The statistics are staggering and the recent high-profile cases make them impossible to ignore. Deaths by suicide in this country are up 25 percent since 1999. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016. It is the 10th-leading cause of death in America. It is the second-leading cause of death for young people.
No clear answer has yet to emerge as to why this crisis is happening. Many argue it is a crisis of mental health care and a lack of needed services. Yet, as pointed out by behavioral scientist Dr. Clay Routledge in a recent New York Times Opinion piece, this crisis is advancing even though suicide prevention treatments for depression and anxiety have become more available and the number of people seeking treatment is increasing.
“An additional explanation seems to be needed,” Routledge concludes. Based on his research, he is convinced that our nation’s suicide crisis is in part “a crisis of meaninglessness,” brought on by recent changes in American society – changes in the direction, of greater detachment and a weaker sense of belonging, which leads to increased risk of despair.
Adds Cynthia M. Allen in a Star-Telegram Opinion piece on the subject, most experts can only agree that there is no one catalyst of suicide or the despair and depression that often precede it. This makes this crisis even harder to combat.
“A felt lack of meaning in one’s life has been linked to alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety and – yes – suicide,” writes Routledge. “And when people experience loss, stress or trauma, it is those who believe that their lives have a purpose who are best able to cope with and recover from distress.”
Among the changes he speaks of are some profound shifts in the social landscape of our country. Primary among them is a decline in “neighborliness.” Compared to previous generations, people today are less likely to know and interact with their neighbors. This situation is advanced by a belief that people are generally not trustworthy, which further leads to a shrinking world of people they feel they can confide in.
“As for religion, which has long provided the institutional and social scaffolding for a life of meaning, it, too, is in steep decline,” he writes. “Americans these days, especially young adults, are less likely to identify with a religious faith, attend church or engage in other religious practices. But as my research has shown, the sense of meaningfulness provided by religion is not so easily replicated in nonreligious settings.”
The power of religion as a pathway and a resource in combating this problem should not be underestimated. For a 2016 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers followed 89,708 U.S. women aged 30-55 for 15 years. As reported by Allen, the study revealed that those who regularly attended religious services had very little risk of suicide.
According to the study, religious service attendance had a larger impact on suicide risk than any other single component of the social integration, including marital status, other group participation, number of close friends, number of close relatives, the number of close friends seen at least once per month and the number of close relatives seen at least once per month.
“At a time when faith is frequently belittled, organized religion is out of fashion and service attendance is in sharp decline, it’s quite remarkable to see – in raw numbers – how religious devotion can shield its practitioners from the isolation that is enveloping huge swaths of our society,” writes Allen.
A separate study published this month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science analyzed the obituaries of more than 1,100 people from 42 major U.S. cities published online between 2010 and 2011. What they revealed was that people with a religious affiliation lived nearly four years longer, on average, than those without a religious affiliation.
The study, conducted by Ohio State University, also showed that volunteering and involvement with social organizations explained part but not the entire link between religion and longevity. The study went on to suggest that in highly religious cities where conforming to social norms wasn’t very important, nonreligious people tended to live just as long as religious people did. According to the study’s lead author, Laura Wallace, this “spillover” may be due to effects of the strong religious environment on the mental and physical health in the community in general.
Says Routledge: “In order to keep existential anxiety at bay, we must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful.” He believes that, from the standpoint of psychological science, the changes now occurring in American society pose serious threats to a life of meaning.
The more people feel a strong sense of belongingness, the more they perceive life as meaningful, he adds. Religion needs to better establish its role not just as a pathway for believers, but a gateway to a profound sense of togetherness, spirituality, and sense of what is sacred.
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