Officials in Pennsylvania say two teenage girls who were struck and killed by a high-speed Amtrak train committed suicide....” “Student, 20, Jumps to His Death at N.Y.U.” “Man Dies in Leap Off Empire State Building....” “A group of teens in Massachusetts face landmark charges for harassing 15-year-old Phoebe Prince so brutally she committed suicide....” These newspaper stories appeared over the past few months. All involved the suicides of teenagers and young people. Suicide is a leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24.
The overall statistics are staggering. Every year in the United States 33,000 men and women commit suicide. A similar number die in automobile accidents, but that number is decreasing while suicides are increasing. The number is nearly double the number of homicides (17,000), and suicide was the 11th-leading cause of death in the United States in 2006, the seventh most frequent cause among men. The suicide rate for people in the armed forces has doubled since 2001, and last year 182 service members took their own lives. In addition, in 2009 there were one million suicide attempts, of which 240,000 led to hospitalization.
Why this rise? Internet messages and online stories of suicides can trigger such thoughts in young people. Instead of fostering true community, the Internet leaves many teenagers isolated, caught up in their own virtual world and unprotected against anonymous bullying. Some sites indulge in a preoccupation with death; and in the world of the Web, once-isolated events can “go viral.” In many cases, the increasingly competitive nature of leisure-time activities takes its toll on teenagers, who have always been moody but for whom teams and youth organizations once provided outlets. Another factor contributing to the rise in the suicide rate is the downturn in the economy. College students and recent graduates, like people of all ages who see little hope of economic improvement soon, are driven to desperation. Among the military, redeployment and repeated exposure to violent death produce enormous psychic pressures.
Surely the intensification of the culture of American individualism, with its idea of unrestricted freedom, builds social dynamics more conducive to the isolation and illusions of autonomy that precipitate suicide. Even in the 19th century sociologists commented on how individualist cultures had higher rates of suicide than more communitarian ones. Furthermore, today’s 24/7 work culture discourages the building of bonds among family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues that once provided the support that prevented suicides among the vulnerable. Likewise addictive entertainment, like playing video games and immersion as avatars in fictive universes, reduces the opportunity for authentic lived relationships. The assertion of liberties to the exclusion of obligations and responsibilities minimizes any sense of others when a person must make a weighty moral decision.
Secularization has also undermined the restraints against suicide. The Commandment “Thou shalt not kill!” does not resound or penetrate so deeply anymore. For some the divine command was simply an authoritative injunction. For others it rested on a relationship between God and oneself, supported by examination of conscience, pastoral counseling and confession of sins. In either case, the prohibition often prompted hesitation, reconsideration and a choice for life. The eclipse of religious wisdom has left many young men and women without the spiritual resources to face the temptation to suicide. Instead, deprived of conscious freedom, they are driven by dark impulses within and destructive forces without.
Although the Catholic Church maintains its opposition to suicide, it practices compassion toward the victims and their families, permitting funeral Masses and burial in consecrated ground. We need not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. But for at-risk people of any age, and particularly for teenagers, the church can continue to provide group programs and activities that reduce loneliness, provide companionship and develop healthy, lifelong interests.
With local, face-to-face communities ever scarcer, church-based services are more needed than ever. Especially with the added inconveniences of training and monitoring they face today, volunteer youth workers need encouragement and support from pastors and parishioners. Furthermore, helping the faithful to be aware of professional help (like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 1-800-Suicide) through parish bulletins and campus notice boards, could reinforce the culture of life. In the face of the growing number of youthful suicides and attempted suicides, we need to be constantly reminded that we are all our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.