Sandra M. Levy-Achtemeier, Ph.D.

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Suicide: A National Epidemic

Published on Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Suicide: A National Epidemic

What's Wrong with Us?


Like many, I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard over NPR not only that Anthony Bourdain was dead, but that his death had been ruled a suicide ... by hanging himself in his luxurious French hotel room where he was filming another episode of “Parts Unknown.” His hanging reminded me of another famous suicide by that method – that of Robin Williams, talented actor and comedian, given to outrageous antics. And then in the same week that Bourdain did the deed, designer Kate Spade also killed herself at age 51 after speaking to her husband on the phone and giving not a clue as to her intention to end it all.

Many of you who follow these blogs know that before I became an ordained clergy, I was first trained as a Ph.D. clinical psychologist: primarily as a researcher, but also trained as a psychotherapist, fulfilling a year’s required residency in clinical training at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. During all that training, students were taught to spot troubled persons who likely pose a danger either to themselves or others. Trained in the legal limits of our profession, we were also given to understand that patients could be committed against their will under those limited circumstances. We were also given to understand that if people really wanted to kill themselves, ultimately there was no way to stop them. Sooner or later they would accomplish their wish.

In the New York Times article on the morning following Bourdain and Spades’ deaths (see lead photo), Benedict Carey wrote about the rising public health crisis that suicide has become in our country. He says “the rates have been climbing each year across most age and ethnic groups. Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Nearly 45,000 Americans killed themselves in 2016, twice the number who died by homicide.” (June 9, p A21)

For me, I have always viewed the act itself as an act of ultimate rejection. Rejection of the world; rejection ultimately of those who love you. Those who are left behind – the survivors – remain locked in a state of remorse, guilt: what clues should they have read? What could they have done to prevent their loved ones' death? Why the hopelessness ... why the despair ... what could they have done differently if they had a chance to do it all over? Which they won’t. Ever. And so they mourn, uncomforted in their own sadness and guilt that they will carry for the rest of their own lives.

And so the question remains for us all. Why the increasing rate of suicide in our society? What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong in our world, our world that for many of us is so comfortable, so filled with the glut of good material things in our lives? Mr. Carey also asks that question in his Times article. He suggests that “the rise of suicide turns a dark mirror on modern American society: its racing, fractured culture; its flimsy mental health system; and the desperation of so many individual souls, hidden behind the waves of smiling social media photos and cute emotions.”

Of course humans have always had angst – that cry into the darkness of our lives, that search for meaning, that grasping after some Truth, some significance, some answers as to why we are here to begin with. Most of you know, if you’ve read any of my books, that I’m an early Boomer, coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s ... that post-Vietnam era where some despair was rife in our land. And many (including me) turned to European existentialists for some insight: writers such as Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Tillich. Or to Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism to try to uncover some meaning, some sense to it all. But today, apparently many in these God-forsaken times turn to Twitter and YouTube and Facebook to find “human company” with like-minded members of their own tribe, claiming hundreds of “friends” while locked in their lonely rooms.

Now I’m not going to turn this blog into a screed against social media – actually, I have done that in an earlier blog. But I can’t resist referring to one current craze which, when I first heard of it, I thought was hilarious, but now just makes me kind of sad. Have you heard of CryptoKitties? (See second photo below.) This is described on Wikipedia as “a blockchain-based virtual game ... that allows players to purchase, collect, breed and sell various types of virtual cats.” Users, in fact, can “interact with their CryptoKitties, having the ability to buy, sell, and ... breed them. ... Each cat has a distinct genome with DNA and different 'cattributes' and can be designed with traits that can be passed down from the parents to offspring.” And because there are a finite number of CryptoKitties that can be created in this virtual world, they have taken on monetary worth and can be viewed as an investment in themselves.

Well anyway, whether you have collected one of these virtual cats as a pet of your own, or whether you are content to use various forms of social media, you might find yourself without an honest-to-God, face-to-face relationship – with friendship, love, sharing – even disagreements have their place in I-Thou relationships that flesh out real human engagement. Which brings me finally to a recent op-ed piece in the Times by David Brooks titled, “Personalism: The Philosophy We Need.” (Friday, June 15, p. A23.) Appearing about a week after that recent spate of suicides, it seems to me to be relevant to our topic at hand. (See third photo below.)

While there isn’t space here to do justice to the term “Personalism,” let me summarize some of Brooks’ writing. He says, “Personalism starts by drawing a line between humans and other animals. Your dog is great [or your CryptoKitty!], but there is a depth, complexity and superabundance to each human personality that gives each person unique, infinite dignity.” He points out that this dignity does not depend on what you do, what you own, what you have achieved. This human, depth dignity is your gifted worth as a complex, ultimately mysterious human being – infinite dignity that gives each, unique human being great worth and equality in encounters with one another. And in this meeting between unique equals, each changes and grows in the encounter by sharing their own stories with one another. So the first responsibility of personalism is this unique, I-Thou encounter between unique equals.

The second responsibility of personalism is “self-giving,” Opening ourselves to the other’s mystery, “They find their perfection in communion with other whole persons. The crucial questions in life are not ‘what’ questions – what do I do? They are ‘who’ questions – who do I follow, who do I serve, who do I love?” And finally, the third responsibility is availability. And as Brooks notes, this is a tough one. After all, we are busy folks. And “being available for people takes time and intentionality.” Brooks concludes thus:

The big point is that today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from world views that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change. As Charles Peguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”
We are in a moral crisis, folks. And I think we should all start with the questions, “Who do I follow? Who do I serve? Who do I love?”  Reach out to the infinite worth of your neighbor, your friend, your spouse, your lover. Put down the cell phone and plumb the depths of the one before you. Your life will be richer, more fully human for that engagement.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.>

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.

I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia. Other posts by Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
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