In a new report out this June, the Center for Disease Control says that suicide rates have increased in almost every state. In 2016, nearly 45,000 people died by suicide, making it one of the top ten causes of death in the USA. With the high profile deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within the span of a couple of days, suicide is trending on social media.
I wonder if we are waking up to a suicide culture. I wonder if we are in shock. I wonder if we are experiencing suicide culture shock.
What does it mean to be part of a culture where suicide rates are on the rise? How do certain aspects of our culture contribute to the increased deaths by suicide? And more importantly, what can we do as a culture to save lives, to prevent deaths by suicide?
In the CDC report, there are seven suggestions for what communities can do to change this culture of suicide.
- Identify and support people at risk of suicide.
- Teach coping and problem-solving skills to help people manage challenges with their relationships, jobs, health, or other concerns.
- Promote safe and supportive environments. This includes safely storing medications and firearms to reduce access among people at risk.
- Offer activities that bring people together so they feel connected and not alone.
- Connect people at risk to effective and coordinated mental and physical healthcare.
- Expand options for temporary help for those struggling to make ends meet.
- Prevent future risk of suicide among those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
Number four stands out as one of the most subtle yet deadly characteristics of our suicide culture: people feel disconnected and alone. The good news is that as humans we are wired for connectivity. The bad news is that we’ve come to rely too heavily on technology to satisfy our innate desires for human connection and belonging. And in some important ways, it isn’t working out too well for us.
The fact that we are wired for relationships, we know now, is being dangerously used by corporations for profit at the expense of the fragile bonds that connect our human family. Our suicide culture is reinforced by the technology that draws us deeper into our devices (software engineers call this strategy “brain hacking”) and further away from deepening our core relationships with a few close friends and family.
Originally Facebook was created to “bring people together so they feel connected and not alone.” But what if instead, as research has shown, addictive behaviors associated with the use of social media actually contribute to creating a suicide culture …a culture where we feel even more disconnected and even more alone.
As the CDC report also says, there is no one single cause of death by suicide, (such as mental illness) but many complex factors (loss of job, physical illness). Likewise, there are many different factors in our culture contributing to increased rates of suicide. This is complex.
How can we intentionally change our culture, choose to be countercultural when it comes to suicide? What if we started small, by making an effort to connect more deeply with the people right around us?
As folk singer Carrie Newcomer says, draw a three foot circle around you and begin there…begin by connecting with the people three feet around you. It could be that by paying closer attention to those in front of us, that we are better able to bear one another’s burdens, and share the heavy load. When we intentionally and attentively engage with and nurture the people around us, we choose a radical, countercultural way of living.
When we choose to pay attention to the three feet around us, we are saving lives. We know that we can do more as a culture to prevent suicide. The question is, when the suicide culture shock wears off, and there is a new round of stories on social media getting our attention…will we be able to break free of this culture of suicide?
We can all start now by focusing on the three feet around you. Share love and hope with these people immediately around you…#savethreefeet. I’m going to give it a try because there’s just too much to lose.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 in the USA. Text 741741 to the Crisis Text Line