According to the Centers for Disease Control, youth suicide is in the midst of a precipitous and frightening rise. Between 2006 and 2016, suicides by white children between ages 10 and 17 skyrocketed 70%; while black children are less likely than white children to kill themselves, their suicide rate also jumped 77%. And as The Blaze points out, CNN reported last year that “the suicide rate among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 rose to a 40-year high in 2015.”
It’s not just young people. According to Tom Simon, a CDC report author, “We know that overall in the US, we’re seeing increases in suicide rates across all age groups.” As of 2016, suicide levels were at 30-year highs.
So, what in hell is going on?
A few years back, the trendy explanation was economic volatility — the market crash of 2007-2008 had supposedly created a culture of despair, cured only by suicide. But the economy is booming, and has been growing steadily since 2009. There are those who blame the rise in drugs as well, particularly opioids — but according to a study from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, drinking, smoking and drug use may be at the lowest levels “seen in decades,” as the Los Angeles Times reports.
So, what in hell is going on?
There seems to be a crisis of meaning taking place in America. And that crisis of meaning is heavily linked to a decline in religious observance. As The Atlantic observed in 2014, citing a study in Psychological Science:
The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning. They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.
In other words, people need meaning and purpose in life. Our focus on materialism from both the political right and left — on income inequality and intersectional victimhood from the left, and on tribal affinity and economic deregulation from the right — ignores the key problem: Americans, particularly young Americans, increasingly don’t feel that their lives have purpose. This isn’t a problem that can be cured by redistributing Xboxes. This is a problem of the soul.
So, what’s to be done? First, we need to get off the weak sauce of “spirituality without religion.” Spirituality is an aimless search within for some sort of transcendental values that simply can’t be found within. Religion is about practice — it is about acting in moral and ethical ways because your Creator demands it. This doesn’t mean you have to join an organized religion. It does mean that human beings need individual meaning — a belief in their holiness and specialness as beings made in the image of God, rather than a cluster of meaningless cells wandering through a cold, empty universe. And it means that human beings need collective meaning as well: brotherhood in this journey. If we can’t supply those things to our children, it’s no wonder they’re in increasing levels of despair, no matter how many tennis lessons we buy them.