an in-between state of social systems as old norms deteriorate and new ones are only beginning to form. This state of uncertainty affects everyone, but seems to affect the most vulnerable the hardest. When commonly held values no longer hold truth, the sense of community declines and individuals seems more, well, individual and disconnected as social bonds dissolve. This disconnect from common social values and societal norms is called anomie. Durkheim argued that anomie leads to one type of suicide, and that to truly understand suicide, we need to fully understand social structure.
Writing 50 years years later, the American sociologist Robert Merton, tweaked the theory by refining the definition of anomie in a series of research articles, starting with “Social Structure and Anomie” in the American Sociological Review in 1938. For Merton, anomie happens when there is a mismatch between a society’s norms or sense of what success looks like and the way one achieves those goals. In short, it happens when there is a break between goals and means.
One way to see this is to look at the way we define success (for simplicity sake let’s call it the American Dream) at any given period and the accepted methods of getting that success. This is what we would call the social contract. If we know and accept the rules, and success is shared widely enough to make the rules seem legitimate, we accept the contract.
Merton, however, asked what happens when the contract doesn’t seem to work anymore—when the definition of success morphed into something that is less obtainable, where the rules no longer seem legitimate. The mismatch creates as permanent state of anomie, which according to Merton leads to increases in deviant behavior.
The theory Durkheim introduced in the 1890s and that Merton refashioned and modernized in the 1930s and 1940s offer us a lens into today’s social crisis. We are living through a period of massive systems shift. Starting in the late 1970s (think deindustrialization) and speeding up since, we have watched the social contract dissolve as a nation moved from a manufacturing giant to, well… to what? We haven’t even come to a consensus on what to call our current economic system.
One term we use is post-industrial, which defines the American economy by what it was and no longer is. Those good blue-collar jobs in auto, steel, and other massive industries are gone. What has replaced it? Gigs? One of the fasting growing job sectors in our present economy is the restaurant and food service industry. According to The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, food service jobs account for as much as 25 percent of all new jobs in urban areas. According to The Washington Post most of these jobs are low paying, 87 percent don’t carry benefits. A full 20 percent of these workers are raising children as single parents and nearly 50 percent of them require public assistance. In the new economy the simple notion of hard work leading to a better life seems less credible today than it might have for many Americans in say 1957.
Whatever we call our system, it’s clear our new economy is leaving loads of people behind, has broken our social bonds and our political norms. Political scientist Jacob Hacker has called this the great risk society. For many Americans, he says, the future is grim. Wages have stagnated, higher education is ever more expensive, and health insurance and retirement are becoming more theoretical than real for millions. In short, according to Hacker, all of society’s risks have shifted from large institutions (think corporations and government) to individuals. We are carrying larger and larger burdens on our shoulders, feeling more and more pressure and seeing less and a less light at the end of the tunnel.
So once again there is a widening disconnect between the goal (our American Dream) and the means to achieve it. This can only leave more and more people disconnected from society, in a state of anomie and helplessness.
Suicide is complicated, but sociological theory along with past experience suggest that if we only look at these tragedies as individual events we can never understand them fully. The increase in suicide seems connected to what we must see as a new period of social anomie. As we mourn those we have lost, and as we ask what could we have done to prevent these desperate acts, we must look at the frayed social contract, the broken American dream and those living in the balance.
To do anything else is to turn our collective backs to those in pain.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).