Earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an article about the alarming 28% rise in suicide deaths in the United States between 1999 and 2016. The issue was recently punctuated with the celebrity suicides of Kate Spade (June 5) and Anthony Bourdain (June 8), leaving many to wonder how such visibly successful and seemingly fulfilled people can take their own lives. Such assumptions fail to acknowledge that suicide is often a more fundamental existential disorder of disconnection and purposelessness.
From my perspective, suicide deaths are largely the result of the spiritual vacuum in our secular culture. Spirituality, in this discussion, is an acknowledgment of meaning and purpose in our lives, as well as a sense of deep interconnection with others and with the universe at large. Some gain spiritual growth through religion, although conflicting orthodoxies tend to diminish our knowing of the reality of such a guiding force at the core of our lives, at least for some. Unfortunately, the predominant scientific materialism of our era supports a notion of separation and meaninglessness that only contributes to the spiraling desperation reflected in this sad explosion of suicidal behavior.
Suicide rates have been rising in nearly every state, especially those in the Midwest and New England, according to the latest Vital Signs report by the CDC: “In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of just three leading causes that are on the rise.”
An editorial in the British Medical Journal reported that the recent decline in overall life expectancy in the US is mainly attributable to the rise in suicide and substance abuse.
In fact, many people who die by suicide are not known to have a diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death. Life challenges often contribute to suicide, such as those involving interpersonal relationships (42%), problematic substance abuse (28%), physical health problems (22%), job/money concerns (16%), criminal legal problems (9%), or loss of housing (4%). The largest group is thus associated with a perceived lack of love in their lives, in the form of relationships gone wrong (or that never form in the first place).
Firearms are the most common means used by people who successfully commit suicide. In 41% of these cases, the person had a known mental health condition, and in 55%, the person had no known mental illness. Pulling a trigger is far too easy an action, and allows tragic ease to accomplish the goal, whether it is ending one’s own life, or taking another.
One of the most important steps to take if one is concerned about a possible suicide is thus to separate such easy means (i.e., guns or potentially lethal drugs) from the potential victim, though accomplishing this task is not always as simple as it should be.
Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the CDC, reports that rising rates of depression, loneliness and anxiety, as well as the opioid crisis and economic turmoil (such as that following the 2008 economic meltdown), are likely linked to the rising rates of suicide in America. Those primarily due to depression, loneliness and anxiety might well be prevented through an improved safety net of connection and purpose, manifested through healthier social relationships and a deeper sense of purpose in our existence. Especially in our very “me-focused” culture, the great value of serving others as a purpose often allows a solution to what otherwise might lead one towards suicide.
We continue to rely almost entirely on people themselves to tell us if they are suicidal, “yet nearly 80 percent of people who die by suicide explicitly deny suicidal thoughts or intentions in their last communications,” according to Matthew Nock, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.
Alarmingly, in May 2018, an article in the medical journal Pediatrics reported that twice as many children were hospitalized for contemplating or attempting suicide in 2015 compared with 2008. There has been a 70% increase in the rate of suicide among girls (ages 10-19) from 2010 to 2016, which also hit a 40-year high in 2015. Where has our society gone so wrong as to fail our children in this way?
Any given suicide might involve more than a single factor, but the overall problem will become more manageable through a deeper cultivation of connectedness and caring for each other. Rates of depression are rising globally, and instead of sweeping the stigma of mental illness under the rug, we would benefit from more open and candid sharing of our feelings and concerns with one another. Acts of kindness and caring, learning how to listen to others’ sharing of their feelings and problems, raising an alarm when we are concerned about others, and keeping those identified as possibly at risk safer by removing easy access to lethal means, such as guns and potentially deadly medications and drugs – all of these can contribute to an alleviation of this depressing epidemic of suicide.
Suicide is invariably a complex issue, with any one case presenting significant challenges. In my role sharing my NDE and its implications for humanity, I frequently address questions about suicide, and we may find a natural remedy from within the NDE community. Our good friend and colleague, Dr. Raymond Moody, has reported that one of the few categorically true observations to be made about suicide is that, if one attempts suicide and experiences any of the features of an NDE (encountering brilliant light and an overwhelming sense of a divine force of love in the universe, meeting souls of departed loved ones, etc.), then he or she will never attempt suicide again.
The commonly encountered pattern is that those who fail in suicide attempts are generally doomed to repeat their attempts. So this powerful effect of NDE elements preventing future suicide attempts is remarkable, indeed. NDE reports from observation across the veil also suggest that, during the life review, those who succeed at suicide likely witness a profound sense of love that others and the universe at large have for them, and gain comfort from that revelation, but they also realize the deep pain that many felt in their loss.
In short, suicide is never the right answer. The more we can nurture a sense of connectedness and purpose in our lives (of “spirituality”), the less likely people will be tempted to “end it all.” The other fact of this discussion is that suicide will never work as an escape from worldly problems, especially as one comes to realize that modern consciousness studies imply the reality not only of the afterlife, but of reincarnation. That particular dodge (of suicide) doesn’t solve the soul’s challenges and necessity of facing the issues at hand – if ignored or avoided, they will only be repackaged in a different form for one’s next incarnation. The world of transpersonal psychology is filled with such stories of soul challenges arranged over multiple lifetimes – all with the purpose of growth and learning. NDE experiences clearly show that the guiding compass of our soul journeys is one that acknowledges the binding force of love that connects us all.
There is no way out, but through. It is better to deal with the big challenges in this lifetime, never resorting to suicide as an exit plan. Together with medical or mental health treatment, as appropriate, meditation and centering prayer often yield access to our higher soul, and to guidance in helping us see this grander vision of our challenges, and of their solutions.
If you know someone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide right now, please get help. I have posted some resources and information on the FAQ page here: What about Suicide?