7 min read

Suicide Rates are Breaking Records. A Sign of Collapse?

Suicide Rates are Breaking Records. A Sign of Collapse?

It was my lovely wife, the doctor, who sent me the news. Here's how CNN puts it.

"Suicide deaths reached a record high in the US"

More people died from suicide in the United States last year than any other year on record, dating to at least 1941, according to provisional data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Terrible stuff. But the hardest of hard data. We're going to interpret it in just a second, but first. As I delved into these statistics, I was absolutely staggered by the details. Everyone should be, I think. We are seeing what can only really be described as an historic explosion in deaths of despair. 

Suicide deaths are increasing fastest among people of color, younger individuals, and people who live in rural areas. Between 2011 and 2021, suicide death rates increased substantially among people of color, with the highest increase among AIAN people (70% increase, from 16.5 to 28.1 per 100,000), followed by Black (58% increase, from 5.5 to 8.7 per 100,000), and Hispanic (39% increase, 5.7 to 7.9 per 100,000) people (Figure 3). The suicide death rate also increased in adolescents (48% increase, from 4.4 to 6.5 per 100,000) and young adults (39% increase, from 13.0 to 18.1 per 100,000) between 2011 and 2021 (Figure 3).

Kaiser Family Foundation

So as you disaggregate the data from the average, a truly shocking picture begins to emerge. Suicide rates are up by 50% in adolescents over the last decade, for example. Think about that for a second. Or how suicides among Black people are up by 60%.

This is utterly catastrophic stuff. I can't emphasize that enough. Let's talk about basic social stats for a second before we interpret all this. We should almost never see double digit changes. Of any kind. Those are explosions. Social stats should rise and fall gently, and reflect a situation of stability and tranquility. Obviously, that's not the age we live in. And so here what we see is a world in chaos reflected in suicide stats.

We talk about that a lot—the world in chaos, social collapse, the planet on fire, and so forth. And you know that those of us who are concerned get dismissed. Trivialized, ignored, marginalized. Things are OK, cry pundits and leaders and politicians. Never been better! But the data paints a very, very different picture. And just as our societies are growing illiterate with science, so too, Major Social Issues like the one above are neglected and ignored. This is what an age of collapse is, in the hardest statistical terms: suicide rates explode off the charts.

Let me emphasize it again. We should never, ever see social stats of any kind, let alone those of disrepair, let alone those of suicide, increase by double digits over a decade, let alone increase by significant double digits, like 40, 50, 60%. And remember, suicide statistics are generally understated. Something is going seriously, badly wrong here.

What is that something?

Recently, I called it the Modern Crisis of Being. We discussed what I call the Most Important Chart of the 21st Century, which shows happiness flatlining or falling, while unhappiness explodes, over the last decade. In other words, human flourishing is crashing and burning. Here, we have stark confirmation of that, in even more visible terms, perhaps—explosions in suicide rates, particularly among social groups who bear the brunt of collapse most and hardest, and find their well-being most negatively affected.

This is what the Modern Crisis of Being is. It's not exactly hard to see a clear link between happiness falling, and unhappiness exploding...leading to...a devastating explosion in deaths of despair. We don't need to a full-blown regression analysis, really, to understand that these two trends are intimately linked to one another—cause and effect.

But what's the deeper cause?

We often discuss the way that life's fallen apart over the last decade or two or three. Life? What is it now? A bitter, brutal struggle for existence. Material existence: the vast majority of people struggle to make ends meet, pay the bills, live paycheck-to-paycheck, and accumulate debt. That struggle for material existence turns into one for social existence, as people turn to demagogues, who scapegoat innocents, and promise to take their rights away, erasing them as social and political and economic agents, robbing them of personhood.

All of this is very real, these statistics say. It's not just some kind of idle theory I've cooked up—it's something that classical sociologist from Durkheim to Weber long predicted about societies which turned predatory, and in which hypercapitalism ran off the rails. When we see suicide rising particularly among groups who struggle the most for all these kinds of existence—material, social, political—it tells us that something has gone wrong with our model of life itself.

What do I mean by that? In all the above, the central idea is that of a Darwinian society. The strong survive, the weak perish, and that's just, fair, and righteous. Because the "weak" are liabilities, subhumans, parasites. Meanwhile, the strong are called on to prove their "strength" by subjugating the "weal." Power, advantage, gain—the only points to human existence. Exploitation and profit—the only points to organizational existence. And in these statistics, we see stark, dire confirmation of just such a model of life—a Darwinian one. What else do you call when suicides, for example, among young people are exploding?

