WALSH: What Really Lies At The Root Of Our Culture’s Suicide Epidemic


Anthony Bourdain killed himself today. Fashion designer Kate Spade committed suicide earlier in the week. That’s two prominent suicides in the span of just a few days. And they are far from alone, sadly. Suicide is a veritable epidemic across the nation. Suicide rates are on the rise in almost every state. In some areas, they have risen by 30% or more. This is not normal. Something is happening. But what? And why?

People will say that suicide is on the rise because we are not doing enough to fight the “mental health crisis,” but this can’t be the cause. We have never been more aware of, or more proactive against, mental health issues, yet the suicide rate only continues to climb. The rate was a fraction of what it is today back when nobody had ever even heard of “mental health.” The purely psychological explanations just don’t hold up. Clearly there is a deeper problem here.

I think that problem is emptiness. There is an emptiness at the core of our culture, and from this root the suicide epidemic grows. We have fled from God, from meaning, from purpose, and embraced a soft kind of nihilism; a nihilism that will not call itself nihilism. It uses other words and slogans to describe itself. “You only live once,” it says. “Live your truth.” People are told that there is only one life, one reality, and it has no meaning aside from what you assign to it. But what happens when you no longer see meaning? Well, our culture says, if you do not see it then it is not there.

Those who seek happiness by following the well-worn paths will inevitably fall into this pit. If you do what everyone else is doing, and live how they live, and walk in their footsteps, you will end up in the same darkness. You will begin to feel that there is no hope and no point and no real beauty or joy to be found in life. And this is the state in which so many of us are living. A great, great many people in America are wallowing in this nihilistic despair and living hollow lives devoid of substance. They struggle and flail and reach out for help, but so often the hand that grabs hold of them will only drag them deeper into the pit.

We have seen this process play out this week. It’s the same thing that happens every time a famous person commits suicide. We set out immediately to almost defend the act, and to ensure that nobody says anything negative about it. We insist that suicide is nothing but the result of a “mental illness.” A depressed person dies of suicide in the same way that a person may die of breast cancer. We deliver tearful, admiring eulogies to the deceased celebrity and express our hope that they have “found peace.”

And what good does any of this do? How are we helping a suicidal person by explicitly suggesting that suicide is a means to peace? How are we helping him by telling him that he has no choice, that his depression may just up and kill him one day, totally against his will? What service do we provide by telling him that he has no power, no alternative, no free will? And then we are shocked when the next person does it. And the next. And the next. And each time we react the same way, saying the same things, and we think that we are helping as long as we also pass out the suicide prevention hotline.

It is good to give out the suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255). It is good to encourage people to get help, talk to someone, reach out. We get that part right. But we go dangerously off course with everything else. And the crisis only worsens because we refuse to trace it all the way down to its roots. We stop at the brain, at chemical reactions and psychological disorders, but we never pause to ask why all of our brains have apparently gone haywire in modern times. If this is all just a matter of mental disorders, why in the hell are these “mental disorders” so common now?

I think it is because the disorder is not purely psychological. It goes beyond our brains and into our souls, into the emptiness. What everyone really craves deep in their bones is truth and meaning. Not meaning they arbitrarily assign, but meaning that is objective and inherent and beyond our ability to remove or change. But our culture tells us that nothing of the sort exists — there is only this physical world, and our egos, and whatever we decide to make of it all. And if we make nothing of it, and find nothing in it, then life is nothing and there is no reason to carry on living anymore.

If someone is feeling this way, yes, it is good to give them the numbers to call, and to tell them that they are not alone and people care for them, and to encourage them to talk to someone. I echo all of those exhortations. But it’s not enough, in itself. People need more than that. They need more than therapy and phone numbers. They even need more than the knowledge that other people love them. They need meaning. They need hope. They need there to be a point to all of this, a reason.

Well, praise God because there is a reason, there is a point, there is a meaning. God is our foundation, our truth, our purpose, and the substance of our lives. We are not mere accidents. We are not clumps of dust that grew randomly from the Earth and somehow developed consciousness and a moral code and the capacity for love. That doesn’t make sense, and we all know it doesn’t make sense, and we will literally kill ourselves trying to make sense of it.

There is a transcendent, spiritual character to humanity, and we all innately recognize it. We find despair when we reject it and try to separate ourselves from it and from ourselves. Hope is found the other way, in the opposite direction. Hope is found when we embrace who we are, as children of God, and we keep our eyes and hearts focused on eternity, on home. God wants us there with Him. But not yet. There is still more to be done, more life to be lived, and we can live it in joy, knowing that there is a meaning and a point to all of this.

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