Suicide is back in the news again.
After seven of its students committed suicide, a Colorado school district last month temporarily pulled from its libraries 13 Reasons Why, the young adult fiction book turned Netflix television teen drama that critics say glamorizes suicide.
The book chronicles the suicide of Hannah Baker, a high school junior who leaves behind thirteen cassette tapes explaining her reasons for committing suicide.
Like Hannah Baker, many young adults are turning to suicide as an escape from the pressures of life. From 2000 to 2015, the suicide rate increased 27% among those aged 20 to 35 (the U.S. average suicide rate among all age groups increased by almost 21% during the same time period). Washington State’s suicide rate is 16% higher than the national average.
Two Factors That Fail To Explain The Increasing Suicide Rate
Many experts blame increased economic hardship and inadequate mental health services for the recent rise in suicide. However, these easy explanations misrepresent available data and fall short of adequately explaining the troubling trend.
From a material perspective, life on earth has never been better. Thanks to global trade and extraordinary technological advances, Americans today enjoy a higher standard of living, greater economic security, longer life expectancy, less crime, and more leisure than any other people throughout history. Even the poorest among us live far more prosperous lives than our richest grandparents could have imagined. And let us not forget that Americans living in poverty still boast a higher living standard than the average European.
Additionally, the recent increase in suicide cannot be blamed on undersupplied mental health services. Both federal and state governments have progressively increased mental health funding over recent decades (paradoxically, the inefficient and inflexible bureaucracy created to administer mental health programs and treatments may make it more difficult for those struggling with mental health conditions to receive the care they need).
In exclusively focusing on economic circumstances and mental health funding, we ignore profound cultural shifts that better explain rising suicide rates.
Four Reasons Suicide Is Increasing Among Young Adults
Here are four factors likely contributing to the significant increase in suicide among young Americans:
Delayed Marriage: More than ever before, young people are choosing to delay marriage or forgo it entirely. In 1960, the median age at first marriage was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, the median age at first marriage has increased to 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women. Almost half of 34-year-olds have never been married.
These unmarried millennials sacrifice the benefits that come with being united to a committed partner in marriage. A survey of scientific literature conducted by the Marriage and Religion Research Institute found that married individuals are healthier, happier, and more financially secure than their unmarried peers. They experience greater emotional and psychological well-being than those who are unmarried. Notably, married individuals are less likely to commit suicide.
Increased Worker Mobility: Americans move for work more often than Europeans. Although greater worker mobility boosts the economy and results in better matching of employees and jobs, it can also cause individuals to become detached from communities that help provide belonging, happiness, and emotional and financial support.
Researchers have discovered a link between residential mobility and suicide. “Indeed, residential mobility can be associated with higher levels of stress, crime, poor health, and what sociologists call ‘social disorganization,’” writes Ryan McMaken for the Mises Institute.
Decreased Religiosity: Young Americans have increasingly disconnected from religious institutions over the last few decades, choosing instead to live according to their own “personalized spirituality” or rejecting religion entirely.
A Pew Research Center study published two years ago found that only 28% of millennials born between 1981 and 1996 attend religious services weekly, significantly less than 51% of the Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945). Younger millennials are also less likely to believe in God (80%) and consider religion to be an important part of their lives (38%).
Unfortunately, by eschewing involvement in religious communities, millennials sacrifice the kinship and solidarity those communities provide. Religion helps provide meaning to life, and religious communities equip individuals with the relationships and support necessary to withstand life’s treacherous seas.
Unsurprisingly, religiously unaffiliated individuals had “significantly more lifetime suicide attempts” than their religiously affiliated peers, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study’s authors also concluded that “subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide.”
Postmodernism: Millennials attain higher levels of education than previous generations. This makes them more susceptible to postmodernism, the prevailing worldview taught in higher education.
Postmodernism posits that reality is unknowable and meaningless. In attempting to overthrow traditional values, postmodernism dispenses with objective and transcendent truths that provide individuals with a realistic framework through which to perceive the world. Postmodernists sort everyone into one of two groups: the oppressors and the victims, the latter of which suffer from systemic societal and cultural oppression at the hands of the former.
Survey data indicate a considerable number of millennials have bought into the postmodern worldview propagated by their colleges and universities. Only 40% of those under age 35 believe “right and wrong never change,” and just 4% of millennials hold to a biblical worldview.
Philosopher Richard M. Weaver observed decades ago that “ideas have consequences.” Teaching the next generation that life is meaningless, truth is unknowable, and that tradition and conventional wisdom must be discarded yields predictable results. Such a corrosive worldview will only produce rotting fruit.
There Is No Easy Fix
Suicide is increasing because our culture has lost its moorings. We need to acknowledge that the exploding suicide rate among Americans and Washingtonians will not be solved through a growing economy or greater mental health funding. As long as individuals continue to disconnect from the relationships, communities, and truth that provide meaning to life, suicide will continue becoming more prevalent.
There is no easy fix. Reversing the trend depends on effectively confronting the lies accepted by culture and society fueling hopelessness and social disorganization. We must also work to ensure our communities can successfully provide for the material, emotional, and spiritual needs of their members.
This article was originally written for the Family Policy Institute of Washington.