And worse...that appears to be...OK? You see, we speak in numinous, vague terms of a "mental health crisis," but this is much more than that. Something far deeper has gone wrong here. Young people or minorities or rurals aren't committing suicide at these explosive rates just because they can't get therapy, though that'd surely help—but because they're in utter despair, feel failed, abandoned, betrayed, and as if there's no future. A model of life itself has failed. Or succeeded, if dog-eat-dog Darwinism was the aspiration.

Let's go back to what the APA recently discovered about young people.

"Gen Z adults and younger millennials are 'completely overwhelmed' by stress"

Younger people report the deepest consequences of stress. In the survey, about two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-olds said stress makes it hard for them to focus (67%) and feel as though no one understands how stressed they are (66%). That age group was also most likely to say that most days, their stress is “completely overwhelming” (58%), that it renders them numb (50%), and that most days they are so stressed they can’t function.

APA, "Stress in America 2023"

Think about those shocking stats. They can't function. They're numb. Is it any wonder that deaths of despair have exploded? Again, of course not—there's a clear link here. And yet that link holds a deep meaning. Our model of life is failing. What else do you call it when half of young people feel numb and can't function? Can anyone seriously say that means a model of life is working?

So what do I mean by "a model of life"? Think about the idea above—a Darwinian-Nietzschean society, where the strong are to dominate the weak, because power over is all that matters. Now contrast it with...I don't know...whatever you think life should be. Just life...should be.

Most of us here, thoughtful and sane people, would probably agree on quite a few basics. People should have basic set of rights—even advanced ones, like healthcare, education, income, retirement. They should have bodily autonomy, and be free from harm, in advanced and sophisticated ways, emotional, mental, social harm, trauma, despair. Life should be a thing of stability, peace, happiness, nonviolence, where human flourishing unfurls through the generations, living standards rise, and the thread of civilization weaves itself through history.

A model of life. What's ours? Do we have one anymore? Whatever we have, it certainly isn't that. In this age, the only remaining idea appears to be that people should be degraded and dehumanized, by those with power and resources, because that is what is to be done, in the name of sheer spite, cruelty, abusiveness itself. All that, of course, is a way to cheat and deny death, to say: look how powerful I am. A flimsy defense mechanism—and yet this is the age of the sadist, isn't it?

Think about degradation with me for a second. So there are young people, suicide rates exploding. Meanwhile, how are they treated? Did you hear about the recent scandal—another one—coming from Big Tech?

"Meta products designed to prey on teenage vulnerability says US lawsuit"

Unredacted documents show Meta designed products to prey on teenagers’ vulnerabilities, according to a lawsuit filed in the US. An internal Meta presentation in the filing acknowledges that “teens are insatiable when it comes to ‘feel good’ dopamine effects,” and “every time one of our teen users finds something unexpected their brains deliver them a dopamine hit.”

Meta says it didn’t design its products to be addictive for teens.


Startling stuff, no? The US is alleging that Facebook deliberately addicted kids...by targeting them with dopamine hits. Dystopia writ large. And yet this is how we've allowed young people to be treated. To be degraded. Because of course being turned into an addict is just that—a form of degradation, dehumanization, the loss of agency, dignity, meaning, worth, especially for a young person. If young people were turned into addicts, what does that make Big Tech?

I'm not just trying to establish some kind of line of causality between screen time and despair, though certainly, obviously, there is one. I'm making a larger point. About institutions, systems, people. About what I call a model of life. If as I've argued our model of life is predatory and degrading, cheating people of agency, worth, meaning, and purpose, Darwinian-Nietzschean only-the-strong-survive stuff—then here's a very clear example of just how that model of life comes to life all around us.

So how would I interpret these stats? As a sign of collapse. Collapse doesn't hit everyone equally. It hits the vulnerable first—young people, minorities, those at risk. And so here we see exactly what we'd expect to see in a situation of collapse. Think again about young people. They're told by pundits and politicians twice, thrice their age that everything's fine. How would you feel hearing that while the world's on fire? It'd probably turn your fear into terror, and your numbness and "I can't function anymore" into outright overwhelming despair.

A modern tragedy is unfolding around us. As ever, the question is opening one's eyes to bear witness. Because change, as ever, begins there, in that temple of truth, mercy, and grace, which we call the human soul.

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