Americans are depressed and suicidal because something is wrong with our culture
On average, there are 123 suicides per day in the United States. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline --- 1-800-273-TALK
Don't pathologize the despair that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements.
In September of 2004, I received the call that every person dreads: my father had dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 61. It came at a time I was already grappling with other issues, including watching my mother fight breast cancer for the preceding six months, a breakup with a boyfriend and a lack of structure in my life as I was freelancing as a consultant while I tried to determine what I wanted to do next with my career.
I was in an emotional free-fall, so I visited a psychiatrist. He said the antidepressant my general practitioner prescribed to help with my life-long struggle with anxiety wasn't what I needed, so he prescribed a new one. This seemed to only make things worse. Within a few days, I found myself thinking the unthinkable: I want to die.
I couldn’t imagine a life without my father and our hours-long conversations about, well, everything. The pain was debilitating, getting out of bed was an Olympian event, and life was utterly devoid of meaning. I stopped eating and shed 15 pounds in a month. I couldn’t see any reason to be alive.
I’ve thought a lot about this period following the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two people who by public appearances seemed to be living their best lives. We also learned this week that suicide rates increased 25% nationally, making it a national crisis.
I decided to share my story after interviewing John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, who happens to be my future brother-in-law. “What people don’t really know is that there is research that shows the media can reduce suicide,” Draper told me. “What creates a contagion effect is when the media focus mostly on the suicide and the way the person killed themselves. If people are more open about talking about coping through suicidal experiences, and the media highlight those stories, the evidence is very clear that this has a very positive effect on getting people through a suicidal crisis.”
So it might help a person contemplating suicide to read that I am thankful I didn’t succumb to my suicidal impulses. Or to learn that people like Halle Barry, Elton John and Drew Barrymore attempted and survived suicide. Or that Oprah, Olympian Michael Phelps and singer Demi Lovato considered suicide but didn’t go through with it.
Many factors in suicide
We often assume that people who commit suicide are mentally ill, but this isn’t always the case. There are many factors that can contribute to suicide that have nothing to do with mental illness, including loss of a relationship, loneliness, chronic illness, financial loss, history of trauma or abuse and the stigma associated with asking for help.
Even for those who do ask for help, friends and family can be flummoxed by “successful people” planning their own deaths. My family and friends told me I was “living the dream” and that I was “too strong” to succumb to suicide. Even my psychiatrist didn’t take my complaints seriously, saying I didn’t present as a suicidal person who was more likely to show up disheveled and unbathed than with a blowout and a fresh manicure.
Never mind that the day before, I had stood pressed against the 20th floor bathroom window of a building where I was consulting for a campaign, sobbing and wishing I could open it and jump to my death. Or that a few days before that, I had turned on the oven and put my head in, pulling it out only when an image of my younger brothers, also grieving my father’s sudden death, flashed in my mind.
Despite my doctor’s claim that nothing was wrong, I insisted that he change my anti-depressant, and within a few weeks my suicidal thoughts diminished. I’ll never know if the anti-depressant was the cause of my suicidal thoughts or not. What I do know is that every day I didn’t kill myself felt like a victory.
Though my suicidal thoughts passed, an oppressive depression ground me down that year. Life was an agonizing and daily struggle. So, when I hear that Kate Spade was reportedly fighting depression and anxiety for five years, all I can think is that it was nothing short of heroic for her to stay alive as long as she did.
Why we suffer emotional despair
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that a person contemplating suicide is in overwhelming emotional pain and they think very differently than people who are rational,” Draper told me. “It’s cognitive constriction. Your pre-frontal cortex goes off line and you have a flight, fight or freeze impulse. In that case suicide seems like the best way out or the best way to fight for your survival. They think, maybe my afterlife will be better.”
But why are so many more Americans getting to this level of emotional despair than in the past? As journalist Johann Hari wrote in his best-selling book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions, the epidemic of depression and despair in the Western World isn’t always caused by our brains. It’s largely caused by key problems in the way we live.
We exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to “make it” without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.
In an interview this year, the comedian and actor Jim Carrey talked about “getting to the place where you have everything everybody has ever desired and realizing you are still unhappy. And that you can still be unhappy is a shock when you have accomplished everything you ever dreamt of and more….”
If only we get that big raise, or new house or have children we will finally be happy. But we won’t. In fact, as Carrey points out, in many ways achieving all your goals provides the opposite of fulfillment: it lays bare the truth that there is nothing you can purchase, possess or achieve that will make you feel fulfilled over the long term.
Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong. We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.
Yes, there are people who have chemical imbalances who should be supported and treated with medicine. But most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.
Changing our culture is critical. Being honest with others about our own personal struggles and dark nights of the soul is the first step. People on the edge need to hear stories that assure them there is a way through the all-consuming pain to a meaningful life.
I’ve told mine, now go tell yours.