The Tragedy Of Suicide: Evidence Of An Existential Crisis In America?

Jul 14th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Suicide is a tragic, heart-wrenching reality in our world today.  It is rarely discussed in church and few pastors know how to address it from the pulpit.  Colleges and high schools are facing a growing number of students showing signs of “distress” that often lead to suicide.  Consider these facts:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new statistics on the rise of suicides in the US, which are up 25% since 1999 across most ethnic and age groups. Suicide is the second leading cause of death, after traffic accidents, among college students.
  • According to the National College Heath Assessment, there has been a drastic increase in the number of students suffering from depression—to 40.2% last year nationwide from 32.6% in 2013. Likewise, during that same period, there has been an increase in those thinking about suicide, to 11.5% from 8.1%, and those attempting suicide, to 1.7% from 1.3%, during the same period.  About one student in 12 has a suicide plan.  As Jane Brody reports, “For the seventh year in a row, college counseling centers report an increase in the number of students seeking treatment who represent ‘threat to self,’ according to this year’s report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.”    Brody goes on:  “Many institutions of higher learning are struggling to keep up with the demand.  For example, Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services, which provided care for 13% of Cornell University students experiencing debilitating depression, stress and anxiety in 2005-2006, counseled 21% of the student population in 2016-17.  They have also added 10 full-time employees, for a current total of 32 counselors to provide the needed services for 14,500 undergraduates and 7,000 graduate students, a better-than-average ratio.”
  • One final point about the reality of the current college culture: The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) prevents colleges from alerting parents when students are in serious academic trouble unless a parent claims the child as a dependent on tax forms.  This means it is up to the colleges to recognize that skipping classes, not turning in assignments and flunking exams is often a symptom of deep emotional distress that could well be “a medical emergency not subject” to FERPA.

How should we think about the increasing devastation of suicide in American civilization?  Many maintain it demonstrates a crisis of mental health care, that people are simply not getting the services and care they need.  Thus, we need better therapies, “more effective antidepressants and greater access to treatment.”  But Clay Routledge, Psychology Professor at North Dakota State University, argues “that the suicide rate has increased even as more people are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, and even as treatment for those conditions has become more widely available.  An additional explanation seems to be needed.”  Routledge concludes that “as a behavioral scientist who studies basic psychological needs, including the need for meaning, I am convinced that our nation’s suicide crisis is in part a crisis of meaningless . . . an increasing . . . risk of existential despair.”  He goes on to summarize his conclusions:

  • Our capacity to reflect on ourselves, to think about the past and the future and to engage in abstract thought has given us access to some uncomfortable truths: We know that we and everybody we care about will age, become frail and die.  We recognize that life is uncertain.  We understand that pain and sorrow are part of our destiny.  What is the point of it all?  “In order to keep existential anxiety at bay, we must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful.”  Empirical studies bear out Routledge’s thesis:  A felt lack of meaning in one’s life “has been linked to alcohol and drug abuse, depression and anxiety—and—yes—suicide. “
  • He poses this question—how “do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? There are many paths, but the psychological literature suggests that close relationships with other people are our greatest existential resource.  Regardless of social class, age, gender, religion or nationality, people report that the life experiences they find most personally meaningful typically involve loved ones . . . We need to feel valued by them, to feel we are making important contributions to a world that matters.”
  • A life of meaning is also threatened by “the changing social landscape of America. To bemoan the decline of neighborliness, the shrinking of the family and the diminishing role of religion.”  Studies demonstrate that “more people feel a strong sense of belongingness, the more they perceive life as meaningful.  Other studies have shown that lonely people view life as less meaningful than those who feel strongly connected to others.  Something similar is at stake in the decreasing size of the family.  Americans today are waiting longer to marry and have children, and are having fewer children . . . researchers have found that adults with children are more focused on matters of meaning than are adults who do not have children, and that parents experience a greater sense of meaningfulness when they are engaged in activities that involve taking care of children.”
  • Americans today, especially young adults, are less likely to identify with religious faith, attend church or engage in other religious practices. But my research has shown the sense of meaningfulness provided by religion is not so easily replicated in nonreligious settings.”

