As I waited for the body of a man who jumped in front of my train to be cleared from the tracks—less than a week before another train I was riding struck a suicide victim—it occurred to me that (a) I should check whether suicide rates are increasing due to the bad economy (they are, especially among men in their 50s), and that (b) talking about suicide is long overdue.
“The World Health Organization reports that suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world, and that by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world,” T.M. Lurhmann wrote in the New York Times recently.
Disclosure: my best friend committed suicide when we were 15. Bill’s death, and his inability/unwillingness to find a reason to keep living among his friends and family, left me angry and confused, unable to process an unsolvable equation. No day passes without my thinking about Bill hanging himself. His death makes me question my own daily decisions to go on living.
So, yes, it’s a personal issue for me. Given that 30,000 Americans commit suicide and 800,000 attempt it every year, it’s personal for 5,000,000 survivors of close friends and relatives, too. Nobody talks about it, but suicide is a national epidemic. Suicide by gun kills more Americans—a lot more Americans—than gun violence committed against others. More American soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the war against Afghanistan.
One way to reduce the suicide rate would be to get rid of capitalism. Though theirs was not a truly communist state, citizens of the Soviet Union were far less likely to kill themselves before the collapse of socialism in 1991.
There is a relentless tendency toward monopoly, consolidation of wealth and rising inequality under capitalism. Inequality—specifically, awareness of inequality—kills.
Studies show that relative poverty—how much poorer you are than your societal peers—is strongly correlated to mental illness, including depression. As Lurhmann says, “We know that social position affects both when you die and how sick you get: the higher your social position, the healthier you are. It turns out that your sense of relative social rank—literally, where you draw a line on an abstract ladder to show where you are with respect to others—predicts many health outcomes, including depression, sometimes even more powerfully than your objective socioeconomic status alone.”
Being poor doesn’t bum people out. Being poorer than other people—people whose relative wealth you personally witness—does. Mali, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are poor countries. Yet their rates of inequality are low, and so are their suicide rates.
In a famous experiment with monkeys in 2003, the animals refused to accept smaller food allotments than those offered to neighboring monkeys. They became angry at the researchers, throwing objects at them—apparently because they blamed them for unequal distribution of the treats.
Those monkeys were on to something. Better to turn our rage against those responsible for inequality than against ourselves.•