Jun 12, 2024  |  
 | Remer,MN
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NextImg:The deeper roots of our suicide crisis

This week, the National Center for Health Statistics released an alarming number. In 2022, suicides reached an all-time high in America . Nearly 50,000 men and women took their own lives last year. The rate of suicides — 14.3 per 100,000 — is the highest since 1941. Suicides continue to be dominantly male, with men killing themselves at about four times the rate of women. Elderly men continued to be the largest subgroup, far outpacing young people.

The news signals more than a mental health crisis, though it certainly is that. It presents a crisis for America as a political community .


To see the depth of this crisis, we must consider our fundamental principles anew as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. The declaration expresses what Thomas Jefferson called the “American Mind.” It displays our originating understanding of ourselves as a country. It says that all persons possess the right to life. Moreover, people form governments to protect this right, among others. In fact, the right to life might be the most important, above the other listed rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Life is the necessary prerequisite for any exercise of liberty or any pursuit of happiness on this Earth.

A government unable to protect the right to life adequately is failing. It is failing to live up to our ideals and, in doing so, is allowing the harm of self-destruction to run rampant in our communities. Not only are thousands of lives being ended too soon, but countless others are being permanently harmed among family, friends, and others who have their lives shattered in the fallout.

Some might argue that suicide does not involve the right to life. Persons possess the right against the unwanted violence of others, but, as a right, persons can do what they wish with their own existence. This view deeply misunderstands our founding principles and does so to the endangerment of fellow human beings. It thereby also misunderstands how America understands human beings. Our life is not ours to keep or to lose based on our own will. The declaration calls the right to life “unalienable.” The term means incapable of separating from the self. Moreover, this right is “endowed” by our “Creator,” meaning God. We were created with a purpose to our lives and a value inherent in those lives.

Thus, we must think as a political community about how to address this epidemic. Analysts posit a number of factors for the new height in suicides. Some see it as an aftereffect of the pandemic. Others point to the prevalence of guns or to illegal drugs.

These all play a part in the current crisis. However, along with those factors, we must look deeper. Many Americans have experienced the breakdown of their families and their communities. The pandemic and drugs have contributed to these breakdowns. But we must not ignore the underlying loss of religious belief and participation of so many of our fellow citizens. Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently noted about her conversion to Christianity that her prior atheism had left a huge hole of meaning that she otherwise could not fill. One might try to do so in many ways, including through drug and alcohol abuse or the breaking up of one’s family.

An answer to this crisis, in other words, must take humans as more than material beings. We must think of each other as persons with souls, souls that have longings that go beyond making money and accruing possessions. In fact, our longings ultimately cannot be satisfied in this world alone or by other humans alone.

Our politics must take this truth into account in how our government addresses this epidemic. That does not mean forcing religious belief on anyone, since our First Amendment freedoms must be maintained. But it does mean openness to, and encouragement of, a fuller view of personhood.

As we worry about these new statistics, let us mourn the real people comprising them, both the self-victims and the many others affected. Let us also seek a more holistic approach to fighting the crisis, one that engages in others — mind, heart, and body.


Adam Carrington is an associate professor of politics at Hillsdale College.