Thinking about America’s existential crisis and suicide has caused to reflect on two assets:

  • First, Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a TV program that aired on most PBS stations for nearly 30 years. A recent documentary, entitled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” traces the history of this important children’s program.  [My children regularly watched Mr. Rogers as they were growing up.]  The documentary demonstrates how Fred Rogers “gently gave children obvious and nonobvious advice:  You are special just the way you are; no, children can’t fall down the drains of the bathtub.”  Columnist David Brooks observes that “The power is in Roger’s radical kindness at time when public kindness is scarce.  It’s as if  the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.  Moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.”  Fred Rogers comforted children and evidenced a profound respect for the dignity of each child.  He demonstrated that children often evidence small acts of neighborliness, such as a small hug or the sharing of a toy.  Rogers sought to foster that “neighborliness” among America’s children.  Brooks concludes that “Rogers was singing from a song sheet now lost, a song sheet that once joined conservative evangelicals and secular progressives.”  [Fred Rogers was a life-long Republican and an ordained Presbyterian minister.]  Fred Rogers consistently stressed the meaning and purpose of life for children to embrace—and he made a difference in countless lives for 30 years.
  • Second, Routledge’s observations about the importance of meaning and purpose for mental health and stability also drives me to the Bible, especially to the book of Ecclesiastes.  King Solomon wrote this book about 3,000 years ago.  He posits a thesis of what the world would be like if there were no God:  “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”  If there is no God, then nothing ultimately makes sense.  Several of Solomon’s conclusions, peppered throughout the book:


  1. Why do I seek to be wise, if there is no God?
  2. He compares the fool and the wise man.  Intuitively, it seems far better to be wise and not foolish.  But both have the same fate—death.  So, why be wise?
  3. He suggests that working hard to save and invest makes no sense, if there is no God.  Why be wise with my wealth, for, when I die, my children will get my wealth—and they are foolish, he suggests.  Would it not be better to simply eat, drink and be merry?
  4. Solomon probes the whole matter of physical work.  It makes no sense if there is no God.  Why have a work ethic that includes sincerity, consistency and frugality?
  5. He closes his book (in 12:13-14) with the “conclusion of the matter [is] fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of every human being.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”  There is a transcendent God who exists and He has revealed himself.  That revelation is sufficient for life and for salvation.  To worship God and to obey God brings meaning and purpose to life.  Further, He holds everyone accountable.  In short, there is an eternal significance, meaning and purpose to all things.

See Clay Routledge in the New York Times (24 June 2018); Jane Brody in the New York Times (3 July 2018); and David Brooks in the New York Times (6 July 2018).

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One Comment to “The Tragedy Of Suicide: Evidence Of An Existential Crisis In America?”

  1. Richard Pendell says:

    In the 60’s and 70’s I was a social worker with the Illinois DMH, working with the chronically mentally ill in long-term care institutions. Many of the behaviors and attitudes once seen as indicators of mental illness have now become ‘normalized’ and even protected by statutes. For example: a wide variety of gender identity issues and deviant sexual practices, the legalization and promotion of mind-altering drugs as ‘recreation,’ the inability to form close, personal long-term relationships or be a part of civic, benevolent and religious groups and the abandonment of marriage and family responsibilities. These once-abnormal behaviors all characterize 21st century life in America.
    In the very early, pre-digital days of social psychology research, I was privileged to spend several days with Dr. Ernest Ligon at Union College in Schenectady, NY. His book, “The Psychology of Christian Personality” describes results of his research and analysis of a large numbers of families with long histories of positive, productive and healthy living. His entire office wall of hard paper data he collected could now be put on a thumb drive in a couple of seconds. His statistically analyzed results showed family characteristics that reflected the life themes as described in The Beatitudes:humility, love, grace, and mercy. Dr. Ligon concluded that The Beatitudes were not simply philosophical ideals, but practical and realistic. His data demonstrated that families considered ‘ideal’ examples of mental health demonstrated these same characteristics over generations. In those days, highly respected academics could relate their findings to Biblical concepts and still be published.
    At the end of my teaching career, I worked with Native families, both in Omaha and on Reservations. Suicide rates for Native males has long been the highest of any demographic. Anti-suicide initiatives were always front and center in Native teen education. Self-destructive, anti-social behavior and suicide rates are nearly always very high among Native peoples, not only in the U.S., but generally, world-wide. However, I never met a Native who was grounded in a local church who was also self-destructive. Unfortunately, most of these were elders. Very few of the young were church-grounded. Girls were far more likely to be grounded than boys. What was once seen as a Native youth problem, suicide is now a general public epidemic.
    I see a few of the primary reasons for this to be the ‘atomization’ of people brought about by the digital revolution and mobile electronics, the ‘life-by-the-numbers’ performance-based extreme pressure of young adulthood and the lack of a ‘meta-narrative’ to give any sense or meaning to life. We consciously threw aside all thought of unchanging Truths, transcendent, spiritual relationships or ultimate accountability. Let’s face it. Materialism, Naturalism and Secularism provide no real reason for any hope or reason to live when faced with very hard life realities and challenges that come to us all. If we are just a cosmic accident that will soon disappear, then suicide becomes thinkable when life ‘just isn’t any fun anymore.’ This is a situation we’ve created on our own. Only the presence of the Holy Spirit calling us back to our true roots in Christ can lead desperate people out of this slough of despond. Come, Lord Jesus, quickly, before any more perish.