Suicide and the social crisis

July 12, 2018

Luke Pickrell looks at what statistics showing the alarming rise in the U.S. suicide rate tell us about alienation and a deeper social crisis affecting millions of people.

LAST MONTH, the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released updated statistics on the rate of suicide in the U.S. through the year 2016. The new data is disturbing, but perhaps not surprising given the deterioration of social conditions across the globe, including in the world’s richest country.

The latest data on suicide is best understood through the lens of growing economic inequality and declining standards of living.

Between 1999 and 2016, the national suicide rate increased almost 30 percent, with 12 states seeing an increase in suicide rates of between 38 and 58 percent. Nearly 45,000 people — an average of 123 per day — killed themselves in the calendar year 2016 alone, while 10 million seriously contemplated suicide and 1.3 million made an attempt.

Additional data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adds more detail. In 2015, the leading cause of suicide was a problem in personal relationships (42 percent), followed by a recent or upcoming crisis (29 percent) and substance use (28 percent).

Homeless on the streets of the richest country in the world
Homeless on the streets of the richest country in the world

The top three methods of suicide were firearms (48.5 percent); hanging/strangulation/suffocation (28.9 percent); and poisoning — whether by drugs, alcohol or other substances (14.7 percent). Of substances causing death, opioids accounted for 31.4 percent; antidepressants, 26.6 percent; benzodiazepines, 20.8 percent; and antipsychotics, 7.3 percent.

The age group showing the largest number of suicides in 2015 was 45 to 64. Men accounted for over three-quarters of all suicide deaths.

Filtered by job, people working in agriculture — including farmers, farm laborers, ranchers, fishers, and lumber harvesters — take their own lives at a higher rate than any other occupation. The suicide rate for farmers is more than double the rate for military veterans.

More than four times as many people die from suicide as homicide each year, and suicide is now the second most common cause of death for individuals age 10 to 35 and the tenth most common cause of death in the United States overall.

Suicide rates in prisons and detention centers are also on the rise.

HOW CAN we explain these increased suicide rates? Certainly there is no single answer. But increasing economic inequality and the general difficulties of life for working-class people can’t be overlooked.

The social and emotional lives of human beings can’t be separated from their lived economic reality. This is especially true under the capitalist system, where the majority of people must labor in order to make money, with which they purchase the things they need to care for themselves and their families. As Marx put it, “Life itself appears only as a means to life.”

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the economic reality facing the majority of working class Americans is dismal.

More than one-fifth of U.S. adults aren’t able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full. Four out of 10 Americans can’t cover an emergency expense of $400 without borrowing money or selling possessions, and one-quarter of adults skipped necessary medical care due to being unable to afford the cost.

Well over half of college attendees under age 30 took on some debt to pay for their education — the average undergraduate student debt stands around $30,000. Less than two-fifths of non-retired adults think that their retirement savings are on track, and one-quarter have no retirement savings or pension whatsoever.

But as the poor get poorer, the rich get richer. In 2017, the combined net worth of the world’s 18.1 million “high net-worth individuals” — people with more than $1 million in wealth — grew to a staggering $70 trillion, which by itself amounts to half of total world economic output each year.

Some 174,000 ultra-high-net-worth individuals — with more than $30 million in wealth — own $24.5 trillion, or about one-fifth, of the world’s total wealth.

Incredibly, just the global increase in the wealth of ultra-high-net-worth individuals in 2017 — $2.6 trillion — is larger than the gross domestic products of individual countries such as Russia, Brazil and Canada.

Economist Michael Roberts, describing the latest World Inequality Report, produced by a team of economic researchers, adds further detail:

The authors...conclude that the number of billionaires rose by the biggest amount ever in 2017, while over half the world’s population lives on between $2 and $10 a day. The report shows the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent of earners in the U.S. doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent between 1980 and 2016, while the bottom 50 percent fell from 20 percent to 13 percent in the same period.

SO AN increasing number of Americans, along with many more people worldwide, are struggling to make ends meet.

Of those who committed suicide in 2015, some 75 percent suffered from diagnosed depression, and 17 percent from an anxiety disorder. It seems that while the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, more stressed and more anxious.

Work under capitalism is alienating. Workers are pushed harder and longer than ever before, and in countries like the U.S., union power has declined dramatically. Housing is unaffordable. Climate catastrophe looms. War seems unending. Individuals feel powerless and alone.

It is any wonder that suicide rates are increasing in these circumstances?

In his recent book Lost Connections, Johann Hari lists what he considers to be the top nine cause of depression and anxiety. The top five include disconnect: from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, and from status and respect.

Humans are social animals, who need love, affection and purpose through meaningful work. But capitalism degrades labor and turns workers into little more than cogs in a machine. The system demands greed and individuality, and poisons community. As Marx wrote: “It produces palaces — but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty — but for the worker, deformity.“

In Lost Connections, one of Hari’s recommendations reads “restoring the future.” In a world seemingly devoid of meaning, what could be more meaningful than working together, arm in arm, to restore the future?

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